Are We Becoming More Environmental? Reflections on Trends in Environmental Desire

What Changes Our Environmental Desires? The Impacts of Social Norms

Oct 28, 2015 | James W. Boyd, Carolyn Kousky

The strength of our environmental desires is of central importance to developing efficient and effective environmental policies. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be hosting a conversation that explores whether environmental desires are changing and what that means for environmental economics and policy. This is the fifth post of eleven in the series: Are We Becoming More Environmental? Reflections on Trends in Environmental Desire. This series is a result of an RFF New Frontiers Fund award for thinking creatively about pathbreaking research to advance RFF’s mission.

The third and final concept that influences our environmental desires is social norms (in addition to taste formation and experience, which we discussed previously).

Norms (or crowd knowledge) relate to collective knowledge and experience and a collective understanding of what is right or wrong, desirable or undesirable, in a community. Norms are relational, rather than individual. They can be thought of loosely as the social version of (individual) tastes and, like tastes, can change over time. Changes in “crowd knowledge” and environmental norms can drive changes in our environmental desires.

Often our desires are shaped by the desires, perceptions, and behavior of others. For example, humans have a tendency to conform. Even rebels and connoisseurs are not immune. After all, rebellion and refinement mean nothing without some conformity to reject. Environmental desires, like any others, are related to the ways social, collective norms develop and change.

We adhere to community norms for a variety of reasons. Norms are a form of self-regulation that punishes deviants for free riding or imposing costs on others. For example, in many places it is now considered bad behavior to smoke around others, thus subjecting them to second-hand smoke. Norms are also used to promote positive behaviors (think of lapel stickers that announce “I voted” or “I donated blood”). Long before there were governments, community norms punished and rewarded certain beliefs and behavior. Norms can also diffuse a group’s experience and knowledge to younger or otherwise more ignorant individuals.

In the 1930s, psychologists started research on conformity and found—perhaps not surprisingly—a pronounced tendency toward groupthink. One early experiment involved people independently guessing at the number of beans in an urn, then meeting with a group of other guessers to come up with a group estimate. Quizzed independently after that, nearly everyone revised his or her initial estimates to come closer to the “group norm.”

Why should people’s guesses about beans change just because others guessed differently? Are we sheep? In fact, the bean experiment may be showing something different: collective wisdom. A collection of estimates from a diverse set of people often yields a more accurate reflection of the truth, a phenomenon James Surowiecki described in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. The most colorful illustration relates to British scientist Francis Galton’s discovery that the average of 800 guesses of an ox’s weight at a 1906 English county fair came to within 1 percent of the ox’s actual 1,198-pound weight. Prediction markets, like those for election results, harness this phenomenon (and tend to be quite accurate). So it may be individually rational to adjust one’s beliefs toward a larger group’s sense of what is correct.

That’s the positive spin on crowds. In part, the positive story depends on having diversity within the group. The more group diversity, the less error, a point developed by Scott Page in his book The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. In his view, and for good statistical reasons, institutions that embrace and incorporate diverse information, beliefs, and values learn and adapt better, and ultimately outperform less diverse institutions.

The positive spin also depends on individuals’ independent judgments being reflected in the group’s wisdom. At the 1906 county fair, folks put their independent guesses in a hat and the average was calculated from those. People didn’t guess after first holding a meeting to exchange thoughts. When that kind of thing happens, conformity and norms can thwart crowd wisdom and the “herd mentality” can become a kind of blindness.

For example, another early conformity experiment presented test subjects with a set of lines of different lengths and asked them to choose the two closest in length. Crucially, there was a clearly correct answer. Also crucially, the subjects were asked to do this in a group that included “plants,” fake participants instructed to openly and confidently give the wrong answer. On average, a third of the true test subjects conformed and gave the obviously incorrect answer. Afterwards, some subjects reported they really believed the others, and some that they were afraid of being ridiculed for saying what they really thought. Gratifyingly, British science students in a more recent replication of the experiment refused to conform in 395 of 396 trials.

Less gratifyingly, Cass Sunstein and Reed Hastie describe recent experiments by Matthew Salganik and coauthors involving music downloads and online discussion groups that show individuals’ tastes being strongly influenced by others. One study gave people a set of songs they could listen to, download, and rank. The control group, which wasn’t told anything about others’ downloads or likes, was compared to other groups who could see what other people downloaded and liked. Although there was some consistency between the experimental and control groups, in groups that could see what other people liked, a song’s popularity reflected a herd mentality. Popularity became self-fulfilling. (This no doubt explains the chart-topping success of One Direction.) Other studies show that the very first vote (whether it is up or down) on an online commentary strongly influences the percentage of subsequent up or down votes, even when there are thousands of subsequent votes over a period of months.

Music downloads and online message boards are one thing. Mob behavior (hooliganism), hysteria (witch trials), and violent mass movements (the Cultural Revolution) reflect similar, and far more disturbing, conformity effects.

These “social cascades” illustrate that tastes are changeable and collectively influenced; also that changes are, to some extent, predictable. As any fly on a conference room wall knows, the first few comments can have a profound effect on the ensuing discussion.

What does all of this mean in terms of environmental desire? Can we use these ideas to predict changes in environmental desire? At great intellectual risk, and with caveats we won’t begin to list, here is our take.

Environmental Crowd Knowledge

At a global scale and over historical time horizons, we’d bet on humanity’s continued progress toward more democratic institutions that empower and reflect more diversity in knowledge and beliefs. We’d also bet on continued global increases in education. But does broader access to the wisdom of wiser crowds necessarily strengthen our environmental desires?

As environmental researchers, we’re clearly biased. But as lifelong environmental learners and educators, we know that a deeper empirical understanding of nature’s role in our health, psychology, and economy reinforces our more fundamental environmental beliefs and attitudes. In our own lives environmental learning has strengthened our environmental attitudes. For example, much of the research at RFF explores the dependence of economic outcomes on natural resources. That technical, utilitarian environmental research doesn’t weaken our moral motivations, it strengthens them. But enough about us.

Arguably more important than scientific knowledge is the experiential knowledge of the billions who interact with and rely on nature every day. We noted earlier research showing that the tangible experience of nature, whether by agrarians, fisherman, or those recreating, is predictive of more pro-environmental attitudes. Not that those specific attitudes are the same as those of a scientist. But the effect of environmental knowledge on attitudes points in the same basic direction.

Environmental Taste Cascades

The experiments involving music downloads and online chat votes reveal a kind of first-mover influence on taste. Expressions of taste by first movers lead others to mimic that taste, on average. Think about this the next time you’re on a plane: Stanford marketing professor Pedro Gardete recently examined the inflight food and movie purchases of 250,000 air passengers, finding that the probability that you buy something jumps 30 percent if you see someone in the next seat buy something (he controls for factors such as families traveling together).

Sunstein and Hastie make the plausible argument that early, confident, and dominant personalities—and their messages—hold a disproportionate sway over a range of attitudes and decisions. And do so in a way that is self-reinforcing and long-lived. In terms of environmental tastes this raises the possibility that advocates and social marketers could take advantage of this first-mover, dominant messenger, social cascade phenomenon to steer environmental attitudes one way or the other. Of course, the strategy is available to both sides of any issue. Political litmus tests are illustrative (climate change denial for the Tea Party, opposition to the Keystone pipeline for the progressive movement)

However, it does raise the question of whether, over large populations and long time horizons, pro-environmental tastes would have a systematic first-mover advantage. Consider the following speculations. Start with the fact that pro-environmental attitudes tend to be positively related to education and income. To that add that the educated and wealthy also have more skills and opportunity to communicate and do so with larger numbers of people individually, through institutions, or via the media. The result is a speculative hypothesis that pro-environmental attitudes may already have a leg up on “first-mover taste expression” and that, if correlations continue to hold, that advantage will persist into the future.

Hollywood as Tastemaker

Hollywood is a particularly potent (early, confident, dominant) global messaging force. Supporters and critics alike point to the power of movies to shape tastes and values. This explains why environmentalists actively target celebrities, movies, and television to promote pro-environment messages. In fact, there is an organization dedicated to doing so, the Environmental Media Association (EMA), which links “the power of celebrity to environmental awareness.” Among other things, EMA provides writers and producers with checklists for how to make plotlines, props, and characters exhibit positive environmental behaviors: “Characters’ behaviors and actions, however subtle, can have a positive effect on audiences. From large plot points—the happy couple that opt for a ‘green’ wedding—to the simplicity of including a recycling bin in the family kitchen or a character driving a hybrid, the integration of ‘eco inside’ is subliminal messaging at its most heartfelt.”

There’s no corresponding organization openly dedicated to the opposite agenda, though specific films often generate right-wing criticism for delivering pro-environment propaganda. Noah, for example, was called an “environmentalist screed and animal rights diatribe.”

There are no signs of decline in Hollywood’s global messaging dominance or its pro-environmental leanings (leaving aside the carbon emissions associated with the Fast and Furious franchise). In fact, critic Ross Douthat calls Pantheism (loosely, the idea that God and Nature are one and the same) “Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now.” Star Wars, with its Force that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy, as well as the plot lines of Avatar, Dances with Wolves, The Lion King, and Pocahontas, illustrate this observation.

Up next in the series—Do Our Social Institutions Affect Our Personalities?

Read previous posts in this RFF blog series: Are We Becoming More Environmental? Reflections on Trends in Environmental Desire.

    1. Are We Becoming More Environmental? An Introduction

    2. Growing Environmentalism: The Difference between Desires, Behavior, and Preferences

    3. What Changes Our Environmental Desires? A Look at Taste Formation

    4. What Changes Our Environmental Desires? Experience and Learning Matter