Commentary on “Why isn’t the brain green?”

The New York Times Magazine recently put out a piece by Jon Gertner about environmental decision-making and the different social dynamics that are involved. The author discusses several different studies that involve individual and group decision-making. One group doing such research is the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions is an interdisciplinary based at Columbia University that receives funding for their research from the National Science Foundation.

Gertner brings up several interesting points such as the ethics of using “frames” and “nudges” to send signals and possibly influence decisions. The idea behind these terms is that the way that a choice is “framed” could affect the outcome by taking advantage of our cognitive biases and that nudges “structure choices so that our natural cognitive shortcomings don’t make us err.”

I find it fascinating to read about studies involving decision-making, especially the ones that compare individual versus group actions. Gertner talks a little bit about the comparisons between carbon taxes and offsets, and how there generally is an aversion to the word “tax,” when in reality taxes and offsets function in nearly exact ways. Gertner also cites a study that suggests that group decisions for which individual preparation beforehand was not allowed leads to better inclusion of long term goals. This is also interesting as part of the discussion of the general bias towards information received early on in the decision-making process.

So maybe one day we could frame questions and choices so that we nudge people into making the right decisions, or at least set up a fair situation for all choices considered. But who decides what is best in the long term interest? And who is to say those who are deciding aren’t also affected by similar cognitive bias related phenomena? Possibly even some being phenomena that we are not yet aware of?

Decision-science seems to be a very pertinent field, especially in the realm of climate change related decisions. However, very little of the funding going towards climate research is going to social science studies such as these. I think that being open to these types of questions of cognitive shortcomings will become increasingly more important as challenges brought on by climate change become more complex and intricate.


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