08/20/2014 05:55 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

The Nature of Humans

By Rod Fujita and Nya Van Leuvan, co-founders of Root Solutions

Many of us joined the conservation movement because while studying nature, we fell in love with it. Or maybe we signed up because we loved nature growing up, and deepened our relationship by studying its many mysteries. In either case, it's safe to say that most conservationists know a lot more about why fish, birds and plants do the things they do, than about human behavior.

But it is human behavior that now shapes the destiny of life on earth. For example, even the ocean -- which covers most of the planet -- is heavily impacted by human activity over roughly 40 percent of its surface. Our influence extends even into the most remote regions of the planet.

The conservation movement has made great strides, but there is an urgent need to scale conservation solutions so that they are commensurate with the global scale of environmental impact. We created a new organization, Root Solutions, to help conservationists achieve this scale by applying powerful insights and tools from a variety of scientific disciplines devoted to understanding human motivation and decision-making (collectively called "decision science").

Conservationists struggle, with some success, to slow the degradation of natural ecosystems down -- often by advocating policies that command people to obey rules designed to end or ameliorate destructive activities. Naturally, when such policies are imposed on people who are discharging pollution for free or who wish to make a profit from using natural resources, they result in opposition and often, poor compliance. And when policies command poor people struggling to survive to stay out of a nature preserve or abstain from using the natural resources they depend on for sustenance or livelihood, they can result in even fiercer opposition and even poorer compliance.

How can we craft policies and create contexts that favor environmentally responsible behavior and reduce these kinds of conflicts? We think that a large part of the answer lies in improving our understanding of human behavior, and applying that understanding to the formulation and implementation of conservation strategies and policies.

Of course, each of us understands human behavior to some extent. But because we cannot know with certainty what is going on in other people's heads, we create a mental model of it. These models are essential for our social survival because they allow us to read behavior, infer motivation and predict future behavior. Most of the time, these models serve us well enough: we trust some people, resulting in mutual benefit while distrusting others who seem likely to cheat us; we accurately predict that the driver of that car coming through the intersection will speed up at the yellow light, and so we yield; we know that the store clerk will likely treat us better if we establish a personal connection.

Unfortunately, internal models of behavior, including our own, fail to capture some very important features of human decision making. This often results in poor outcomes. For example, we are prone to buy stocks at high prices because of "market buzz" and the sense that we might "lose out" on an opportunity, but tend to hold onto stocks even as their price plummets because we fear losing our initial investment, even though this is clearly not in our best financial interest. We choose products in part because of their color and position on the shelves, quite unconsciously. We are inclined to do as others do, fail to plan adequately, misjudge odds, choose the default option even when it is not in our interest, pay higher prices if we see a high number first, eat more if the portion or plate size is bigger: the list goes on and on.

And of course, when we try to formalize our mental models of human behavior into mathematical models aimed at predicting economic trends or developing policies, we simplify them even more, making them even more inaccurate. It is not surprising that in general (with some exceptions) mathematical models of behavior are not very good at forecasting, nor that many policies result in perverse, unintended outcomes. For the most part, they do not take into account a number of factors that have very strong impacts on decision-making.

Because the effectiveness of policies and other methods for inducing behavioral change depends so strongly on the degree to which they reflect an accurate understanding of factors shaping human behavior, it is critically important for conservationists -- and indeed, social change activists of every stripe -- to understand what these factors are and use them to develop strategies for change. Many scientific disciplines -- including social psychology, behavioral economics and neuroscience -- are devoted to developing this understanding.

The advertising industry of course has harnessed decision science for decades, as any fan of Mad Men knows, with the goal of increasing consumption (at least Dr. Faye Miller, Sterling Cooper's consulting psychologist, tried to use science despite Don Draper's resistance). Some social change activists have also used an understanding of what motivates behavior to design successful campaigns to win civil rights, reduce teen smoking and change our diets, motivated by the desire for a more just, healthier society.

The conservation movement has also successfully applied some of these principles; for example, findings from behavioral studies on the use of social norms to influence behavior have been applied by some utilities to reduce energy use. Rare Conservation has been remarkably successful in harnessing civic pride, social norms and other behavior change approaches to protect endangered species, conserve forests and establish marine reserves.

However, many insights from decision science have not yet been applied to conservation campaigning, policymaking or the creation of "choice architectures" (social and physical cues that induce certain kinds of behaviors). And very few conservation groups use decision science at all. These insights can be used to create strategies, policies and institutions that favor behaviors that conserve natural systems while producing more social and economic benefits over longer time scales and at far larger scales.

A growing number of scientists are stepping up to this challenge. For example, a recent study suggests that fishermen and SCUBA divers have different degrees of "financial impatience" -- the extent to which one is willing to trade a short term financial gain for a larger long term gain -- and those that are less patient are less willing to support marine protected areas. The study's authors call for policies designed to increase time horizons, such as providing transitional aid to reduce the short-term costs of compliance in order to make the value proposition (larger fishery yields over the long term, in this case) more attractive.

Policies and institutions that enable those who most directly bear the costs of conservation to capture benefits from their conservation behavior, such as catch shares for fisheries, also produce longer planning horizons and incentives for stewardship behavior. A recent study shows that fishing cooperatives that hold catch shares tend to establish marine protected areas and other conservation regulations on their own. Such policies effectively increase the value of a long-term stream of benefits and off-set the costs of short-term sacrifices in yield and profit. They also increase security for stakeholders who often don't hold secure rights to anything. For such marginalized fishermen, farmers, herdsman and others, the increased security and asset value afforded by a catch share should also increase planning horizons and "financial patience", but this is yet to be tested empirically.

We established the new non-governmental organization, Root Solutions, to accelerate the diffusion of insights on the nature of human behavior into the conservation movement. Root Solutions is critically evaluating scientific research on behavior in order to find robust principles that can be applied to every aspect of the complex process of changing the behavior of individuals, groups and institutions to produce better conservation outcomes. Its goal is to mainstream these principles into the conservation movement, so that every conservationist has access to proven tools based on behavioral science. When that happens, the conservation movement will be transformed and scaled, just as other movements have been transformed and scaled by a clear understanding of human motivation.