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Is it Natural to be Irrational?

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Follow Me on Twitter     Message Ross McCluney

Some think that a degree of irrationality is basic human nature. It's hardly debatable that our emotions often get in the way of rational, fact-based thinking and decision-making. It reminds me of a story by Janet Chusmir, a Miami reporter/columnist who rose to Executive Editor of the Miami Herald before her untimely death of a brain aneurysm in 1990.

As I recall it, she and her husband had a big decision coming up and he said, "Let's sit down and list the pros and cons." Janet was initially reluctant, but relented, and they made a long list. From a rational perspective, the decision was clear. They should do the A thing. "But," said Janet, "I don't like it. It doesn't feel right to me." They discussed it, argued about it, and finally she won him over and they chose the B option. Years later she wrote about it, saying "thank goodness I convinced him." They both agreed that B clearly ended up being the better choice.So, you say, there's a time and a place for irrational decisions. Well, maybe so, but at least Janet and her husband took the time to list the options, think about it, consider the consequences, and thereby know what they were potentially getting themselves into.

With environmental issues, however, there's not much room for such irrational thinking. The decisions to be made have very long-range consequences for everyone. Those making the major decisions aren't the only ones who have to live with the results. Even future generations have interests in what we do about this issue.

The public seems to agree, with a large number of Americans believing that climate change is happening and most of those thinking it's a serious problem. Well, if it is serious, shouldn't we as a nation be doing more to combat global warming? Well yes. So why aren't we doing more?

David A. Fahrenthold, staff writer for the Washington Post, says in an article published yesterday that it's natural to behave irrationally, and most psychologists seem to agree. See (click here):

The author points to a spate of new research "that tries to explain stalled U.S. efforts to combat greenhouse-gas emissions by putting the country on the couch."

According to Fahrenthold's article, "Those who are concerned that a real problem is being left unaddressed have called for a change in the way that green groups talk about climate," which has in the past been heavy on all the negative consequences we hear and read about almost daily. "Instead, researchers suggested a new set of back-door appeals, designed essentially to fool people into serving their own and the planet's best interests."

A variety of reasons have been suggested to explain why Americans seem to be less willing to make changes to stop global warming gas releases. Some are "merely mental," but others are not. There is still insufficient direct personal experience of the problem. And the human tendency toward denial kicks in. Though scientists say the change is real and unequivocal, the science is confusing, and the vocal skeptics following "wishful thinking," ideological objections, and misplaced conspiracy theories don't help matters any.

On the psychological side, climate change is a policy problem with "psychological distance." This means that it's a problem most of us feel is for someone else to deal with or for some other time. Compounding the problem is that the general environmental crisis involves so many myriad threats. It's common to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of it, so unwilling to address it, even in small little baby steps.

Fahrenthold points to last month's Washington Post-ABC News poll, which showed that belief in climate change had fallen 13% since 2006, and postulated that new worries about lost jobs and swine flu have crowded old issues out of the "finite pool of worry," which psychologists say we can address at any one time.

The researchers suggest that environmentalists and policy-makers switch from the negative to the positive. They should frame the changes needed as "saving" the American way of life, or pointing out the many personal benefits to be felt when we make the changes needed. These include that energy-efficient buildings are generally more comfortable than wasteful ones, low-carbon impact food is generally more healthy for us than that based on the fossil fuel economy. Clean air smells better and keeps us healthier than coal-dust-and-smog-infused atmospheres.

Another suggested approach is to appeal to two powerful human psychological impulses: be more like one's innovative neighbors and then beat them at going green.

In a 2007 San Diego study, four fliers were hung on doorknobs. One said to conserve energy to help the environment. Another said saving energy was socially responsible. The third said that saving energy saves money and the last claimed that the majority of neighbors in the area were doing it. The fourth one seemed to be more effective.

Robert Cialdini of ASU in Tempe was quoted as saying that "Simply urging people or telling them that it's a good idea to recycle or conserve energy is the same as nothing."

According to Fahrenthold, there are some modest efforts to promote the positive approach, but ""some psychologists say they are frustrated that their ideas seem to have been picked up only unevenly by environmental groups." He offers some examples in his article, concluding with what he calls the best example of climate psychology in action, pointing to ""programs run by the Arlington energy efficiency software company Opower. In 12 areas around the country, the firm sends mailings to utility customers. The sheets compare each customer's power usage to that of neighbors with similar houses and offer tips for catching up, such as turning off lights and lowering the temperature settings of water heaters.

"It works, the company says, lowering electricity usage by 2 percent in several test cases. The fliers never say a word about climate change."

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For 30 years Dr. McCluney was principal research scientist at the Florida Solar Energy Center, a research institute of the University of Central Florida. He holds B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in physics and has published over 60 popular and (more...)
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