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August 2018: Changing Norms to Effect Climate Change

Our August 2018 newsletter features the Spring 2018 issue of Social Research on "Changing Social Norms" and explores articles from past issues that also address this theme. In Elke Weber’s “Climate Change Demands Behavioral Change: What Are the Challenges” (Vol. 82, No. 3, Fall 2015) she discusses the difficulties in fostering actions mandated by climate change and how they are impeded by norms described as "the status quo bias" (defined by Weber as “a strong preference for things the way they are and a strong opposition to any kind of change.”)

“Typically we persist in what we are doing because that is the safe or safer course of action…While it is thus true in many contexts that status quo bias results in safer outcomes, the pernicious thing in the case of climate change is that inaction and status quo bias are the most dangerous options.”

“In the face of widespread status quo bias, political reform often requires political courage. Politicians can lose their jobs if opposition to a policy they introduce does not shift to acceptance before the next election. Query theory (defined as the process by which we make decisions as a process of arguing with ourselves) and several other theories of human judgment and choice from psychology and behavioral economics predict that a change in status quo will meet initial opposition, followed by a gradual acceptance of the policy as the change in state becomes the new status quo (see Treuer et al. 2012).”

“If the status quo is a behavioral one, we have been doing something for a while, it has not killed us yet so it cannot be all that dangerous, and we probably had some good reasons to do it in the first place. If it is a recommendation by a trusted entity, it also makes sense to consider it first. Either way its privileged consideration leads to an accumulation of extra arguments for this course of action and results in lack of imagination because we anchor on the current way of doing things. As Henry Ford apocryphally observed: “If I had asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses.” This cognitive process interpretation of how status quo bias comes about is not just a diagnosis but also suggests an intervention, namely to change the status quo.

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