Environmental “Nudges”

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Sep 20, 2011    •    665 Views

Sometimes a nudge is not enough.

According to science writer Jonah Lehrer, society has to do more than “nudge” us when it wants to change our behavior. When Sacramento, California wanted to diminish energy usage by showing customers what their neighbors consumed, they hoped competition would spur results. Close to 1.5%, the decrease was slight.

Suggesting more persuasive alternatives, Carnegie Mellon behavioral economist George Loewenstein and Daniel Schwartz further discuss the “shove” we need to diminish carbon emissions. They say that the problem is the short-term/long-term trade off. Whether dealing with an attractive mortgage deal, a pastry vs. cottage cheese, or saving for retirement, many of us favor the short-term benefit.

Loewenstein and Schwartz believe that we have a “fear deficit” for climate change because our evolutionary fear system is a short-term device. We see the predator, the adrenaline surges and we run…fast. For long-term fear, we might be physiologically inadequate.

How then to get results? Loewenstein and Schwartz suggest a “shove” rather than a nudge through taxes and regulation. And then, to make the “shove” politically palatable, society could use the revenue stream appealingly.

The Economic Lesson

While psychologists cite a “fear deficit” as a cause of climate change inaction, for economists, the problem is the “free rider.” Let’s assume that Sue never turns her lights or her air conditioning off. Although her energy usage is astronomical, she assumes that her decisions will have little impact. Then, if everyone else is more environmentally disciplined, she can enjoy the benefits of their behavior. An economist would call Sue a free rider.

An Economic Question: Which “free rider” situations could you identify?

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