Monday, April 7, 2008

Can Smiley Faces Save the World?

Researchers at the University of Chicago apparently think so.

See this fascinating report in the New York Times about Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s pioneering work applying behavioral psychology to climate change.

One of the things that interests us at Jewish Climate Initiative is the huge gap between knowing and doing in the climate change business. We all know what we’d have to do to drastically reduce our carbon footprints: fly much less, use public transport more, switch to CFL lightbulbs, buy a hybrid car, etc. etc.

But very few of us are doing it.

“This comes as no surprise to behavioral psychologists who have been studying the human penchant for making dumb choices,” writes the NYT.

The good news however is that we do have a strong inclination to do the right thing for the common good if we are given the right nudges and cues.

California utility companies experimented with including statistics about average electricity consumption on people’s electrical bills. This information led customers whose consumption was above average to use less in the next quarter. The problem was that people consuming less than average raised their electricity use. (After all, who wants to be a freier?)

Next time around, they added the following simple refinement to the electricity bills: a smiley face for people whose use was below the mean, and a frowning face for those above the average.

Amazingly, this caused people below the average to keep their consumption low, or reduce it still further.

The studies show that a communal norm together with positive reinforcement towards reaching that norm can have powerful impacts on behaviour, (although do I feel a bit queasy about the authors’ plan for introducing flashing lapel pins that indicate your carbon use.)

This should give pause to anyone who thinks that appealing to people’s pockets is the only way to reduce carbon footprints.

For anyone who believes, as we do, that religions have a potentially powerful role to play in combating climate change, these findings are encouraging, but not hugely surprising.

The Talmud already arrived at the same conclusions. I’ve just been studying the eighth chapter of Bava Kamma, which deals with a number of crucial environmental issues, including Ba’al Taschit, the prohibition against wanton destruction of property and resources, based on Deuteronomy 20: 19-21.

The chapter ends with a long discussion about the power of social norms to influence behaviour for good or ill, (Bava Kamma 92a-93a.) But it also stresses the pivotal power of determined and inspired individuals to reorient social norms by their example.

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