Wednesday, June 28

appeals to vanity could save climate

If we could tie people's reputations amongst their friends and colleagues to how much they do to help the climate—say, by cutting down on their carbon dioxide emissions—this could be powerful motivator to get people to be more green, a study says.

Reputation is the most potent factor keeping people honest in online sales, as with used books trhough Amazon, where buyer and seller never meet face-to-face. If defrauded, it's not obvious how you would go about doing something about it on your own, and for low price books, say, the time involved may make it not worth your while to do something about it. But when sellers have reputations that everyone can see, they have a powerful incentive to be honest traders.

So with climate change, we face a different kind of problem, called "the tragedy of the commons." The effort everyone has to put out to keep the environment healthy is likely to be more than the benefit they'll get out of it. (There's some uncertainty, because you might get poisoned by pollutants, say, or have your house knocked down by a hurricane, which some think are more common now because of global warming.) The tragedy is that it's not anyone's individual interests to put out the effort to improve or maintain things, but it's in everyone's interest for that to be done. If only we could find a way to cooperate...

Reputation provides a possible way. Some researchers did an experiment where people played a game, with the seemingly unappealing prize being that money would go into a fund to pay for a newspaper ad that exhorts people to take care of the climate. The twist is that everyone in the game could see how much the others had contributed to the fund, so people's reputations were staked on this. The researchers found that people actually did try to win money to contribute to the general fund, so they suggest the same effect could work in real life.

Suppose that, like how Sweden publicly publishes citizen's incomes, governments published stats showing how much CO2 came out of your tailpipe last year? Or how much water you used, or electricity? I don't suppose the people you see driving Hummers around would care, but I hope that it would push more of those who do care somewhat, but don't do much about it, to try harder.

People might not be motivated directly to help the environment, but it seems plausible to harness their vanity—in the form of their reputation—to protect the environment and help check climate change. It reminds me of those ads for hepatitis C, showing a guy with a battered mug, that read, "If hep C was attacking your face, you'd do something about it." If climate was hurting your rep, I hope you'd do something about it.

Link to a summary of the research, or the original research (subscription required until September, when it becomes freely available). Nature also had an interesting commentary on this study (subscription required forever).


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