Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Slow change for a durable transition

Summary - Some people despair at the unsustainability of human behavior; however, such despair may come from taking far too narrow and pessimistic a view of human nature. Behavior change does happen but lasting change happens only slowly. Since the problems we face are urgent, such slow-to-change behavior can give rise to frustration. But, in fact, the opposite response is needed from us; we need to be patient. The transition we face must be done well the first time with the changes made durable; it is unlikely we will get a second chance.
The converging of climate disruption, energy descent and economic instability is stressing civilization, perhaps foreshadowing a downshift to a lower level of complexity [1]. It is easy to despair of the unsustainability of human behavior. However, such despair may come from taking too narrow and pessimistic a view of human nature, such as believing:
  1. Unsustainability results from a motivational drive to reduce cognitive dissonance which leaves us floundering in collective denial;
  2. Behavioral inertia is an immutable force making us unable to shift direction;
  3. Much of human behavior is reducible to the actions of one neurotransmitter; our demise will result from hijacking dopamine pathways; or
  4. Humans are egocentric, short-term gain maximizers, consuming resources with little concern for waste, passing costs on to others and forming exclusive groups that neglect outsiders.
While each is based on valid insights, the mistake is our believing that any one is the root of human nature. Such reductionism harkens, unfortunately, to an earlier period, when a then-dominant behaviorism argued that the existence of a behaviorist explanation made all other explanations irrelevant. This notion that an explanation at one level usurps the possibility of a useful explanation at another level was widespread enough to have received several colorful labels, such as “nothingbutism” and MacKay’s more elegant “fallacy of ‘nothing buttery’.”

After over a century of research, it would hardly seem necessary for us to argue in support of multiple determinants of behavior. Yet, single determination theories abound. Their oversimplification is no more acceptable now than it was then; if indeed there is a demonstrable role for one view, this in no way eliminates the possibility that there is a role for other, and more positive, views as well. That humans can act in unsustainable ways is irrefutable. But when discussing human behavior, saying that “our species’ motivation is X or our behavior is to always do Y” is simply wrong. There is no scientific basis for so narrow a view of human nature. The brain is more malleable, and behavior more adaptive, than such statements allow.

The fallacy is compounded by the advice that typically follows: due to the alleged unsustainability of human nature, people’s behavior must be manipulated; they must be managed using incentives, disincentives and tight prescriptive rules; and the content of their mental models (e.g., attitudes, knowledge, worldview) must be reformed. The flaw here is our assumed privilege as reformation experts. With rhetorical and condescending questions (e.g., are humans smarter than yeast?) we dismiss the possibility of the public voluntarily changing behavior in time to avoid catastrophe. But strangely, as experts, we are held above this contempt. We arrogate to ourselves a rarefied psychological nature and a noble obligation to make them behave. Alas, even if this assumed entitlement is granted, research shows that the manipulations we commonly employ are not reliable and rarely durable [2].

We must correctly define the problem being faced. The issue here is not whether human nature leads inexorably to sustainable or unsustainable outcomes; we are capable of both, neither is inevitable. What we are challenged with is specifying the conditions under which humans behave more reasonably [3].

Read full paper at: De Young, R. (2011) Slow wins: Patience, perseverance and behavior change, Carbon Management, 2(6):607-611.

Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Archived version: April 18, 2011 at: