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Most of us, most of the time operate on "rules of thumb" - mental shortcuts that simplify complex decision-making processes.

These shortcuts are necessary in daily living because our brains have a limited energy supply and rational thinking is a high-energy, time-consuming process.

The brain runs on about 40 watts of power (a lightbulb!)

Greg Berns, Iconoclast

The idea that human beings take all relevant information into account all the time - making their decisions thoughtfully and rationally - is a piece of 20th century marketing fiction.

Over millennia, the human brain has evolved to rely on quick decision-making tools in a fast-moving and uncertain world and in many contexts those heuristics lead us to make better decisions than exact calculations would do.

Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics

But our heuristics aren't ALWAYS helpful - and they can often get a) dated OR b) over-ridden by our unconscious biases.

Anxiety rules

Combine this limited energy supply with millenia of evolution as tribal hunter-gatherers - being hunted ourselves by bigger, more dangerous predators - and it's not surprising that we act first, automatically avoid "risk"- and think later.

Part of our biological inheritance is a pre-disposition towards anxiety and risk aversion - because those of us who worried that the rustle in the long grass was a sabertooth tiger lived longer.

So, by default, we worry far more about what we could lose today than what we might enjoy or suffer tomorrow. Our decision-making is NOT always logical - just count the smokers gathered outside any hospital.

Future existential threat does NOT change human behaviour!

Paul Hawken, founder of Project Drawdown

Social factors loom large

There are 6 social heuristics that influence our behaviour, according to psychologist and bestselling author Robert Cialdini. They happen automatically and can strongly influence

  1. Reciprocity - if someone gives us something, we are wired to give them something back.
  2. Scarcity - if something becomes less available, we want it more.
  3. Authority - we listen to people who we believe have credible experience and knowledge.
  4. Consistent - we like to be consistent with things we have previously said or done.
  5. Liking - we say yes to people we like, who are like us, and who have similar aspirations to us.
  6. Consensus - we are more likely to do what other people have previously done, and use other peoples' action as our guide.

(See an introductory video on Cialdini's influencing principles here)

How something's framed changes how we respond to it

Any time we face a complex problem, our response is heavily influenced by what's happened in the lead up to our response.

This is another piece of wisdom from Robert Cialdini, explained in his recent book Pre-suasion.

Extensive research has demonstrated that the "frame" that you create before you put your case, request or offer is probably MORE important than what you actually pitch. (Video summary here.)

Pre-suasion provides a wealth of insight. One that's particularly useful is:

What's focal is perceived as causal.

Robert Cialdini, Pre-suasion

If every message you're presented with on global warming bemoans the lack of government action then guess what? Despite the evidence of:

  • The smartphone in your pocket or purse (delivered by tech entrepreneurs)
  • The social platforms you're reading this on (delivered by tech entrepreneurs)
  • The cars outside your house (first delivered to the masses by industrial entrepreneur Henry Ford).

The chances are you're never going to think through issues like:

  • It's mostly industry that build and deliver the products and services we use every day
  • Our industrial design is based on degenerative 1-way mindsets.
  • Disruptive industrial innovation at scale is generally delivered by radical business entrepreneurs.

Framing is powerful - and can be compellingly mis-directing. (If you don't know about it, you're probably being trapped by it.)

Humans are powerfully, unconsciously influenced by our heuristics and HOW something is communicated

That's the current human operating system.

It's probably less than ideal for our complex, post-industrial operating environment.

We probably don't have time to do some miracle upgrade.

AND we want a better future - a cleaner, smarter, fairer safer future.

So how do we work better with what we've got?

How could you capitalise on what we now know about human neuroeconomics, heuristics, framing and cognition?

How could you work smarter in reversing the urgent environmental and social issues that degenerative 20th century systems have created?

Where could YOUR heuristics be leading you astray?

Firstly, how will you apply this awareness to check whether your own heuristics are working for you?

  • Has "what's focal is causal" caused you to believe that government action is the fundamental, necessary solution for reversing global warming?
  • Has fear of looking gullible contributed to limiting your action?
  • Are assumptions about "rational human behaviour" limiting your persuasive capacity?

How could YOU be a smarter influencer by leveraging the heuristics of those around you?

If you want climate action, a regenerative "Doughnut" economy and fairer society then what are you prepared to learn to do differently?

What could you apply from what we know about perception and influencing to get more action with less effort, frustration and despair?

(Is it ethical? Ethics is about HOW you do what you do and HOW you align your actions with your values. Any powerful tool can be used or abused. What you can be absolutely sure of is that you're surrounded by human beings - who operate heuristically. So someone's heuristics - intentional or not - are always at play.)

Sources and resources

This ABC Hot Mess Podcast on Human Frailties is an interesting discussion with an Australian perspective.

Andrew O’Keeffe’s book Hardwired Humans could be an useful introduction to help you think about human wiring in the corporate world.

George Marshall's climate-specific book Don't Even Think About It is issue-specific analysis of why engaging on global warming is such a challenge.

I keep a list of some of the other tools, insights and understandings I find powerful here.

For millennia, people lived relatively short lives in small groups, learned from quick feedback (put your hand in the fire: it gets burned) and had little impact on their wider surroundings.
Hence our brains evolved to cope with the near, the short term and the responsive, while expecting incremental, linear change.

Raworth, Kate. Doughnut Economics (p. 112). Random House. Kindle Edition.

Putting our own needs for comfort, prestige and connection ahead of social and ecosystem well-being isn't something unique to Industrial Era humanity. We've probably been doing it since we moved into cities and away from the evidence of our impact.

Pliny the Elder was complaining about destruction in the 1st century AD - a time when Romans pillaged shellfish beds to dye their clothes and "barbarian" communities to provide the slaves to build their cities.

If it's important, embed it

When city buildings decided to get serious about water and energy conservation, they embedded in their buildings. They installed automatic doors and created airlocks. To conserve energy and water, they built in automated lighting and taps - controlled by sensors.

Long term sustainability isn't primarily going to be delivered by regulation and consumer frugality! (That will help - but the endgame is an intentional economy designed to regenerate ecosystems and communities - not "willpower".)

It's going to be delivered by regenerative design and systems upgrades. It's going to be delivered by Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation and Circular Economy supply chains and Doughnut Economics.

It's going to be delivered by biomimetic production techniques where renewable products are made at room temperature using renewable materials and renewable energy.

It's going to be delivered by a regenerative economy that operates WITHIN its planetary boundaries.

The Embedded Economy. Graphic by Kate Raworth and Marcia Mihotich
The Embedded Economy. Graphic by Kate Raworth and Marcia Mihotich

Sustainability is an engineering opportunity, not a consumption problem

"Engineers can't NOT solve problems - it's in our nature"

Kathleen Davies, Ekkremon.com.au

The world's best and brightest innovators, biologists, engineers, architects, yachters and chemists have been busy for decades on smarter, cleaner, safer systems.

Radical industrialists have been turning their concepts into proven, profitable products and (increasingly) services.

Real sustainability will be the result of systems that are more than "sustainable" - systems that are actively regenerative.

We know how to do it today - and the world's innovative businesses are working on it.

Where to look for solutions?

The Natural Step first defined an industrial system that would respect the ecosystems. In a sustainable society, nature is NOT subject to:

  1. concentrations of substances from the earth’s crust (such as fossil CO2, heavy metals and minerals)
  2. concentrations of substances produced by society (such as antibiotics and endocrine disruptors)
  3. degradation by physical means (such as deforestation and draining of groundwater tables)
  4. and in that society there are no structural obstacles to people’s health, influence, competence, impartiality and meaning.
    Source: The Natural Step Approach

Principles for products, services and businesses that regenerate by design were further described in Natural Capitalism in 1999:

  1. Radical resource productivity (Translation: use 10 times less, at least)
  2. Biomimicry (Translation: Nature is smart, let’s copy it)
  3. Service and flow economy (Translation: Sell the ends, not the means)
  4. Invest in natural capital (Translation: Treat the environment as a source of wealth).
    Source: Have you always mean to read Natural Capitalism?

Doughnut Economics integrates economics, design and systems, using 7 strategies:

  1. Change the goal - from GDP growth the finding the sweet spot.
  2. Seeing the big picture - business within communities and ecosystems.
  3. Nurture human nature - social adaptive humans, not rational economic units.
  4. Get savvy with systems - understand and leverage dynamic complexity.
  5. Design to distribute - distribute well-being by design in a generous economy.
  6. Create to regenerate - design systems that regenerate rather than endlessly grow.
  7. Be agnostic about growth - break the addiction to "yes" or "no".
    Source: Doughnut Economics

"A bad system will beat a good person every time."

W. Edwards Deming, pioneer of continuous improvement

One of the reasons that our Inconvenient Species is so slow to respond to global warming has to do with the power of the systems we live and work within.

20th century thinking about human behaviour considered individuals as rational, consistent and relatively unchanging.

21st century thinking acknowledges that - overall - humans are heavily social creatures evolved to operate in groups.

Most of us, most of the time want to look good and not look bad - because we experience rejection in the pain centres of our brains.

(Myers-Briggs suggests at least 75% and Diffusion of Innovation suggests 85%)

This isn't just a hypothesis - it has been backed up by substantial and substantive neuropsychology research.

It also isn't "conniving" or "cowardly" - the physiology of our perception in group situations is neurologically wired to peer behaviour.

Outside of the research lab, this need further backed up by investigations into institutional abuse of children, the disabled and the elderly.

As Kate Raworth wrote recently in The Doughnut Economy, humans are more like octopus, with their behaviours and opinions changing to match their social settings.

It's not the WHOLE human race

Thanks to our neurodiversity we have a sprinkling of "under/non/anti social" individuals in our species - enough to see the world differently and design new solutions.

We have always had weirdos exploring "the whichness of the why" - from the flinty innovators who chipped the first stone spearheads to the 19th century's top-hatted balloon pioneers and to the 21st century's first biomimicry practitioners.

But while they can be world-changers, they are in the minority. Most of the people, most of the time, are heavily influenced by their immediate social contexts.

The implications for climate and environmental campaigners

Einstein is said to have defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and expecting different results".

What do you do differently when you know that the majority of the human race meets their social needs FIRST most of the time?

Create a context, not just a message

In updating his initial work on influencing, Cialdini added a 7th principle of persuasion - Unity.

What creates most influence for the most people is being a tribe member.

"Sending out a message" isn't enough.

Be careful about how you use blame and guilt

Overall, blame and guilt do great harm - they create resistance and denial in their targets as well as victim-hood in their user.

All too often, we aim them at the person in front of us - NOT the person in power.

Remeber how, in the early days of COVID-19, retail workers were attacked for situations totally outside their control?

Don't over-focus on "broad agreement"

Use the insights of Diffusion of Innovation - and especially of Crossing The Chasm

Aim to win over a powerful, innovative member of the Early Majority - then let their testimony work for you. A (gradually) increasing number of campaigners know the names "Ray Anderson" and "Interface" - but few have heard of Jim Hartzfeld.

Identify a need that is immediate and pressing. Find the most sustainable solution. Deliver your solution to that niche.

Work on the system, not the behaviours

You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

 - Richard Buckminster Fuller

Start with the hypothesis that "the system is broken". Then you can work to understand and change the system.

Way too many environmental campaigns have been all about symptoms. It's understandable, human - and horrendously incomplete.

Yes, if someone is bleeding to death you apply a tourniquet. But then you look deeper. Bandaging a compound fracture without setting the bones and cleaning the wound is a recipe for gangrene, amputation and death.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it

Skill up in Systems Thinking and Human Behaviour - and apply them to delivering new systems that make the old ones obsolete.

Some starting points that I like are:

  • Stroh's handbook Systems Thinking and Social Change
  • Cialdini's Pre-Suasion on the science of influencing
  • Raworth's Doughnut Economics for a discussion of 21st century system requirements

"...as human beings, we all are susceptible to a wide array of routine biases that can lead to an equally wide array of embarrassing blunders in education, personal finance, health care, mortgages and credit cards, happiness, and even the planet itself".  NUDGE, 2008. Richard Thaler with Cass Sunstein

Richard Thaler's 2017 Nobel Prize for Economics "nudged" me into finally reading the New York Times Bestseller NUDGE on the illogical nature of many default human behaviours.

Nudge - Richard Thaler

Thaler proposes that those of us interested in changing human behaviour and systems should learn how to re-engineer them so that it's easier to make good choices - a process he call "Choice Engineering".

Many of our choices are engineered

Supermarket designers apply choice engineering all the time, from putting chocolates at the checkout to displaying high-margin items at eye-level while budget brands languish at floor level.

Subscriptions that automatically renew and using a habitual parking space at work are other examples of automatic behaviours that we simply repeat without conscious consideration.

We're humans, not "econs"

Traditional economics regarded humans as logical decision-makers, who make the best possible decision on the information they have available.
A more up-to-date understanding of human perception, human decision-making and human emotions is that we are busy people struggling to cope in a complex world - a world in which our brains cannot afford the energy to think deeply about every choice we have to make.

For example:

  • We operate on rules of thumb, using what we know to estimate what we don't know.  In a bargaining situation, the setting of a high initial price sets a scale for the end price.
  • We assess risks on the information that's most available and most recent, not on the actual level of danger.   Flood insurance gets a boost just after a flood - but that drops over time.
  • We hate losses more than we love gains.  So an operation that has a "90% success rate" sounds a whole lot better than one that has a "10% failure rate".
  • We're generally over optimistic about our capabilities. Most of us think that we're "better than average drivers" - regardless that "average" is a statistical measure.
  • We find it easier to stay with the status quo than make a change.  Which is why automatic subscriptions work - and an automated savings plan works better than one that requires an active decision each month.

Choice engineering for a sustainable future

Thaler's books offer examples of systems changes that can ethically nudge people in the direction of choices that will improve their lives.

For anyone interested in sustainability, it's worth asking how we can ethically nudge people toward better environmental and social choices:

  • "What are the choices that we could engineer to increase sustainability?"
  • "Where are there powerful targets for choice engineering?"

In one NUDGE example, food waste in canteens was reduced simply by removing trays - so people were limited to what they could carry on a plate.

In a recent UK trial, initial studies indicate that buyer behaviour is changed more when a small extra fee is charged for a disposable coffee cup than when a discount is offered for BYO mug. (Loss avoidance trumps benefit.)

Recycling rates are substantially improved by matching the shape of lid of the recycling bin to what's being recycled, such as small circles for cans and bottles, slits for paper.

What would nudge global warming solutions forward?

Project Drawdown published the first ever research into reversing global warming and shifting to an economy that consumes greenhouse gases using current technology in April 2017.

How could we engineer better choices that shift us towards more beneficial Drawdown actions?  What would contribute to better refrigerant gas management, reduced food waste, educating girls, the take-up of silvopasture or eating more vegetables?

WIIFM - or would WAIMOO be more powerful?

If economic decisions were rational, the financial benefits of being sustainable (such as Interface's $393,000,000 savings) would have started a major industry shift to a regenerative economy decades ago.

Maybe it's time to try:

WHAT
AM
I
MISSING
OUT
ON    (W.A.I.M.O.O) instead ?

After all, there are savings of $74 trillion over 30 years identified by Project Drawdown and private sector opportunities of $12 trillion estimated from delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals.  But "look at the opportunity" could be less powerful that "what are you losing in 'status quo' thinking?"

Resources

Read Nudging: A Very Short Guide for a quick introduction to the subject.

Watch Thaler speaking on the subject here:  Richard Thaler on Behavioral Economics: Past, Present and Future