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

What Changes Our Environmental Desires? A Look at Taste Formation

Oct 15, 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 third 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.

Previously we described desires as being the stuff of beliefs, psychology, values, and ethics, which begs the question: what does it mean when our beliefs, psychology, values, and ethics change? To tackle that question we introduce three related concepts: taste formation, experience and learning, and norms. In this post, we will explain how taste formation can influence our desires. Two subsequent posts will address experience and learning, as well as norms.

Taste formation describes how and why we like or dislike certain things. It is one way our underlying desires may change. We are accustomed to talking about changing tastes for food and drink, recreational activities, the arts, and consumer products. Changes in taste may appear random, but sociology, psychology, marketing, and economics have all developed explanations for why our tastes change over time. Do we have a taste for nature or specific aspects of the environment? And can social theories of how tastes change help us understand how our environmental desires might change over time?

Tastes, our likes and dislikes, seem to change all the time. Fashions change. Fads come and go. Half a trillion dollars is spent on marketing every year in the belief that tastes not only change, but that they can be changed deliberately. (However, it’s worth remembering retailer Sam Wannamaker’s adage that “half the money I spend on marketing is wasted, I just don’t know which half.”)

Countries, states, and cities market their natural resources to tourists, businesses, and potential residents. Seasonal marketing, enticing people to “get away” to somewhere new, exotic, and outdoors, is an example. But because nature often isn’t the most profit-making commodity, it doesn’t receive a lot of attention from marketing professionals. Natural resources aren’t like clothing, with magazines and TV programs dedicated to the latest trends and must-haves.

Some environmental tastes may also be particularly resistant to manipulation because they’re hardwired into our psychology, much like our tastes for certain foods. There are good evolutionary reasons certain foods taste good and bad. Sweet foods signal nutritional content, bitter foods toxicity, and smelly foods bacterial contamination. There are also evolutionary reasons for us to prefer certain kinds of natural resources. Several studies have shown that consistently and across cultures, people tend to aesthetically prefer open landscapes dotted with visible water and patches of forest to other types of landscapes. Open landscapes allow us to see predators and prey; water is fundamental to survival; and forests signal shelter and food. Walk into any art museum and do a review of landscape paintings through time. Tastes in landscape art seem to change a lot less than tastes in nudes, for example.

None of this means that our environmental tastes don’t change, just that these changes may be harder to spot.

And too much shouldn’t be made of evolutionary hardwiring; humans are also drawn to novelty. Affluent parts of the United States are having a foodie moment that belies the idea that our tastes are fixed by biological imperative. Extreme foods, fermentation, nose-to-tail dining, the kale craze, and insect menus all have new followings. Several things are going on here. One is the search for novelty, which psychologists identify as a common human trait (and, incidentally, one with evolutionary advantages). Novelty finds an expression in our environmental tastes, as well. For those who can afford it, African safaris, glacier cruises, and rainforest expeditions satisfy a similar need to experience the new. In fact, if one were to look for environmental fads, a good place to look is travel magazines. Another place to look is our pets, from exotic birds to the domestication of cats and dogs into ever more distinctive breeds. When we value biodiversity, we may not be doing so just because we care about creation, but because we love the novelty. One of the things about novelty is that its satisfaction doesn’t extinguish the need—it just triggers the next search.

A corollary phenomenon is the way we acclimate, or become habituated, to new experiences. The more sugar we eat, the more sugar we need to experience sweetness. The same goes for salt and hot peppers. And interestingly, the effect also works in reverse: the less sugar we eat, the less we need to taste it. In a subsequent post, we’ll focus on how we psychologically adapt to losses or gains in the experience of nature, but for now note that novelty seeking, acclimation, and habituation are psychological doorways into how our tastes can and do change.

Extreme Foods and Rainforest Expeditions: Have Tastes Really Changed?

Being drawn to strange new foods and places may indicate that our underlying desires are changing. But another explanation is that we’ve had those desires all along—all that’s changed is that we can now act on them. Take exotic foods and the following (spicy) chicken vs. egg problem. Are exotic new dishes available because we now want them or do we want them because they’re now available?

Immigration, trade, and culinary skills have made new foods much more available and affordable. So can new taste in foods simply be explained by that availability? Or do new desires come first and trigger that availability? Similarly, cheaper travel and growing wealth make extreme nature experiences more available to the wealthy. Is that all it is, or do we want experiences we didn’t want before?

This puzzle is related to the caution we introduced earlier: that just because behavior changes, that doesn’t mean our fundamental desires have changed (because our behavior also depends on the costs of various options). The puzzle is also related to a centuries-old debate in philosophy over whether our tastes are fixed and universal (i.e., in the classical thinking of Aristotle and Kant) or mutable and idiosyncratic (i.e., the more contemporary views of Veblen and Bourdieu).

To the extent that economists (rarely) think about taste formation, the traditional view (e.g., of Stigler and Becker) is that tastes are stable over time and what changes are other things, such as constraints, technology, and various forms of human capital.

Up next in the series—What Changes Our Environmental Desires? Experience and Learning Matter

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