05/27/2014 05:54 pm ET

Can Appealing To Stone Age Brains Help Save The Environment?

1. Two Toyota dealers six miles apart each take delivery of twelve new Prius hybrids. Despite U.S. tax credits for new buyers, both dealers are experiencing sluggish sales.

Dealer A decides to shake things up by slashing his prices.
Dealer B responds by increasing his.

Problem: Who sells more Prius hybrids, A or B?

Along with the ever-growing body of overwhelming evidence that climate change is both real and human-driven is another growing body of evidence that seeks to explain why scientists’ warnings are falling on increasingly deaf ears.

Apart from the usual suspects – apathy, mistrust, misinformation, politics and resignation, researchers are zeroing in on a more organic source of climate change denial: that of our own Stone Age brains.

Behaviors that enhanced our ancestors’ odds of survival don’t always fit seamlessly into today’s world. As California State University San Marcos psychology professor P. Wesley Schultz points out, while the environment in which our distant relatives evolved has changed drastically in the 11,000 years since the agricultural revolution, that time span represents less than 1 percent of human evolutionary history.

That intersection – where a rapidly changing environment meets our slowly evolving brains – marks the spot where the mismatch occurs.

Call it nature versus human nature, a mash-up of the Mesolithic and the modern.

Things aren’t always as they seem in this Darwinian twilight zone, where our ancestors’ richly decorated spears take the form of our hybrid Toyotas, and their genetic self-interest becomes our gluttony.

Seen through the filter of evolution, climate change denial looks less like a deliberate mass planting of heads in the sand than a series of unfortunate marketing mistakes in which policymakers fail to take into account hardwired human traits.

Schultz, a social psychologist, is among the experts studying Stone Age biases and environmental behavior. He identifies them as self-interest, shortsightedness, status, social imitation and sensing. By understanding the adaptive value along with their innate influence on modern behavior, Schultz believes these biases can be harnessed to develop more effective environmental strategies.

Evolutionary motives tend to travel under our radar, influencing our behavior in automatic, unconscious ways. As a result, the reasons we give for the choices we make can be quite different from the biases that ultimately guide us.

The same guy who says he’s buying a Prius because it’s good for the environment may actually be buying the modern equivalent of the flashy spear, both status symbols of conspicuous consumption. In their book, The Rational Animal, Douglas Kendrick and Vladas Griskevicius go so far as to call the Prius “a mobile billboard advertising the owners’ environmental concern.”

Higher status, now as then, conveys greater respect and less physiological stress, along with the corner office and the reserved parking space. As such, its trappings should be out of reach for average person.

“Making green products cheaper and easier to buy undermines their value as a signal of environmental concern,” Schultz says.

And that’s why Toyota dealer B, who raises his prices, sells more Prius hybrids than dealer A.

2. Two sets of visitors to the Petrified Forest National Park encounter two sets of signs urging them to refrain from pocketing as souvenirs the small pieces of petrified wood strewn about the grounds.

Visitors in Group A view signs that show a red circle and slash through a picture of a lone visitor picking up a piece of the wood. “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park,” the signs read.
Visitors in Group B encounter signs showing pictures of multiple visitors taking the wood. These signs say, “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest.”

Problem: Which group swipes the most wood, A or B?

In addition to being the sincerest form of flattery, imitation is also an adaptive trait. In terms of evolution, copying others is where it’s at because the cost of individual learning is high and conformity leads, more often than not, to acceptance. Peer pressure, in other words.

But just as following the crowd can lead to the nearest exit in a crowded train station, it can also lead to trouble. (Peer pressure again.) “We want to do the right thing,” Schultz says, “but if the majority is doing the wrong thing, that tends to go by the board.”

The tendency to copy those around us is so ingrained that people who answer a test question correctly alone will knowingly give the wrong answer when joined by a group who all give the same incorrect answer.

Studies have shown we’re more apt to litter in an already littered alleyway. (The smell of cleaning products can correct this, as can a sticker or sign featuring a pair of eyes, a reminder to consider our reputations.)

Along the same lines, we’re more apt to ignore signs in a nature area asking that we stay on the trail when visible paths through the woods indicate others have wandered off of it.

And we’re also more inclined to help ourselves to petrified wood souvenirs if, like group B, we are led to believe that many others have transgressed before us.
In persuading people to behave sustainably, “messages depicting the regrettable frequency of environmentally damaging behavior (e.g., “83 percent of people are not recycling!”) actually promote the damaging behavior,” according to author Griskevicius, a University of Minnesota professor who studies consumer behavior and evolutionary psychology.
Instead, he and others say, messages should normalize pro-environmental behavior by depicting the high perceived prevalence of the desired behavior (e.g., “A million bottles are recycled every day!”)
And because people are more likely to copy those with the physical attributes of our ancestral leaders, healthy, fit men with low voices, masculine features, and an air of authority make the best pitchmen for environmentally friendly products.

3. Family A lives in a suburban split level directly across the street from Family B’s virtually identical house. Both families consist of two adults and two children. Energy audits of both households reveal that family A is using less energy than family B.

Problem: Does family B reduce its energy consumption? Or does family A consume more?

In a society in which “carpe diem” has become a kind of cultural anthem, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that most of us prefer instant gratification to delayed rewards.

In terms of evolution, that’s how we roll, as evidenced by the fact that decisions involving immediate rewards activate primitive brain systems. This reflects the natural selection that maximized early man’s odds of survival.
Placing greater weight on the present than the future “benefited our early nomadic ancestors because they could not save for the future,” says Schultz. “But after the agricultural revolution some 11,000 years ago, this impulsivity was put to the test.”

Unlike hunter-gatherers, farmers have to wait months for their crops to mature. “It’s unclear whether biological evolution has altered our immediate reward psychology sufficiently in the 400-plus generations since,” Schultz says.

What is clear is that our discounting of the future plays a strong supporting role in many of our environmental problems, and our collective sense of optimism – another evolved trait – prompts us to underestimate their severity.

While we have “the capacity for tremendous amounts of self-sacrifice,” as evidenced by the heroic behavior seen in times of war or natural disasters, that hasn’t happened with climate change. Schultz cites the insidious nature of environmental problems, the lack of a specific event to rally around, and a lack of consensus on what’s to be done about it among the reasons.

“If we could all see or otherwise personally detect carbon levels rising, reactions to climate change likely would be very different,” note Cynthia M. Frantz and F. Stephan Mayer, psychology professors at Oberlin College.

But we have evolved to disregard problems we’re unable to detect with our senses.

Our ancestors “were mainly concerned with their immediate band, immediate dangers, exploitable resources and the present time,” Robert Gifford, a psychology professor at the University of Victoria, writes.

“None of those are naturally consistent with being concerned, in the 21st century, about global climate change, which is slow, usually distant, and unrelated to the present welfare of ourselves and our significant others.”

Our tendency to put our own self-interest above that of the group “is rooted deep in human nature,” Schultz says. That’s because natural selection cares less about survival of the species than survival of the individual, and therefore, favors the genes of those who can gain an advantage.

We are quick to respond to perceived inequities, using them to justify not cooperating. That may explain why some voluntary conservation methods fail.

A case in point: a campaign to persuade households in the U.K. to use less water during a shortage. Rather than cut back, households increased their water use, for fear that the well would run dry. That same impulse also accounts for family B’s increase in energy use to more closely parallel that of neighboring family A.

As the research continues and the evidence mounts, the search is on for new ways to present information on environmental problems that takes into account these and other Stone Age biases that may be contributing to our inaction on climate change.

On the plus side, Schultz says, “We’re still here. That’s a credit to a thousand generations of our ancestors. We’re successful. We’re surviving. We’re reproducing. The tendencies we have inherited work.”

Can we learn to harness them in order to safeguard the planet for the next thousand generations?

Schultz says yes. “We’re teachable,” he says. “But we have to use our newer brain.”