Why your brain stops you from being eco-conscious: the Availability Heuristic

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

Easy doesn’t mean true. Here is the story.

When temperature increases abnormally, our beliefs and concerns towards Climate Change tend to grow.

However, when temperature drops, the same process around climate change beliefs happens but on the opposite direction.

Sceptics jump on this as fod­der to ar­gue that global warm­ing and broader cli­mate change are not oc­cur­ring.

This is called the local warming effect and it all happens in our brain.

Why such a limited way of reasoning? And why this mechanism is an issue for climate action?

Mental shortcuts: your brain confuses “easy” with “true”

Did you now that we make approximately 35,000 decisions a day?

If we follow the classic economic theory, the homo economicus would analyze every single decision factors rationally to decide what is the best behaviour to adopt.

Well, that’d be a lot of decision factors to analyse every day…and such a huge effort for our brain.

Surprise, surprise, our brain does not have this capacity.

Now, did you know that only 0.26% of decisions are taken consciously?

It implies one major thing: our brain is limited and the very (very) large majority of our decisions are not being taken by using critical thinking.

If we use critical thinking for only 0.26% of our decisions, how are we taking the 96.4% ones left?

To make decisions quicker, using as less energy as possible, the brain uses mental shortcuts.

Our brain uses techniques and biased data.

This is where the availability heuristic comes into play.

The experiences we can recall the easiest shape our beliefs

When taking decisions, one important process you brain does is recalling data from your memory.

In this process, the critical point here is: some data are more important than others.

Which ones?

Those that come to your mind the easiest and the quickest.

This is what we call the availability heuristic.

The availability heuristic describes our tendency to think that whatever is easiest for us to recall should provide the best context for future predictions.

This is typically a system 1 mode of thought that we’ve already explored in our article about the status quo bias.

Our beliefs depend on the salience of our own experiences

The availability heuristic, suggests that people tend to judge the likelihood of phenomena (such as climate change) by the ease with which relevant events (such as hot weather) come to mind.

Both perceived and directly measured fluctuations in temperature have been found to be significant predictors of climate change beliefs and related concerns.

Warmer than usual tem­per­a­tures to­day make past warm weather events more salient and lead to in­creased be­liefs and con­cern for global warm­ing.

Because memory is biased toward events that are recent, unusual, and personally experienced, such events are most likely to drive people's likelihood judgments.

For example, people tend to judge inflation by their recent personal experiences with unusually large price changes.

As a result, when people are judging the extent to which climate change is happening, personal experiences with unseasonably hot temperatures are likely to receive the most attention.

When Climate change salience fluctuates, so does our level of concern

A potential concern about such a focus on temperature increases is that people may become less concerned about climate change when the weather is not hot.

It has indeed been suggested that, in addition to the economic crisis, the relatively low U.S. temperatures of 2008 may have reduced the strength of Americans’ climate change beliefs.

Another point is the effect of Climate Change are not seen equally depending on the different regions of the world. We can’t recall easily something that happened miles away from me that I haven’t experience recently myself.

Last but not least, the impact of Climate Change goes way beyond more than temperature rise (declining water supplies, reduced agricultural yields, biodiversity lost etc.)

However these impact generally don’t have the same salience, the same visibility that temperature rise does - which everyone can feel and understand.

The fluctuation of salience is slowing down climate action as pressure on the issue doesn’t remain consistent

The level of concerns varies depending on the salience of climate change. Unfortunately(fortunately?) the level of salience varies across seasons and geographical regions.

This inconsistency is a break to Climate Change action as it contributes to decrease the level of emergency towards the issue (when the salience is low).

The more pressing we consider a situation the most likely we are to take action.

The problem is, when we don’t recognise the signals of an emergency of a situation, we tend to just carry on.

How to use heuristic bias at our advantage to trigger climate change action

1) Helping the population recognise more signals of climate change

As mentioned, climate change impact is way more than just a rise of temperature.

However, for now, this is the biggest associations we make.

We need to make more associations to it, and better ones. No greenwashing or shaming but a laser-focused approach on how what climate change impacts our surrounding and experiences at a very local and individual.

There is a need for a country‐specific examination, focusing on public perceptions of those weather patterns and their association with public climate change beliefs.

2) Changing the way we “market” climate change

Beyond public policy and communications campaigns, Socially Responsible corporations also have a key role to play when it comes to associating climate change to local signals.

When communicating their sustainable commitments to their conscious consumers, focusing on the local impact and describing these impact on their daily consumers life would be a way to help them associate climate change to other relevant signals.

Rather than “saving the planet” generic slogan and other bad example of green marketing, a local educational approach should be embedded in the social responsibility of companies and their sustainability marketing.

One great but sad example: the price of beer will be increasing as it is estimated that the production will drop by 16% due to barley shortage directly impacted by Climate Change.

We’ll surely feel the price rise no matter the season of the year and our locations.

Beers manufacturers should would be well advised to connect the future increase of their price to Climate Change.

3) Exploiting the local warming effect to promote awareness

Some ways exist to ex­ploit the mech­a­nism for the lo­cal warm­ing ef­fect to pro­mote height­ened aware­ness and con­cern for cli­mate change, at least for those in­di­vid­u­als with­out strongly es­tab­lished views.

For ex­am­ple, votes and cam­paigns re­gard­ing cli­mate pol­icy can be strate­gi­cally placed on warmer days to elicit sup­port.

Re­gard­less of how the availability heuristic is used, it is clear that achiev­ing good cli­mate pol­icy will re­quire over­com­ing the quick judg­ment that tells us, “cold to­day means no global warm­ing and hot to­day def­i­nitely means global warm­ing.”

Social entrepreneur, NGOs, Sustainable Development Scientists, government and eco-conscious and sustainability activists, let’s help make climate change salient in our before it actually is irreversibly.

Questions? Thoughts? Get in touch — I’d love to hear them!

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Climate Change Beliefs and Perceptions of Weather‐Related Changes in the United Kingdom. Andrea Taylor, Wändi Bruine de Bruin, Suraje Dessai. 2014.

How will climate change shape climate opinion?

Peter D Howe, Jennifer R Marlon, Matto Mildenberger and Brittany S Shield. 2019

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