Human Biases Could Help Save the Planet

Conservationists should shift how they present problems and solutions, researcher says

Human Biases Could Help Save the Planet
By tapping into behavior science, resource managers may be more successful if they highlight the likely damage to a species and its habitat due to overfishing than if they focus on how conservation rules would benefit the ecosystem.
H. Piorkowski

Conservation initiatives, if they are to succeed, often require changes in human behavior—for example, fishing less, or using less plastic, or forgoing short-term economic gain for a longer-term benefit.  Traditional methods of affecting such changes include awareness campaigns, financial incentives, and regulations. But these tactics often prove ineffective.

Now research from the field of cognitive science is finding that developing a better understanding of how people’s brains work may help efforts to get people to engage in more conservation-friendly behavior.

In a perspective article published Nov. 23 in Science magazine, 2015 Pew marine fellow Joshua Cinner, professor at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in North Queensland, Australia, explores how leveraging cognitive biases and social influences might be the key to realizing that change.

Working with cognitive bias

A cognitive bias is an error in thinking that causes people to behave irrationally. For example, people tend to avoid making difficult decisions and so are likely to accept the status quo rather than make a harder choice that might benefit them or society.

This “status quo” bias could help in conservation if the organizations, policymakers, or individuals advocating for the changes could use techniques to get people to opt in to sustainable behaviors by default rather than opt out. An energy supply company could, for example, make sustainable energy sources the default option for electricity customers.

Another example of a cognitive bias is that most people dislike losing about twice as much as they like winning.  Thus, people take great pains to avoid defeat—sometimes even over seeking a gain—a bias referred to as loss aversion.

Yet conservation planners tend to give equal weight to the potential losses and gains from a given protected area, Cinner wrote. To boost conservation initiatives, advocates could highlight the losses associated with failing to protect an area or species and focus less on the potential gains from that protection. For example, resource managers seeking support for fishing restrictions could highlight the likely damage to a species and its habitat due to overfishing rather than focusing on how the rules would benefit the ecosystem.  

Leveraging social influence

Human behavior and decision-making are also driven by social influence—the desire for prestige, reputation, conformity, and reciprocity. For example, most people want to fit in with their communities and society at large, and to achieve that they often model their behaviors on what others are doing. Using this insight, water utilities have successfully encouraged conservation behavior by allowing customers to compare their usage rates against their neighbors, leading to increased efficiency.

In another example of social influence, people are more likely to change their behavior based on new information if they have a high level of trust in the person who provides it. This increase in acceptance means that conservation ideas and practices can be more readily spread using trusted messengers, Cinner said.

This knowledge about how people make decisions—consciously and unconsciously—can provide new insights for those who develop conservation strategies. Often, the mind works in ways that might be counterintuitive. Recognizing these biases and tendencies might help improve how conservation programs are designed and communicated.

Polita Glynn is a project director for environmental research and science with The Pew Charitable Trusts.