Why your brain stops you from being eco-conscious: the Present bias

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

So you’re coming back from a long day of work and just read an inspiring article on how social entrepreneurs and socially responsible companies take action against climate change.

You’re full of hope and good intentions once you reach home to start acting as a conscious consumer or social business.

It’s time to plan! Let’s stop the greenwashing and plan concrete sustainable practices, you tell yourself.

However, as a fact…once home, most of you’ll end up spending more time researching new TV shows than selecting an action plan to live a more eco-conscious lifestyle.

But why? You seemed so motivated!

Well…it’s about timing

Here, now and easy: irrational choices for instant gratification

If you read the previous articles, about the status quo, overconfidence and confirmation biases, you already know that these cognitive biases are contributing to our poor decision making.

The impact of the present bias on our choices is directly connected to how we value things over time.

We overestimate things we can get now

By definition, the present bias refers to the tendency of people to give stronger weight to payoffs that are closer to the present time when considering trade-offs between two future moments (O’Donoghue & Rabin, 1999).

It implies that:

  • We rather settle for a smaller present reward than to wait for a larger future gratification.

  • We over evaluate immediate rewards, while putting less worth in long-term consequences.

  • We can be time-inconsistent – making decisions that their future self may regret.

Ex 1:

Would you prefer $1,000 now or $1,100 in a week?

Many people would choose $1,000 now and not wait an extra week.

Ex 2:

In the case of choosing to drive or take the bus to the grocery store, we will tend to give in to the easier ‘self-gratifying’ yet-un-environmentally friendly option and take the car.

The concept of present bias is often used more generally to describe impatience or immediate gratification in decision-making.

So why do we act that way? It’s all about value calculation.

The more we have to wait, the less value we give

We value the same thing differently over time because of the temporal discounting effect.

Temporal discounting refers to the phenomenon in which the subjective value of some reward loses its magnitude when the given reward is delayed.

Simply put, time decreases the value of the reward.

How we evaluate things across time changes depending the progression of time.

What happens here is that we apply a “discounting rate” to the rewards that are not given to us right away but only in the future. This is the discounting curve in this graph.

We all have a different level of discount rate. Patient people tend to have a lower discount rate than impatient people.

For a more detailed example on how the mechanic works you can have a look at the bottom of this article.*

The present bias prevents us from tackling long term issues

Throughout most of our evolution it was more advantageous to focus on what might kill us or eat us, or provide us with necessary nutriments to survive now, not later.

So our brain has been wired to tackle short term issues. Here are 3 ways explaining why we’re so short-sighted.

Dopamine, right now!

As a species, we are always looking at achieving 3 primal outcomes : eat, reproduce survive.

Any event that helps reaching any of these 3 primal objectives is rewarded by a dopamine shot: the hormone of pleasure. Everything we do is to find any ways to release dopamine here and right now and it usually takes over our long-term rational thinking !

Fast-twitch rather than slow rational thinking

As defined by D.Kahneman we have 2 modes of thought : System 1, fast, instinctive and emotional; System 2 , slower, more deliberative, and more logical. System 1 allows our brain to save energy (More here). More than 96% of our decisions are made out of our system 1 mode of thoughts and thus are not analytical as it should be for long term decisions. We evolved to remember both threats, so that they could be avoided in the future, and opportunities, so we could easily recall where to find sources of food and shelter.

Uncertainties? No thanks!

Getting things right now, right here, removes uncertainties.

We are impatient because removing uncertainties is a way for us to limit the painful stress that comes with it.

“We have evolved to pay attention to immediate threats. We overestimate threats that are less likely but easier to remember, like terrorism, and underestimate more complex threats, like climate change.” says political psychologist Conor Seyle, director of research at One Earth Future Foundation.

A powerful survival tool now threatening our species

Our brains evolved to filter information fast and focus on what is most immediately essential to our survival and reproduction.

Too much information can confuse our brains, leading us to inaction or poor choices that can place us in harm’s way.

These same functions are less useful in our modern reality and cause errors in rational decision-making. This present bias, so useful to our survival “makes it difficult to address complex, long-term challenges that now threaten our existence, like climate change,” says Seyle.

This bias now impedes our ability to take action to address more distant-feeling, slower and complex challenges such as climate change.

When it comes to action related to reducing carbon footprint at an individual or organisation level, the costs of future oriented actions are incurred immediately.

However the benefits that would compensate for such immediate sacrifices in consumption, quality of life or comfort levels come much later and with considerable uncertainty.

Even when decisions have future outcomes that are much closer in time (for example, the purchase of a new refrigerator or light bulbs), consumers heavily discount future cost savings that come with energy efficient technology.

Consumers shy away from energy-efficient appliances and compact fluorescent or light-emitting diode (LED) light bulbs, largely because of their greater upfront cost, even when future energy savings more than offset that cost.

Once we understand how cognitive biases are contributing to our poor decision making, we can start mitigating those biases and improving our judgments.

4-ways to get around the Present bias for climate action

So regarding climate change and environmental issue, how to reduce time discounting to trigger action in the present with a positive effect on the future?

Make it personal

It’s chocking to learn (according to Yale’s climate survey program) that 74% of women and 70 % of men believe climate change will harm future generations, but only 48% and 42%, respectively, think it’s harming them personally.

Showing how climate change affects people personally, and describe those effects in ways that transcend their politics is a fundamental step. Global warming is causing “present-day changes.”

Immediate rather than distant

One of our very top concern as an individual is our health. Climate change and environmental issues have direct impact on our own health. By positioning the effects on climate change on our daily health issues, we make climate change a personal problem to anyone.

Local rather than global

The reason why a lot of climate change campaigns ended up unsuccessful is because of the distance people could feel between their own universe and the problems showcased at a very broad planet-level in these campaigns. It just seems far away.

Ex : the starving polar bear miles away from my home.

One way to localise the issue is to show the impact of climate change at a regional level.

Ex: The National Climate Assessment (NCA) breaks regional effects into chapters to make that data more useful for people in congress, who can see specific effects on their districts. (you can drill down as far as county-by-county economic effects, if you’re into it.)

Make it salient, more vivid, more real

How can we care about something we never see? Increasing empathy on a cause has proven to raise action towards that cause.

So another way to reduce discounting is by using mental simulation of future experience which will by consequence generate empathy.

Researchers at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab revealed that a person is more likely to conserve paper if they had the VR experience of cutting down a tree. These include feeling the chainsaw’s vibrations and sound, as well as experiencing the Tree’s crash.

Virtual reality is an immersive experience that can trick the human brain into thinking it's real.

Virtual Reality technology is a great tool to make people experience issues they would have not been able to because geography constraints. On top of this VR can be used to build and showcase future scenarios and thus connect future to present.

Example: Sea Level Rise Explorer Santa Cruz

With the present bias, we are facing a cognitive block rooted in thousand years of evolution. This psychological construction, extremely powerful that brought us to the advance level we are now can be what leads to our destruction.

Beyond finding new technologies or discovering a planet B, collectively improve our decision making capabilities towards the future at a planet-scale is our way to salvation.

It’s time to explore our mental “time travel” capacity to plan and act today, for tomorrow.

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

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*Example discount mechanic:

Ex: as for now – Time 0 - the value I give to an apple pie I can eat right now is 1.

As a quite patient individual, I got a 15% discount rate per day (15% being just an example).

If you ask me to wait and eat the apple pie tomorrow, the value I’ll give to this apple pie to be eaten tomorrow is the value at time 0 (which is 1) minus the discount rate for one day (15%)

This gives us: 1*(1-15%)=1*0.95= 0.95

If you tell me to wait two days, the value of this apple pie to be eaten in 2 days will be 1*(1-15%)*(1-15%)=0.90

The value of the apple pie decreases over time.

Now, if you tell me to wait two days but instead of getting one apple pie I’ll get two apple pies then the value I’d give to this reward is 1.8:

2*(1-15%)*(1-15%)= 1.8 -> 2 apples pies + 2 days of discount applied.

For me, the value of waiting 2 days to get 2 apple pies is 1.8, is higher value than 1 which is the value of having 1 apple pie right now. So I will wait to get my 2 apple pies in 2 days.

However, if my discount rate is not 15% but much higher, such as 40%

Then if I have to wait two days, the value I’d give to the delayed reward is 0.36 2*(1-40%)*(1-40%)=0.36

It’s not worth it for me to wait two days, I’d get my 1 apple pie now.

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