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The role of human cognition biases for sustainability

2018-11-15 So-called "cognition biases", i.e. deviations of human thinking and acting from the ideal of a rational decision maker, also known as "rational choice" or "homo economicus", play an essential role for many prominent sustainability problems. This is emphasized by the sustainability scientists Dr. John-Oliver Engler, Prof. Dr. David J. Abson and Prof. Dr. Henrik von Wehrden in their latest publication in the journal Ambio.

Since the report of the Club of Rome (Meadows et al., 1972), issues such as the unsustainable use of natural resources and the impending overburdening of vital functions of the earth are well known. Since the UN's launch of the so-called Brundtland Commission, issues of sustainability and sustainable development have also been on the global political agenda. Unfortunately, there is no doubt that, despite some noticeable national and international efforts, there is considerable need for action to develop solutions and limit damage. Examples include the rapid global loss of biodiversity, the limitation of global warming to 2 °C or the excessive manipulation of biogeochemical cycles by humans.

In their research article "Navigating cognition biases in the search of sustainability", Leuphana researchers John-Oliver Engler, Henrik von Wehrden (Quantitative Methods of Sustainability Science group) and Dave Abson (Junior Professor of Sustainability Economics) point out and analyze the importance of cognitive biases for the absence of political action with respect to sustainability and the continuation of unsustainable policies. Research into the role of cognitive biases in sustainability is so interesting because much of the existing approaches to explain and solve sustainability issues are based on the assumption that people think and decide rationally. However, in their article, Engler, Abson and Wehrden argue that many sustainability issues require decisions that involve some kind of risk or uncertainty and that concern multiple groups of people, such as nation states, political parties or interest groups. It is exactly in such situations that a variety of human thinking and decision-making patterns exist that systematically deviate from the ideal of rational choice. When nations sit together at a table to negotiate an international agreement to protect our climate, cognition biases can be expected to play a key role.

Engler, Abson and Wehrden derive several conclusions from their research. First, cognitive biases, especially those in inter-group situations, play a major role in the emergence of many of the current sustainability issues and challenges. There are proven coping and mitigation strategies that should be used to improve the quality of political and individual decisions in terms of sustainability. Second, the role of emotions and basic mental needs, such as self-efficacy, has often been underestimated in terms of sustainability communication. And thirdly, a more thorough consideration of cognitive biases in the discussion and design of sustainable policy measures and goals could lead to identification of so-called "leverage points" in the complex system of human-environment interactions