The Sustainability Misjudgements We're Programmed to Make – Part 2

Continued from The Sustainability Misjudgements We’re Programmed to Make – Part 1

5. Herd Mentality

Herd mentality is the tendency to adopt the opinions and follow the behaviors of the majority to feel safer and to avoid conflict.

I’m going to explore this one in more detail later: personally I think that herd mentality is actually an emergent behaviour caused by an altogether more interesting facet of human nature: social hierarchy.

4. Reactance

Reactance is the urge to do the opposite of what someone wants you to do out of a need to resist a perceived attempt to constrain your freedom of choice.

A big one. I believe that the transition to a sustainable civilisation is going to require that we challenge many of our deepest beliefs, values and cultural habits. We’re going to find that difficult. We do things at the moment because we desire them (we live in indulgent times), they’re easy, they’re culturally-ingrained, or some mixture of all three. Our desires are like pressures inside us. If we don’t do something we really desire, we can find ourselves blowing up. How will we react to being told to eat more vegetarian food and to take the bus? I’ll bet that at least a few us will be tempted to drive our cars at top speed to the nearest burger joint and-the-environment-be-damned.

3. Hyperbolic Discounting

Hyperbolic discounting is the tendency for people to prefer a smaller, immediate payoff over a larger, delayed payoff.

Another big one. There are numerous studies under way that investigate the tension between discounting and sustainability. Every time we hunt a species to extinction, we are discounting the future: swapping the immediate reward of an easy meal of roast dodo for the promise of countless future roast dodos for us and our children through maintaining a breeding population. Historically, the hyperbolic discounting of our ancestors (our generation continuing where others have left off) is commonly attributed as the cause of The Sixth Extinction. In essence, the decline and extinction of the majority of the world’s large mammals is contemporaneous with the great human diaspora out of Africa, starting around 100,000 years ago.

The dodos example also touches on another important facet of human psychology: the in-group/out-group dichotomy. Even as the dodo population was visibly failing, it is not hard to imagine that one ship-full of sailors thinking “Well if we don’t eat these last few birds, that ship on the horizon is bound to anyway”. Had that ship full of sailors been isolated on the island, would they have been more inclined to preserve a viable dodo population for the future? The crux of this question is a question that Jared Diamond explores thoroughly in his book Collapse.

2. Escalation of Commitment

Escalation of commitment is the tendency for people to continue to support previously unsuccessful endeavours.

Is the Copenhagen Accord an example of global escalation in commitment? I’ve previously argued that any policy or treaty that is not fair, simple and clear will be doomed to suffer from the Bikeshed Effect. COP15 was perhaps our best chance of learning from the difficulties of Kyoto, especially when it became clear that there was not unanimous support for it. Instead, a few powerful countries promulgated what is in effect an extension of the Kyoto Protocol. Whilst it’s certainly not fair to accuse the Kyoto Protocol of being totally unsuccessful, neither is it unfair to say that there is significant room for improvement.

Are further examples of escalation of commitment the proposed construction of a new generation of nuclear power stations? Or the proposed extraction of ever-more-marginal fossil fuel reserves such as oil shale and slate? Each of these energy sources has so far been unsuccessful in securing sustainable energy for humanity’s global civilisation.

Escalation of Commitment is something I’ve been thinking about more and more since drafting this post: I’m going to dedicate a whole post just to this soon.

1. Placebo Effect

Placebo by

The Placebo effect is when an ineffectual substance that is believed to have healing properties produces the desired effect.

Ironically, the number one item in the source article’s list is also perhaps the least relevant to this post. After all, if we can find a placebo solution to sustainability, surely that’s a win even if it is a misjudgement?

[So that’s the end of the list that I drew from the source post. Forgive the silly numbering going onwards…]

0. Social Hierarchy and Dominance

As Thomas Friedman said at one of COP15’s side events:

There’s only one thing as powerful as Mother Nature and that’s Father Greed

The theme of “greed” sweeps through many of the points we’ve covered, but for me it’s still a symptom of a deeper pressure from the human psyche.

I always seem to recommend this book: The Lucifer Principle by Howard K. Bloom, but it’s definitely the best exposition of the point I’m trying to make, so I’ll repeat that recommendation here. The book explores the proclivity of the human mind to seek dominance over our peers. Everyone loves to win, and most people don’t like losing. Why? It’s simple: people that have more social dominance have more children, are happier, live longer and are healthier. These are make-or-break traits in evolutionary terms, so it’s hardly surprising that the urge to win and succeed is so deeply entrenched in our psychology. It’s natural selection in action, with a heavy peppering of sexual selection.

Are our desires for the latest fashion, Apple gadget or new-model Ferrari the human equivalent of the Peacock’s feathers? Is our quest for the discovery of the New, the Best and the Greatest our way of showing that we’re alert and successful? The Rat Race is very real, and undoubtedly affects our lives more than we wish to acknowledge (part of our social camouflage is the pretence that we don’t feel pressure, that we’re capable enough of taking everything in our stride and that our potential for future success is not in doubt). So where does the quest for success end and greed start?

Maybe some insight can be shed by Gore Vidal’s quote:

It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.

Are we predisposed to require a society where some must fail? Is greed a reflection of our wish not only to have more than others, but also to deprive others and thus amplify our position of dominance over them? Maybe Agent Smith was right?

Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster.

Whether my reasoning is right or wrong, it must be indisputable that greed is in our nature.

-1. The Bikeshed Effect

The Bikeshed Effect, as blogged here. How damaging is our faith that other people will take care of the big picture, leaving us free to argue about the details?

-2. Social Identity

The theory was originally developed to understand the psychological basis of intergroup discrimination

Quote source

Blood is thicker than water – that’s social identity at its most basic level. Every organism is (by default) genetically predisposed to favour the survival of genes more similar to its own – that’s the basic tenet of Richard Dawkin’s “The Selfish Gene”. This predisposition has extended itself into our societies in subtle and complex ways: from racism to religion and most notably in cultures. The way that we treat those in our “group” and those outside is incredibly dichotomous. We’ll actively sacrifice ourselves for our children, but we (usually) have to be persuaded to give money to charity to help kids in Africa.

This mutual dichotomy (which obviously works both ways between groups) detracts from our ability to take collective responsibility for global issues. I reckon this is going to be one of our biggest challenges: In-groups are basically frameworks for trust. Our brains are (presumably) designed (by evolution) to be able to cope with really knowing only a few hundred people so that’s typically the maximum size of our in-groups (Dunbar’s number). How can we extend the trust that we offer to our in-groups to the whole of humanity in order to be able to take effective action on global issues?


Since I first drafted this post, I’ve done a LOT of thinking about the psychology of sustainability. I want to write follow-up posts looking at:

  • Escalation of Commitment
  • Possible solutions/mitigation

So I guess the conclusion is that I find this really interesting and will write more on it.