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date: 23 April 2017

Cognitive Biases, Non-Rational Judgments, and Public Perceptions of Climate Change

Summary and Keywords

In recent years, scientists have identified cognitive processes that short-circuit our deliberative faculties. In the domain of climate change in particular, a number of psychological barriers and biases may disrupt typical discourse and reflection and may even prevent those who are aware of climate change from taking action to mitigate or reduce its impact. These processes include the use of heuristic versions of calculation-based decisions to reduce processing load, which can make climate change judgments responsive to situational factors in the immediate decision context. Recent research in the decision sciences provides insight into how common biases in judgment inhibit rational deliberation about climate change, which may lead to the gap between society’s recognition of environmental problems and society’s frequent failure to address them appropriately. These insights involve the finite nature of human attention and cognitive resources, the complex interactions of personal experience and emotion, the challenges that uncertainty and risk place on behavior, and the profoundly social nature of human action. Understanding these barriers and systematic biases have led to a set of potential interventions, which demonstrate how practitioners can put research insights into practice in order to address a variety of sustainability challenges. One important direction for these interventions involves changing the decision context in ways that account for decision bias (e.g., using green defaults) and triggering more adaptive decisions as a result.

Keywords: heuristics, climate change, decision making, constructed preferences


Decades of research on judgment and decision-making have identified cognitive processes that short-circuit our deliberative faculties. In the domain of climate change in particular, a number of barriers may disrupt typical discourse and reflection and prevent those who are aware of climate change from taking action to mitigate or reduce its impact. Although multiple factors influence climate change judgments, some of these factors are psychological and are influenced by our tendency to circumvent a rational decision process by relying on a number of simplifying strategies. Understanding these processes and systematic biases may help in addressing a variety of sustainability challenges and promote more effective communication efforts.

Errors we commit without knowing we do so often arise from our difficulties in quantifying and dealing with uncertainty and complexity, which lead to predictable biases that influence judgment. According to a bounded rationality framework, cognitive limitations prevent human beings from making fully rational decisions based on beliefs about possible outcomes, their associated values, and their probabilities of occurrence (Kahneman, 2003). Researchers have demonstrated that judgment deviates from rationality in predictable ways and have identified systematic biases known to plague decision-makers (Loewenstein, Weber, Hsee, & Welch, 2001; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). These biases include heuristic versions of calculation-based decisions, which allow decision-makers to reduce processing load to make judgments quickly and efficiently. Under conditions of uncertainty and risk, these shortcuts can be an efficient guide to decision-making when more comprehensive and cautious decision-making is not possible. However, the use of such heuristics can also result in systematic biases, including cognitive myopia, framing effects, and the inappropriate weighting of extreme probabilities.

Given the public’s uncertainty regarding the risks of climate change (Patt & Weber, 2013), individuals may rely on simplifying heuristics (“rules of thumb”) and accessible frameworks of thought to inform their judgments (Edenhofer et al., 2014). The evaluation of climate change is clearly a complex task, where learning through experimentation or repeated observation is impossible. In addition to seasonal and weather uncertainties that are difficult to fully predict, the general public is constantly barraged by media accounts that express conflicting viewpoints about the dangers and evidence of climate change. As such, people’s beliefs about climate change may be malleable and their judgments may be sensitive to features of the judgment context that are irrelevant with respect to whether action against climate change is merited.

Recent research in the decision sciences provides insight into how common biases in judgment inhibit rational deliberation about climate change, which may lead to the gap between society’s recognition of environmental problems and society’s frequent failure to address them appropriately. These biased decision processes include the finite nature of human attention and cognitive resources, the complex interaction between personal and conceptual experience, the challenges that uncertainty and psychological distance place on perception, and the profoundly social nature of human action. The current article explores these insights from the decision sciences to address how common biases in judgment influence effective deliberation about climate change.

This article is comprised of two sections: the first reviews literature on climate change and constructed preferences, which demonstrates that despite a pervasive awareness of the issue of climate change, people’s beliefs about it are malleable and sensitive to irrelevant features of the judgment context. This section serves to illustrate that non-rational judgment may underlie perceptions of climate change, which includes the use of heuristic versions of calculation-based decisions to reduce processing load. In the second section we shift to discussing several key strategies from the decision sciences that can lower the risk of biased judgments and increase the opportunities for pro-environmental behaviors. These key strategies include, but are not limited to: using green defaults, promoting future-focused thinking, reframing existing information, conveying positive social norms, making use of effective labeling, and appreciating differences in moral and political intuitions.

Constructed Preferences and Climate Change

A body of research has documented that for complex decisions, such as those involving perceptions of climate change, preferences and beliefs are often malleable rather than fully formed or retrieved from memory (Bettman, Luce, & Payne, 1998; Feldman & Lynch, 1988; Weber & Johnson, 2006). Contrary to rational-economic models of choice, preferences are not pre-existing and constant across contexts, but instead, people often construct their preferences while making their decisions. This makes them responsive to situational factors in the decision environment, which may be incomplete, irrelevant, or transitory. Even opinions on important issues, such as the value of an economic resource, can be constructed, at least in part, in response to the immediate decision context (Slovic, 1995).

Despite a pervasive awareness of the issue of climate change, there are reasons to speculate that people’s attitudes toward it are labile and can be assembled at the time of being questioned or polled. To illustrate this characterization of climate change opinion, we explore the well-documented finding that people’s beliefs about climate change can be influenced by something as trivial as the day’s local temperature.

The Local Warming Effect

Although global climate change is imperceptible on a daily basis, mounting evidence shows that the public’s response to global climate change tends to shift with transient weather patterns, a bias labeled “the local warming effect” (Li, Johnson, & Zaval, 2011). In one of the earliest studies to demonstrate this phenomenon, Ungar (1992) noted that public anxiety over global warming peaks during hot, dry summers. Krosnick, Holbrook, Lowe, and Visser (2006) found a similar correlation between local weather patterns and existence beliefs about global warming. The relationship between relative temperature deviation and belief in global warming also found support from political scientists who linked objective temperature deviation to poll results concerning global warming (Egan & Mullin, 2009). Personal experience with weather not only influences climate change judgments but also appears to impact basic climate perceptions. Howe, Markowitz, Lee, Ko, and Leiserowitz (2013) combined responses from a multinational public opinion survey with global historical climate data and found that perceptions of local temperature trends are most influenced by abnormal average temperatures in the most recent three months. Moreover, perceptions of a long-term local warming trend were most associated with warmer recent average temperatures than with long-term local temperature trends, indicating a recency effect in climate perception.

Perceived daily temperature deviation from the historical average has also been shown to influence belief in global warming and willingness to take part in mitigation behaviors. Li et al. (2011) examined the role of perceived temperature deviation and found that Australian and American participants who thought today was much warmer than usual donated more money to a climate-change charity. The authors used instrumental variable regression and historical temperature data to rule out alternative explanations, providing causal evidence for the effect.

Several different psychological processes that may underlie the local warming effect are described below. Note that further research is needed to explore the underlying mechanism or heuristic process driving this effect. Such work could provide insights regarding how people’s belief in global climate change can develop over time from immediate, experienced-based reactions to more reasoned conclusions.

Attribute Substitution

It has been well established that individuals depend on certain heuristics to simplify their inquiry during the decision process (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982). In the case of evaluating climate change, people may rely, in part, on the outdoor temperature when constructing their beliefs in order to avoid a complex decision by implicitly selecting a simpler evaluation criterion. In many complex decisions, an overwhelmed decision-maker may choose not to enter into the decision at all. In such instances, people tend to give up thinking about the decision, and the simpler option is likely to be implicitly selected (Johnson & Goldstein, 2003). For instance, an individual purchasing a new dishwasher might focus on simple criteria for evaluating the dishwasher’s value, such as its appearance or upfront cost, rather than consider how many gallons of water it uses per cycle.

These heuristics can operate via a process known as “attribute substitution,” which proposes that individuals use less relevant but salient and available information (such as today’s temperature) in place of more diagnostic but less accessible information (such as global climate change patterns) in belief generation (Kahneman & Frederick, 2002). For example, when considering the risk of climate change, one might avoid the complications of the issue by instead considering whether the outdoor temperature appears to be warmer or colder than usual.

An important implication of this process is that when a heuristic attribute differs from the target attribute, the substitution of one for the other may introduce systematic biases, such as weighting biases. Through a process known as recency weighting, individuals generally overreact to a statistically rare event if that event has occurred in the very recent past. This cognitive bias results from the fact that our experiential processing system gives most weight to recent observations (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979). Whether people choose to buy insurance for natural disasters, for example, is greatly influenced by recent events (Slovic, Monahan, & MacGregor, 2000). If an earthquake has occurred in the immediate past, insurance for earthquakes rises markedly, but it then declines steadily as salient memories subside.

Personal experience plays a key role in the availability heuristic, which allows people to find solutions to problems based on what they remember and how readily their memory can be retrieved (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973). The availability heuristic also leads us to deduce that the future will be similar to what we have experienced so far (Sunstein, 2006). Thinking about unusually warm weather events may prompt one to assume that future temperatures will continue to exhibit unexpected highs, further encouraging belief in a sustained global warming trend. Indeed, the salience of remembered events, as well as their timing, is important in preference construction. As such, it seems likely that recency weighting and the availability heuristic may play a key role in generating the local warming effect: an unusually warm temperature event that occurs in the very recent past may be given more weight by the individual, increasing the salience and overestimation of the frequency of related events from memory, thus affecting that individual’s belief in climate change.

This hypothesis was recently validated by Zaval, Keenan, Johnson, and Weber (2014), who showed that when individuals perceive the day’s local temperature to be warmer than usual, they overestimate the number of warm days through the year, which, in turn, leads them to increase their beliefs about the existence of global warming. Moreover, Zaval and colleagues (2014) ruled out alternative hypotheses by showing that information about the distinction between weather and climate or changes in terminology (e.g., global warming versus climate change) did not diminish the impact of local temperatures on beliefs. In a follow-up to this research, Druckman (2015) demonstrated that a simple prompt that reminds individuals to remember how the weather felt over the past year can eliminate the local warming effect. The prompt may eliminate the judgmental bias by severing the relationship between perceptions of the daily temperature with estimates of last year’s temperature deviations.

Personal Experience

The local warming effect serves as a powerful illustration of how people tend to rely on concrete, personal experience in the face of uncertainty, which has a powerful impact on memory and behavior (Weber, Shafir, & Blais, 2004). Although long-term climate change cannot usually be discerned from direct, personal observation and evaluation, a body of work has revealed that people often rely on personal experience when evaluating predictions and risks associated with uncertain climate information (Weber, 1997, 2016). For example, research demonstrates that belief in climate change increases if and when people personally experience climate change manifestations (Rudman, McLean, & Bunzl, 2013; Spence, Poortinga, Butler, & Pidgeon, 2011). The local warming effect suggests that personal experience with climate change may be problematic for the formation of stable belief systems about climate science because they may be based on local environmental cues (e.g., substituting perceived local temperature for global average temperatures).

When individuals have a choice between statistical, conceptual experience and vivid, personal experience, such as local temperature, they will tend to rely on the latter. Although the implementation of climate forecasting relies on the assumption that people process information analytically, research suggests that people employ their experiential processing system when evaluating predictions and risks associated with uncertain climate information (Marx et al., 2007). This notion supports the finding that individuals tend to neglect using abstract climate forecasts when making decisions. Instead, people may enlist more concrete, personal experiences and rely on past memorable experiences when making judgments related to climate change.

Decision Anchors

One additional heuristic that may play a role in generating the local warming effect is that of anchoring, which is a term used to describe the human tendency to overly rely on initial pieces of information when making decisions, and then to adjust to that value to account for other circumstantial information. Reliance on anchors can be considered unreasonable when anchors that do not provide relevant information about an item’s value lead to biased judgment and behavior. Take, for instance, the results of an experiment that found that people asked to estimate the average temperature in San Francisco provided significantly higher estimates when first asked to determine whether the correct answer was greater or less than 558°F (Quattrone, Lawrence, Finkel, & Andrus, 1984). Although an average temperature of 558°F is clearly inaccurate, the anchor had a powerful distorting effect on people’s perception of actual temperature. Is it possible that the anchoring effect biases temperature judgments even when a numerical anchor is not immediately provided? The perception of one day’s unusually high temperature could lead an individual’s overall perception of average temperature to be anchored to that particular value. A biased perception in average temperature may in turn affect belief in and concern about global warming.


There is clearly considerable overlap between the different heuristic processes that may lead to the local warming effect. Without further research, it is difficult to determine which psychological mechanism is, or interaction of mechanisms are, responsible for the bias. However, one major lesson drawn from the local warming effect is that preferences toward climate change are constructed, and people may reconsider their opinion about the issue each time they are questioned. This characterization of climate change opinion, and the apparent difficulties people experience when dealing with uncertain climate-related decisions, has important implications for public policy and polling results. Indeed, research shows that an extended period of abnormal weather can have long-term effects on one’s opinion (Deryugina, 2013), as demonstrated by the decline in climate change belief in public opinion polls after the winters of 2009 and 2010. Care needs to be taken in the development and interpretation of opinion polls because situational factors will inevitably influence responses.

The local warming effect also demonstrates that recency and salience may be promising ways of promoting heightened concern about climate change. Indeed, Bord, Fisher, and O’Connor (1998) credit much of the original interest in global warming to a severe drought in 1998, which coincided with congressional testimony that heightened “immediate” concern for global warming. If the United States is to take a stronger stance against global climate change, forecasters might rely on making weather changes more cognitively available to the general public. If salient, recent climate events can be associated with global climate change, citizens may be more likely to favor a more aggressive response.

Biased Judgments and Climate Change: Some Solutions

It is important to recognize how systematic biases can influence, and often inhibit, effective reflection on complex issues. However, it is equally true that our understanding of psychological biases can be used to explore new ways to improve public understanding of climate change issues and motivate effective responses. One important direction for improving decisions involves changing the decision environment in ways that account for decision bias and trigger more adaptive decisions as a result. In the following section we outline several strategies from the behavioral science literature that translate the heuristic processes of decision-makers from disadvantages to opportunities with the design of effective decision environments that encourage sustainable action (Thaler, Sunstein, & Balz, 2013). For each strategy, we first provide a brief discussion of a particular source of bias in environmental decision-making and then discuss how that bias or barrier can be leveraged to promote pro-environmental action. The insights discussed in this section include (but are not limited to) using green defaults, promoting future-focused thinking, reframing existing information, conveying social norms, making use of effective labeling, and appreciating differences in moral and political intuitions.

Use Green Defaults

A body of behavioral science research examining environmental decision making suggests that one particular intervention tool—defaults—may be particularly effective in driving pro-environmental action (Sunstein & Reisch, 2014). Default effects refer to the tendency of a person to stay with an option (or choice, or behavior) that has been selected automatically (or pre-selected) for that person instead of choosing an alternative. The power of defaults explains why individuals stick with the “status quo” or products they are used to, even though there may be other options that they would prefer. Previous research provides various explanations for how a default setting causes a change in the choice distribution. One of these explanations involves the cognitive effort associated with deciding what one wants and suggests that individuals may use defaults heuristically in order to expend the least amount of cognitive effort necessary to make a decision (Johnson, Bellman, & Lohse, 2002; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). Effort-based accounts suggest that without a pre-existing preference, choosing the optimal option takes time that will increase the cognitive effort involved in decision-making. Providing a default not only saves people time (by relieving them of the task of making an active choice), but it may also be viewed as being the best option, since it is often assumed as being “recommended” by the provider.

Considerable research confirms that setting green choices as defaults can influence people to behave more pro-environmentally (Sunstein & Reisch, 2014). Consider a simple example. Dinner and colleagues found that green defaults can be used to influence consumers’ choice to purchase more energy-efficient products (Dinner, Johnson, Goldstein, & Liu, 2011). The context in this study involved two alternatives: choosing to use cheap, inefficient incandescent light bulbs or selecting expensive, but efficient, compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs). Results from this research showed that the default setting was highly influential. When the incandescent bulbs were set as the default, energy-efficient CFLs were chosen only 55% of the time. In contrast, when energy-efficient CFL bulbs were the default option, they were chosen nearly 80% of the time. These findings suggest that if energy-efficient goods are established as dominant, consumers are not likely to switch to energy inefficient products.

Large-scale, striking examples of the influence of green choice defaults can be found in Germany, where electric power customers in two German populations are automatically enrolled in their utility’s “green energy” program. In those communities, more than 90% of people are enrolled in clean energy programs because a green energy provider is set as the default and not as an “opt in” choice (Pichert & Katsikopoulos, 2008). Based on these and related results, it is fair to conclude that the use of a default setting can greatly affect the kind of energy that people use. Research conducted in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other European countries shows strong public support for renewable energy and suggests that people are even willing to pay a small premium to have it (Pichert & Katsikopoulos, 2008). However, despite such widespread availability and preference for green energy, only a small segment of the consumer population in these liberalized electricity markets choose to buy it since the default option is almost always electricity produced from non-renewable sources. The vast majority of consumers stay with their power provider and the product they are used to (the default) to avoid transaction costs.

Business leaders, politicians, and environmental educators can be more successful in driving pro-environmental action if they make environmentally responsible behaviors the default option as often as possible. Unfortunately, in many domains the default option is not the environmentally-friendly one. The Energy Star conservation mode is not the factory. Thermostats are not pre-programmed to save on energy costs, double-sided printing is not the default option in most corporate offices, and providing re-usable shopping bags is not the default option for most retail establishments. In domains such as these, green defaults have the potential to save money, increase energy independence, and reduce waste. In addition, when compared with mandates, green defaults have the important advantage of maintaining freedom of choice. For a business or government agency, the benefit of carefully selecting green default options is that individuals are simply nudged, and not mandated, to behave in a pro-environmental manner.

Promote Future-Focused Thinking

Another common judgmental error that has been shown to influence environmental decision-making concerns time inconsistency in intertemporal choices. As creatures of bounded rationality and finite processing capacity, it is understandable that people focus attention on the here and now, as our immediate motivations are often inconsistent with our long-term interests. Contrary to the assumptions of rational-economic decision-making, people tend to overvalue immediate rewards while undervaluing the long-term implications of a choice (e.g., Loewenstein & Prelec, 1992). The result is a type of cognitive myopia, which prevents people from accurately perceiving future benefits that have immediate costs. This shortsightedness or “present bias” is responsible for many errors in judgment, from unhealthy eating behaviors to undersaving for retirement (Milkman, Rogers, & Bazerman, 2008; O’Donoghue & Rabin, 1999).

While many individual and social problems require increased attention to future costs and benefits, climate change has emerged as the most urgent challenge for decisions that weigh the sacrifice of certain, immediate benefits for the sake of uncertain, distant benefits (Weber, 2010). For example, people often fail to make energy-efficient investments even when future energy savings will compensate for greater upfront purchase costs (Gillingham, Newell, & Palmer, 2009). Psychological theories from prospect theory to hyperbolic discounting predict that a perceived sense of temporal and social distance from the consequences of climate change act as major obstacles to motivating preventative action on climate change (e.g., Weber & Stern, 2011).

Research on trade-offs in decision-making clearly shows that people tend to overvalue immediate benefits and discount delayed consequences (for a review, see Frederick, Loewenstein, & O’Donoghue, 2002). On the other hand, research suggests that people might prioritize delayed consequences over immediate benefits when they are encouraged to think about the future. For example, Hershfield et al. (2011) demonstrated that people who were presented with images of their future selves (e.g., an animated 70-year-old face of themselves) invested twice as much money in their retirement savings plans compared with people who were presented with their current selves. Similarly, manipulating psychological connectedness by asking participants to consider reasons why their identity would remain stable has been shown to have a strong impact on intertemporal decisions, including reducing long-term discount rates (Bartels & Urminsky, 2011).

In the domain of environmental decisions, an emerging body of research has explored interventions that focus greater attention on future consequences in order to provide entry points for choices that better balance short-term and long-term objectives. For example, Zaval, Markowitz, and Weber (2015) investigated how long-term goals and motives can be used as a way to shift preferences between one’s present self and future others and be leveraged to increase engagement with climate change and other social problems. The researchers found that increasing the salience of individuals’ motivation to leave behind a positive legacy increases people’s desire to engage in sustainable behaviors. Inducing individuals to think about their future legacy improved donations to environmental and public health charities, enhanced pro-environmental beliefs and behavioral intentions, and increased demand for sustainable purchases. Although long-time horizons and social distance are often viewed as barriers to mitigation behavior, this work demonstrates that this fundamental feature of environmental problems can, under certain conditions, be leveraged to promote rather than inhibit environmental engagement.

Another method that has been used to increase focus on the future employs Gott’s principle (Gott, 1993), which suggests that citizens may use perceptions of their country’s age to predict its future continuation. Countries with longer pasts predict longer futures, and longer futures may justify greater investments into sustainability. Using country- and individual-level analyses, Hershfield, Bang, and Weber (2014) showed that longer perceived pasts resulted in longer perceived futures, which in turn motivated concern for the environment. The authors found that framing a country as a long-standing entity can be used to promote pro-environmental behavior. Results from this work further support the contention that making future events more concrete and reducing the perceived sense of temporal distance from the consequences of climate change may offer a powerful mechanism by which to circumvent the otherwise detrimental psychological barriers (e.g., intertemporal distance and discounting) that inhibit preventive action on climate change.

Reframe Existing Information

The way an environmental message is presented can also have a powerful impact on environmental judgments and decisions. The framing effect is a common cognitive bias in which people tend to make a judgment based on how information is presented (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). Previous decision-making research has demonstrated that presenting the same options in different formats can influence people’s decisions. Similarly, the way in which an environmental issue is presented can have a significant influence on public opinion and behavior. Research shows that changing as little as a single word in a message can influence the degree to which individuals report belief in the reality of climate change and their intentions to support actions or policies prevent it. Since it is nearly impossible not to frame an issue, climate change communicators must consciously consider the way that they present their message (i.e., within an appropriate context that will make credible climate science more accessible to the public; Shome et al., 2009).

For example, climate change educators should carefully consider their audience when deciding how they refer to the science surrounding “climate change.” Some refer to the issue of global climate change using the more specific nomenclature of “global warming.” Research has shown that which term is used often falls along party lines—left-wing websites tend to use the term “climate change,” whereas right-wing websites prefer the term “global warming” (Schuldt, Konrath, & Schwarz, 2011). In addition, research reveals that conservative belief in climate science is influenced by whether the issue is described as referring to “global warming” or “climate change,” with the latter term garnering more credulity than the former.

Ideological differences have also been shown to have a strong influence on attitudes toward mitigation, depending on the way that mitigation action is described. In a series of framing experiments, researchers examined whether describing the negative consequences of climate change as potential environmental risks versus personal health risks influenced attitudes toward mitigation (Petrovic, Madrigano, & Zaval, 2014). Results showed that conservatives found health-related framing to be a more convincing rationale for action against fossil fuel emissions than climate-related framing. Interestingly, support for reductions in air pollution among conservatives was higher when fossil fuels went unmentioned entirely.

Research has also shown that differences in framing can influence pro-environmental engagement as well as support for public policies aimed at addressing climate change. One study showed that framing environmental issues using language focused on personal sacrifice, as opposed to the social benefits of mitigation, resulted in reduced engagement with environmental issues (Gifford & Comeau, 2011). Other work has focused on how to frame environmental policies in order to positively influence their level of support. For example, researchers found that when describing a program that raises the cost of products believed to contribute to climate change (such as air travel) using the term “carbon tax” versus “carbon offset” had a strong influence on preferences (Hardisty, Johnson, & Weber, 2010). Among political conservatives, the use of the term “carbon tax” resulted in decreased support for mitigation. However, among this population, opposition to increases in pricing was reduced when such increases were instead framed as “carbon offsets.”

Not only does the way in which a policy is presented influence its level of support, so can the framing of a policy’s target audience. Research has found, for example, that varying the rhetorical target of public policy justifications influences their support (Cornwell & Krantz, 2014). Endorsements for public policies aimed at reducing the emission of fossil fuels was enhanced when their justification pointed to “people in general” (third-person plural “they”) rather than the general second-person “you.” This effect was driven by a belief that one’s own behaviors and decisions were impervious to influence from incentive schemes, resulting in decreased belief that the policies would achieve their aims.

Taken together, this research suggests that it is extremely important to choose one’s words carefully in communicating issues surrounding climate change. Changing as much as one word in a presentation could result in significantly diminished support for policies aimed at addressing climate change or personal behaviors aimed at reducing its impact.

Use Effective Labeling

Consumer behavior research has investigated possible psychological barriers to explain why more consumers do not make green purchases. This work has identified several barriers to purchasing environmentally friendly products, from organic foods to fuel-efficient vehicles (e.g., Bonini & Oppenheim, 2008). The deviation between positive attitudes toward sustainable consumption and actual consumption may be explained, in part, by a dual process model of decision-making (Evans, 2008), which distinguishes between a fast, intuitive, affective processing system (system 1) and a more effortful, analytical and controlled process (system 2). While actual purchasing behavior is strongly influenced by system 1, sustainable consumption may require more effortful processing (system 2) in order to buy products based on moral values. Supporting this idea, research indicates that the cognitive effort involved in choosing an environmentally friendly product acts as a psychological barrier to sustainable purchasing (Young, Hwang, McDonald, & Oates, 2010). Using interview data conducted among a population of “green consumers” in the United Kingdom, Young and colleagues found that the cognitive effort involved in researching, searching for, and deciding upon green products was great.

Findings from this and related research suggest that environmentally friendly eco-labels can be used as a heuristic, reducing the cognitive effort required to understand the benefits of a product without extra effort to research that product. Eco-labels can provide a quick signal to consumers about the sustainable impact of a purchase. Although consumer decision-making is multiply determined, eco-labels may provide a shortcut to help consumers make choices by reducing cognitive load. Yet despite this benefit, there is a lack of consistency and comprehensibility in product eco-labels, which leads to consumer confusion (Davis, 1993). There is increasing interest in using behavioral science insights to design improved product labels, as people are more likely to reach sound conclusions when information is communicated in an intuitively comprehensible format.

In light of this realization, many countries are reexamining the labels they use to present information about vehicle fuel efficiency. To illustrate, prior to 2013, vehicle labels in the United States featured only miles per gallon (MPG) information, which led to a cognitive error regarding a vehicle’s actual fuel efficiency (Larrick & Soll, 2008): The “Miles Per Gallon Illusion” demonstrates how people intuitively believe that the amount of gas consumed by a vehicle decreases as a linear function of a car’s MPG, whereas the actual relationship is curvilinear. Relying on linear reasoning about MPG leads people to systematically undervalue the relative costs of the lowest-MPG vehicles and overestimate the relative savings of the highest-MPG vehicles. To combat this cognitive error, changes were made to vehicle labels to help consumers better understand fuel economy and allow them to make better-educated purchasing decisions.

In follow-up work, Camilleri and Larrick (2014) explored how manipulating the information on the new vehicle fuel economy labels could shift preferences toward more fuel-efficient vehicles. In a series of online experiments, participants were asked to choose between two vehicles that traded off on price and fuel economy. When given information on fuel economy, the researchers changed the metric (gas consumption vs. cost of gas) and distance (100 miles vs. 15,000 miles vs. 100,000 miles) across different trials. Findings revealed that people are more likely to select the fuel-efficient vehicle when fuel economy is expressed on a large, lifetime scale (100,000 miles) rather than on smaller scales (100 or 15,000 miles). One bias that may account for the influence of scale changes on decision-making is that larger scales cause people to weigh an attribute more heavily (Burson, Larrick, & Lynch, 2009)—specifically, large salient scales may serve as anchors that influence how much participants expect to drive, and these expectations in turn effect preference for a more fuel-efficient vehicle (Camilleri & Larrick, 2014). These results illustrate that the way that information is framed can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by promoting pro-environmental behavior that is also financially beneficial. Presenting labeling information in terms of expanded, lifetime scales can encourage consumers to invest in more efficient, sustainable technologies.

Convey Positive Social Norms

Decision-making is also strongly influenced by the social context in which choices are made. As used in the field of social psychology, social norms are shared expectations about what is appropriate (“injunctive norms”) and/or commonly performed (“descriptive norms”) within and for a specific context (Sharif, 1936). With respect to heuristic processing, compliance with social norms is an automatic response to cues in the decision environment that focus our attention on a particular norm. In this sense, social norms can be considered one class of default rules: rather than a conscious decision to give priority to the dominant social norm, norms are often considered automatically, as they frequently communicate the “correct” or “settled” course of action (Bicchieri, 2005). According to norm theory, one’s actions are far more likely to be scrutinized when they deviate from what is expected. These expectations arise either as the result of direct, socially communicated information or by the simple observation of typical behaviors, whereas behavior consistent with norms does not require such reflective justification (Cialdini & Trost, 1998; Kahneman & Miller, 1986). The communication of social norms can be accomplished in either an injunctive way (e.g., by providing direct imperatives to constrain behavior) or in a descriptive way (e.g., by describing what people generally do in a given circumstance). A body of research has now confirmed that the use of social norms has a powerful role to play in driving pro-environmental behaviors, in that people appear to be particularly sensitive to the social and reputational aspects of such behaviors.

Recent academic–private partnerships have explored how social norms can be leveraged to guide and promote a range of sustainable consumer behaviors. In one striking example, academic researchers partnered with an upscale hotel in Phoenix, Arizona, to determine whether targeted social norm messaging could influence their patrons’ decisions to reuse their hotel towels (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008). The researchers experimented with several different messages on the hotel doors to encourage the reuse of towels. For example, one message simply stated, “Help save the environment.” This was followed by information about how energy and water used to wash hotel towels would negatively impact the environment. The researchers discovered, however, that signaling that towel reuse was the social norm was the most effective strategy. This message stated, “join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment” and included information noting that almost 75% of guests reuse their towels. By signaling social norms, the researchers were able to increase hotel towel reuse by 34%.

The influence of social norms has been successfully applied to other areas of sustainability. For example, researchers at a Dutch public university conducted an online survey experiment with the aim of testing strategies to reduce bottled water consumption (Van Der Linden, 2015). Students in the study were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: (a) persuasive information (students read a persuasive, informational article about bottled water consumption), (b) activating social norms (students were told that 65% of the university’s student body was trying to reduce bottled water consumption), or (c) a combination of both. Results revealed that the combination of social norms and persuasive information was the most effective and elicited the greatest reduction in intentions to buy bottled water. These results suggest that combining educational, persuasive information with social norm messaging is most likely to lead to successful behavior change.

Research has also shown that social norms in isolation are not always enough to alter behavior—the salience of those norms is important as well. If an individual is not focused on the norm itself, it will have less of an influence on his or her actual behavior. Cialdini, Reno, and Kallgren (1990) conducted a series of studies on the importance of norms and norm salience on the problem of littering. Across multiple locations (e.g., a parking garage, a hospital, an amusement park), the researchers investigated the degree to which social norms influenced people’s choice to litter. The researchers found that norms had a significant impact on littering behavior. For example, a person was much less likely to litter in a clean environment, since this type of environment creates a descriptive social norm against littering. The salience of the norm was also highly influential. For example, seeing another individual litter in the environment drew the attention of the participants to the norms in question: participants were more likely to litter in a littered environment and less likely to litter in a clean environment when they observed someone else littering in that environment.

Recent work by a company called OPOWER has demonstrated that social norm messaging can be “scaled” to influence energy conservation at the level of an entire community. During the past several years, OPOWER has partnered with utilities in California, Minnesota, Colorado, and other states to send energy use reports to residential electricity and natural gas consumers. These reports are designed to produce social comparisons relative to social norms. The reports contain detailed information about a household’s energy usage, the average energy usage of the household’s neighbors, and the energy usage of particularly energy-efficient neighboring households. Distributing this type of information about peer energy usage has been shown to result in a significant reduction in individual household energy use (Ayres, Raseman, & Shih, 2012). OPOWER reports also include feedback, which rates the household as either “Great,” “Good,” or “Below Average.” These feedback mechanisms have been found to reduce energy usage by 1.2% in the Puget Sound Energy utility district and 2.1% in the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (in Washington and California, respectively). Taken together, these results suggest the power of social norms in influencing energy conservation.

Appreciate Moral and Political Intuitions

In the last 15 years, research on moral judgment has shifted from rationalist models to more heuristic accounts, which suggest that moral judgment is generally the result of quick, automatic evaluations (see, e.g., Haidt, 2001). Though there are still important roles for reflection in moral reasoning, recent research has highlighted the importance of moral intuitions in driving moral judgments and decisions (Graham et al., 2011). Most germane to the topic of climate change, responses to which typically fall along ideological lines (McCright & Dunlap, 2011), researchers have found ideological differences between the particular types of moral intuitions or “foundations” that people rely upon. Research has consistently shown this ideological distinction in the reliance on different moral intuitions (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009), and it has been hypothesized that these differences are a major force in driving the gulf in policy preferences between liberals and conservatives (Haidt, 2012). Specifically, researchers have found that liberals tend to rely primarily on “individualizing” moral foundations of harm/care (sensitivities to suffering or helping of individuals) and fairness/reciprocity (sensitivities to equality or equity among individuals). On the other hand, political conservatives tend to endorse five moral foundations. They too endorse harm and fairness, but they also endorse in-group/loyalty (sensitivities to solidarity and support of one’s group), authority/respect (sensitivities to proving the appropriate level of deference to authority figures), and purity/sanctity (sensitivities to sacredness or degradation).

The hypothesis that this ideological distinction may drive policy preferences has been largely borne out. Research has shown that individuals spontaneously develop arguments using their preferred moral foundations (i.e., liberals using the harm and fairness foundations; conservatives using the in-group, authority, and purity foundations), which are inherently less convincing to those on the other end of the political spectrum. Importantly, reframing arguments using foundations in line with beliefs of the other side of the political spectrum can actually shift opinion by making one’s arguments more persuasive (Day, Fiske, Downing, & Trail, 2014). In one dramatic example, researchers were able to show that reframing environmental arguments using the purity/sanctity foundation rather than the harm/care foundation can eliminate differences in environmental attitudes between liberals and conservatives (Feinberg & Willer, 2013).

Other work shows how moral intuitions can strongly influence the persuasiveness of arguments relating to climate change. For example, research has found that objective environmental information will not be well received if it contradicts the audience’s values. A study conducted by Kahan, Braman, Slovic, Gastil, and Cohen (2007) found that “individualistic” individuals (those who believe that people should secure the conditions of their own well-being) were not receptive to scientific facts about climate change when those facts were presented as justifications for antipollution regulation. However, when those very same facts were used to justify revitalizing the nuclear power industry, receptivity among “individualists” to those facts was significantly higher. Effective communications concerning information about climate change will be more effective when associated with goals consistent with the values of the audience. If scientific facts are either implicitly or explicitly linked to policies that are inconsistent with audience values, then the facts presented alongside those policies may also be ignored or rejected.

Political differences can also affect which sorts of arguments hold sway. For example, research has shown that conservatives tend to think relationally or more holistically compared to liberals who think more analytically (Talhelm et al., 2015). Therefore, communications focused on “the big picture” may be more effective among conservatives than among liberals. For example, rather than focusing on how sustainable behaviors address concerns raised by climate forecasting, a message might instead focus on how these same behaviors are consistent with larger values the audience already holds (e.g., spiritual or religious values) or how climate change affects a large number of issues (e.g., concerns related to national security and public health). Indeed, the receptivity of information provided by communicators of climate science can be greatly enhanced by understanding the wordview of the audience in question, and framing messaging accordingly.


In this article we have demonstrated that, time and again, rational deliberation about climate change is frequently overridden by faster, more intuitive processes based on associations, emotions, and rules of thumb. These processes include the use of heuristic versions of calculation-based decisions to reduce processing load, which can make climate change judgments responsive to situational factors in the immediate decision context. The local warming effect serves as a powerful illustration of this phenomenon. Because people’s attitudes toward climate change are so malleable, systematic biases can have a powerful influence on climate change judgments. Throughout this article we have highlighted the ways that these different systematic biases can serve as barriers to pro-environmental action. These biases include, but are certainly not limited to, cognitive myopia, framing and labeling effects, the status quo bias, social comparison processes, and moral intuitions. At the same time, we have discussed strategies from the decision sciences that can reduce the risk of biased judgments and increase the opportunities for pro-environmental action.

Bias in judgments relating to environmental issues is a common but not insurmountable human problem. We have noted that one important direction for improving environmental decisions may involve changing the decision context in ways that account for decision bias and promote more adaptive behavior as a result. We also believe that behavioral strategies should complement, and not be used as a substitute for, other types of economic incentives or mandates. Promoting behavioral change will be most effective when it is consistent with and supported by clear government policies.

Fortunately, there is a growing international consensus recognizing that non-rational judgment and choice processes play a substantial role in how people make decisions relating to climate change, as evinced by the most recent IPCC Fifth Assessment report (Pachauri et al., 2014). A greater appreciation and understanding of these psychological biases will be critical to improving the way we communicate the issue of climate change and encourage the behaviors required to mitigate its effects. Gaining public support for addressing climate change will depend on a clear understanding of how people process information and what psychological biases motivate or inhibit environmentally responsible behavior. As long as global climate change remains clouded in uncertainty, individuals may continue to rely on simplifying heuristics that lead to biased judgments. The communication of climate change uncertainty may be improved by greater knowledge of how uncertainty influences climate-related decisions. Psychological biases and barriers may prevent effective reasoning on the highly complex and contentious issue of climate change, but a greater understanding of these processes may help provide the means to promote effective routes forward.

At the same time, it is important to also make use of what is already known in order to develop effective strategies to improve communication efforts as well as motivate behaviors that will have a lasting impact. A concerted and integrated effort should be made by researchers, policymakers, and businesses to translate insights from the behavioral sciences into scaled interventions, moving from the laboratory to field research to practice. Research based on behavioral science principles is needed to collect evidence on what actually works in real-world, context-rich decision environments. This work could generate practical insights to increase the toolkit of potential strategies that can reduce the risk of biased judgments and increase the opportunities for sustainable behaviors. Such an effort would yield high returns, for although developing basic theory and understanding underlying psychological barriers and biases are critical to advancing knowledge, such knowledge must be applied and scaled to large consumer populations to bring desired results.


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