In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Elke Weber, a social psychology professor at Princeton University who studies how people make choices. Weber and Raimi discuss how people’s choices matter for climate change; the ways that companies, governments, and society shape decisions on energy use and civic engagement; how those decisions get incorporated into policy analysis; and more.
Listen to the Podcast
- Uncertainty is a central feature of climate change: “You can actually study really fundamental issues in decisionmaking in this area because climate change in many ways is a perfect storm. It has so much uncertainty related to what’s going to happen in the future. You won’t find out whether the decision you made right now is correct or not until sometimes years later. It has collective-action issues. And it’s so important that we understand how we deal with all of these obstacles to making wise decisions, because the existence of our species on this planet depends on it.” (4:51)
- Make desired behavior the easy choice: “Why not give people, as a default, the option that the vast majority would prefer to have—rather than having the minority choice be the default and taking everybody’s time and effort to get out of it?” (15:23)
- Important to include uncertainty in our forecasts: “A lot of the uncertainty in the existing forecast methods has to do with the climate system—how sensitive the climate system is to certain kinds of actions like increasing the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But it turns out that the uncertainty we have about final results, like in terms of global warming down the road, is just as much related to our uncertainty about the human response as it is to uncertainty about the climate system response.” (21:07)
Top of the Stack
- Project Drawdown
- Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming edited by Paul Hawken
- Elements of Choice: Why the Way We Decide Matters by Eric Johnson
- All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Daniel Raimi. Today, we talk with Dr. Elke Weber, the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment, Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs, and Associate Director for Education for the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University. Elke is a social psychologist who studies how people make choices.
In today’s episode, I’ll ask her how those choices matter for climate change. We’ll talk about the ways that companies, governments, and society shape decisions on energy use and civic engagement, how those decisions get incorporated into the tools used for policy analysis, and much more. Stay with us.
Daniel Raimi: All right. Elke Weber from Princeton University, welcome to Resources Radio.
Elke Weber: Thank you so much, Daniel.
Daniel Raimi: Elke, you work on a wide variety of issues, and you have worked on a wide variety of issues over your career. In recent years, you’ve done a lot of work on environmental issues. I’m curious what attracted you to working on those issues, either at a young age, or perhaps later in life, as you’ve turned to this focus in your career?
Elke Weber: Thanks. Yeah, in my case, it was somewhat later in life. I’ve long worked on how people make decisions—decisions that involve uncertainty and where it takes a while, oftentimes, to show whether the decision you just made turns out to be good or bad. The decisions I studied initially in that category were choices about how much to save for your retirement, or how much to exercise, and how to eat currently for future health benefits and for longevity.
Then, when I took my first academic job at the University of Illinois, the provost asked me to organize a campus-wide faculty group of people who studied such decisions from different disciplinary perspectives, like the economists, the psychologists, the people in the law school, the people in the business school.
That group actually included some agricultural economists, and they had just written a proposal to the National Science Foundation to study to what extent farmers in east-central Illinois knew about climate change. This was in 1988 or ’87, a long time ago. We had just heard in Congress about climate change for the first time. So, this was early on in the game.
They wanted to understand to what extent farmers were aware of the possibility of climate change and how they changed their farming practices. NSF, the National Science Foundation said, “This is great. It’s a great proposal, but you’re going to go and ask farmers about their behavior. You economists, you know nothing about how to ask questions of real people. Get yourself a psychologist on the team.” Because they knew me from this faculty group, they came to me and asked me to join, and the rest is history.
I joined that group. We had a really interesting study—a real field study. We found out that about half the farmers knew about climate change and actually believed that it was a real thing. The other ones might have heard about it, but they thought it was basically not a real thing—just hype. And we found out that these different groups did different things. So, people who thought it was an issue did something about it, either in terms of their farming practices, starting to irrigate more or using different types of corn seeds or doing political things, or basically diversifying their financial responses. But no group did all three of those things.
So we had lots of interesting insights, but the bottom line is people started to know that I, as a psychologist, was interested in this applied issue. And there aren’t that many psychologists who are studying applied issues in the field. My colleague, Baruch Fischhoff at Carnegie Mellon, was one of those people—one of the few exceptions. And he at the time was being asked by too many committees, by the National Academy of Sciences or other groups that were studying climate change awareness and action, to join them. He couldn’t possibly do it all, so when he heard that I was doing it as well, he would recommend me to whatever group he couldn’t make it to. I was a poor substitute for my much more senior colleague Baruch Fischhoff.
By virtue of going to these groups and interacting with climate scientists and economists and meteorologists, I really got a crash course on the huge looming importance of the issue. And since then, I really have shifted much of my research, at this point almost everything, to investigating basic science questions related to climate decisionmaking. And you can actually study really fundamental issues in decisionmaking in this area because climate change in many ways is a perfect storm. It has so much uncertainty related to what’s going to happen in the future.
You won’t find out whether the decision you made right now is correct or not until sometimes years later. It has collective-action issues. And it’s so important that we understand how we deal with all of these obstacles to making wise decisions, because the existence of our species on this planet depends on it. And it is a perfect scientific test bed. So that’s why I am where I am.
Daniel Raimi: Wow. That’s such fascinating history. It would’ve been fun to be out there literally in the field with you when you were speaking with those farmers a couple decades ago.
So, we’ve talked a lot on the show about public policies that are designed to address climate change. We talk a lot with economists, but we haven’t spoken much about the role that individual choices play in the absence of climate policy, or maybe as a complement to climate policy. What are some examples that come to your mind of behavioral interventions that have the potential to play a large role when it comes to addressing climate change?
Elke Weber: You actually just asked several important, but also quite different, questions. Let me unpack it a little bit.
I think the first question you pose is, What can people do? And as you say, in the absence, oftentimes, of policy on climate change, and when it comes to people, we are both citizens and consumers. And as citizens, we can hold our policymakers responsible to do what we elect them to do; namely, to responsibly do our long-term strategic planning for us. And citizen action groups, oftentimes actually started by young people who have much longer lives ahead of them, like Fridays for Future or Extinction Rebellion, do precisely that. They hold our policymakers responsible. And there are data from Northern Europe and also from my lab in the United States that show that voters with much greater frequency will vote for candidates willing to embrace climate action as we experience greater intensity of extreme heat in our congressional districts. So, the more likely it is that you actually see climate change being present in the here and now, the more likely it is you will hold your elected officials responsible for doing something about it. And not just climate heating, but also weird weather and greater hurricanes, extreme weather events in general, I think, will make people more aware of the issue and more likely to put pressure on the elected officials. But as I said, we’re not just citizens. We also are consumers, and there are a good number of impactful things we actually can do as consumers. Organizations like Project Drawdown are rare. A lot of NGOs have been telling us what these are.
So, we can reduce our food waste, we can cut down on our red meat consumption, we can use public transit when it’s available, we can invest in energy-efficient and sustainable lighting or heating and cooling technology. All of these actions are really high on that list and oftentimes quite accessible in terms of alternative options to what we currently are doing.
Now, the second question that you asked came up when you talked about behavioral interventions. And so that question, in some sense is, Are there tools that public officials or private companies or anybody can use to help us make decisions with which we will be happy in the long run? And that help us maybe overcome obstacles to making wise decisions related to the environment that might result from our desire for immediate satisfaction or from our aversion to change and the resulting status quo buyers that we see in so many areas? The short answer to that second question–Are there tools, are there behavioral interventions that help?–the short answer is yes.
Those interventions have been researched extensively for the last 50 years or so, oftentimes under the label of “choice architecture.” And so, just like physical architecture shapes how we act in a building–if you want people to take the stairs, you don’t hide the stairs in the back and make the elevator beautiful, but you put a beautiful sweeping staircase in the front of the building in marble, and you hide the elevators–so, just as physical architecture shapes how we act, the way decisions are designed for us or by us actually influences how we decide. So, that includes such elements as which option is presented first when they’re presented sequentially; whether there is a default option that will be in place if you don’t decide otherwise and what that default is; how many options are presented; how the options are described, and are they described in a more analytic way with numbers and figures or by images; and whether this description and the physical and the social context of the decision elicit emotions like guilt or pride, or deal with social norms, or basically induce us to do calculations. All of these factors that go under choice architecture make a sizable difference in how we make decisions and oftentimes help us overcome more short-term obstacles.
Daniel Raimi: Right. That’s great. And are there specific examples that come to mind, where this type of choice architecture has been employed in the real world and where it’s resulted in a meaningful difference?
Elke Weber: Absolutely. And let’s maybe just take two examples from the list of interventions I just gave you. Maybe we can start with social norms. Is there something in the decision that elicits how other people typically make these decisions and what they decide, or whether the other people want us to make decisions in a certain way?
A while back, a group of social psychologists actually experimented with providing electric utility customers with feedback on their monthly bills. We all get these bills, sometimes by mail, sometimes now electronically by email, but they’re telling us how many kilowatt-hours we used—and that’s a pretty meaningless number for most of us, unless we’re engineers. But what they did is they basically added some description about how your use of electricity compared to other people’s in your neighborhood in similar circumstances, with a similar house of a certain size, and so on. And they were showing you were higher than average or lower than average, and how much higher and lower than average.
Psychologists would call that a “descriptive norm.” This basically was saying, others actually can do with more electricity or others can do with less electricity than you. And they found out that actually did decrease people’s use of electricity, because they were trying to basically bring their usage down to what others were experiencing. But it turned out that those people who were using less electricity than the average actually sometimes increased the use to be more in line with everybody else. And so, what the psychologists then added was like a little icon at the end. It had a smiley face when you were doing better than average or had a little frowny face when you were doing worse than average, and it turns out you can think about these smiley and frowny faces as norms that are telling you what’s desirable.
So, it’s desirable to use less electricity. It’s not desirable to use more electricity. And now, having these other kinds of norms in place actually prevented people who were using less to actually increase their use. Turns out the psychologists turned their intervention into a company called Fullpower. It went public a few years ago to the tune of a billion dollars. It’s now providing utility companies around the world with this billing expertise, and it has been estimated to save between 2 and 7 percent of electricity usage by just adding this very basic information to the monthly bill.
Daniel Raimi: That’s fascinating. Was there another example that you wanted to give?
Elke Weber: Yeah, I can give you a second example. And let’s maybe look at how defaults have been used or could be used to encourage energy reductions or more responsible energy use. To remind us, a default is when you’re telling somebody a certain option will be in place, unless you decide otherwise. And so, when it comes to using green electricity—switching from your provider, from brown electricity that’s a mix of coal and gas and other sources, to an optimal combination of green electricity in your district—when you ask Americans across the political spectrum, Are you in favor of using green electricity to the extent that we can? The vast majority says yes. Something like 80 to 90 percent, across Democrats, Republicans—we all like green electricity.
In other words, when you try to switch from your typical provider to a green provider, it’s not a simple process. It takes 20 minutes to half an hour, because the default is that you get brown electricity unless you decide otherwise, and that takes a lot of effort, and the websites are not always very helpful. So why not switch the default to green electricity? You get a letter in the mail and the letter will say, “Unless you decide otherwise, from next month on, we’re going to switch you to green electricity. It’s going to cost you a little bit more, but it’s worth it for the environment.” Or any other kind of message.
When people have tried to do this—and utilities have tried to do this—they find, first of all, not surprisingly, that the next month, almost everybody will stick to green electricity. It’s a given default because most people probably just didn’t even look at the letter they got in the mail. But even when they find out that now it’s costing them maybe 5 to 10 percent more on their electricity bill, and they see they’ve been switched to green electricity, because they actually endorse that, they stay with that choice option. So why not give people as a default the option that the vast majority would prefer to have, rather than having the minority choice be the default and taking everybody’s time and effort to get out of it?
Daniel Raimi: Right. That’s so interesting. I could ask you so many questions about these types of behavioral nudges and their examples in the real world, but I’d like to change the subject now to a related topic, which is modeling.
There are all sorts of modeling tools that policy analysts use to analyze the potential effects of energy or climate policies, or all sorts of other policies as well. And oftentimes in those models, people are assumed to act as economically rational actors, like a Homo economicus, rather than how we actually act, which is as Homo sapiens, and not always making the most “rational” decision.
So, to what extent have the behavioral insights that you study been incorporated into the types of modeling tools that analysts use to examine the potential long-term implications of energy and climate policies? I know that’s a big question, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
Elke Weber: It is indeed a big question. Let me elaborate first a little bit on your first statement, that people are not fully rational. I completely agree with that, but I also would argue that’s not necessarily a bad thing. People are not fully rational, but in fact, we come with a far richer set of goals and a far broader way of processing information than Homo economicus. So, do we care about our own self-interest? Yes, we do. But we also do care about other people. We do care about the future of humankind on our planet. And on top of making rational, calculation-based decisions, cost-benefit decisions that are appropriately discounted and so on, and treating probabilities accurately, we oftentimes make decisions based on our feelings.
We do things out of guilt or fear. We do things out of pride—pride in being part of a solution. And oftentimes we also basically follow basic rules of conduct. We talked a little bit about social norms. We imitate what other people are doing, people who we trust and respect. It’s like a shortcut. It’s a very useful shortcut. Or we do things we think others want us to do, or we follow the Ten Commandments, moral or religious rules of conduct, standard operating procedures in companies, in our professional decisions. All of these different ways of making decisions are actually quite useful in our daily life, so it’s not surprising that we don’t necessarily just calculate cost and benefit when it comes to making decisions related to environmental issues or climate change.
And so now, to your question. How do we incorporate that knowledge that people have a much broader way of making decisions into our forecasting tools? Because as you said, the forecasting tools assume that people are calculating what it will cost them, appropriately discounted and so on. So as soon as a new technology becomes available, and if it’s cheaper, we will switch immediately. Well, we know that people don’t switch to a new technology the minute it becomes cheaper, because we might not be sure that this technology is as safe. There are all sorts of status quo reasons that we decide to delay things. So, how do we incorporate that into our forecasting models?
I think the first realization needs to be that there is knowledge on a broader set of decision processes. Therefore, the forecasting methods that assume that decisions are made just rationally, most likely are inaccurate. They might make the right forecast on average, but maybe there’s a broader confidence interval around it. Or there might actually be some bias, and chances are our current forecast models, about what a change in reduction of prices of solar energy will bring about, are probably too optimistic, because people are not switching immediately. There are all sorts of social and cultural reasons for why we don’t do that. So, it’s interesting that it took 20-some years before these nonrational decision processes were even first mentioned in official publications.
For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which is a mouthful, and that's why people abbreviate it as IPCC)—but the IPCC has been issuing reports since the early 1990s, but it took them until 2014, until the Fifth Assessment Report, before they even mentioned nonrational decision processes, their influence on norms, the influence of emotions. In that assessment report, it came in a chapter on risk management. I was actually a co–lead author on that. And we smuggled it in to make the community aware of that. And people actually have been doing simulations. Researchers have been doing simulations on how forecasts change when we include this broader range of human responses.
Not surprisingly, as I said before, it increases the uncertainty that we have about, for example, how much will global temperatures increase by 2100. There’s a range that goes from two degrees to seven to eight degrees. And a lot of the uncertainty in the existing forecast methods has to do with the climate system—how sensitive the climate system is to certain kinds of actions like increasing the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But it turns out that the uncertainty we have about final results, like in terms of global warming down the road, is just as much related to our uncertainty about the human response as it is to uncertainty about the climate system response. That really suggests that we have to incorporate it.
But it’s not all just bad news—because it does increase the uncertainty, but also because we actually have solutions. We know how to influence people’s behavior. It’s not just all a black box, and we just have to hope for the best. But with the right kind of policies, with the right kind of technological advances, with the right kind of choice architecture, we can actually shape people’s responses to extreme weather events or to changes in the cost of different technologies. These interventions and this greater knowledge about human response can be used not just to have better forecasts, but also to have better ways of influencing in which directions these different branches of the forecast tree will go.
Daniel Raimi: That’s so fascinating. Another question I wanted to ask you, Elke, is about some recent work that has critiqued policy or messaging that focuses on the demand side of the equation—encouraging people to improve their energy efficiency, for example. There have been some studies that have come out recently that take messaging from energy companies, like large oil companies that have encouraged people to be more energy efficient and argued that those messages are disingenuous. The research argues that efforts to frame the climate challenge as one of energy demand inherently reduces the focus on energy supply. So, I’m just curious what you make of these arguments and how you see them fitting in with your work that really does focus on the behavioral and demand side of the equation.
Elke Weber: Great question. It’s absolutely true that fossil fuel companies like Exxon have tried to deflect blame for the climate crisis away from them and onto consumers. For example, the notion that people have a carbon footprint was introduced by BP. Nobody thought about that beforehand, but that does not mean that demand-side action does not matter, that it’s just a deflection and a distraction. It turns out that the demand side and supply side, of course, both matter. It’s not one or the other; it’s all of the above. The IPCC report that just came out this past year—that’s the Sixth Assessment Report. And the report by Working Group III on climate mitigation—it was just released three weeks ago. And it actually has a historic first chapter on demand services and social aspects of mitigation.
Again, for full disclosure, actually, I’m one of the 13 lead authors on that chapter. But that chapter distills research and analysis from thousands of studies—probably close to 2,000 studies. And we find over the last 20, 30 years that there are effective ways of reducing energy demand in every sector of our lives and of our economy, from transportation, to buildings, industry, land use, and so on. And those changes have the potential to reduce demand by between 40 and 70 percent, depending on the sector.
But that requires that individual choice is facilitated and supported by infrastructure, innovation, technology, and policy. And so, does demand reduction matter? Absolutely. But it’s not just something that has to be put on the backs of citizens and ordinary people. It has to be supported by all levels of organizations, by technological and policy change. It’s not so simple, then, to say, “Okay, you guys do it, because governments won’t.”
Daniel Raimi: That’s so interesting. You mentioned technological change, and this is the last question I want to ask you before we go to our Top of the Stack segment. As new technologies emerge, to what extent do you think we’ll be able to take advantage of them to enhance the types of behavioral interventions that we’ve been talking about? For example, meat substitutes–and I’ve been enjoying my Impossible burgers lately–or using virtual meetings instead of taking flights. Can you reflect on how technology might give us more opportunities in the future?
Elke Weber: Absolutely. I think having these new products or new technologies available is a great thing. And in fact, it’s a necessary condition for us to switch away from products like red meat or from commuting by car. If there’s no public transit available, if you have to travel to your conference to participate, and you don’t have Zoom available to do that, we can’t do it. So, I think these innovations are very, very important.
But related to our last point is that they’re not necessarily sufficient. Just because something exists doesn’t mean people will actually use it and switch to it.
In many ways, sometimes COVID has done us a favor by taking certain options off the table. So, we no longer could actually travel to conferences. And yet, professional societies had to continue to exist, and we had to communicate. So, we figured out that we actually could have conferences on Zoom or other technology platforms. And that actually had wonderful consequences. First of all, we had a much broader base of participation. People who couldn’t previously afford to travel halfway around the world—young researchers, people from developing countries—could attend essentially costless. We had broader participation. It reduced transaction costs. I didn’t have to dedicate three days of my life to a conference. I could actually do it in one afternoon.
So, by virtue of experiencing what these new products or new technologies were like, it took away a little bit of the fear of change. And I think that has action implications for how to get people, how to entice people to try something, maybe on a trial basis. But once people have the experience of something that’s new—like you, trying the virtual meat—they might like it, but you might never try it unless somebody offers it to you in a supermarket for free.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. The first time I tried it, I think Burger King was doing lots of advertisements about Impossible burgers. I had not been to a Burger King in quite some time, but I decided to check it out.
Well, Elke Weber from Princeton University, this has been such a fascinating conversation, and there’s so many more questions I could ask you, but since we’re basically out of time, I’d like to ask you the last question we ask all of our guests, which is to recommend something that’s on the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack—something you’ve read or watched or heard that you think our listeners would enjoy.
Elke Weber: Can I give you three?
Daniel Raimi: Please!
Elke Weber: Let’s start with Project Drawdown that I already mentioned earlier. Project Drawdown is always worth spending some time with. You can watch the excellent videos on the website, or you can browse through their bestselling book a while ago in the New York Times bestsellers. It’s a real classic that talks about different solutions that are available to all of us and the people who’ve made those solutions possible.
Number two, Eric Johnson—who actually is my husband, full disclosure—he just published a very accessible and quite entertaining introduction to the topic of choice architecture that we discussed earlier. The book is called Elements of Choice: Why the Way We Decide Matters.
And then number three and lastly, there’s an edited book called All We Can Save by Ayana Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson. It provides a lovely collection of essays and poems that are designed to provide truth, courage, and solutions for the climate crisis, as it says on the title page. These are short contributions and they represent the vital voices of women scientists, women leaders, and women writers, because as the editors say, “To solve everything, we need everyone.”
Daniel Raimi: Those are such great recommendations. And I’m familiar with two out of the three and would second those recommendations. And we’ll have to look into your husband’s book, as well.
So Elke Weber, once again, from Princeton University, thank you so much for coming on Resources Radio. It’s been a fascinating discussion.
Elke Weber: Real pleasure. Thank you for having me.
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