The tragedy of cognition: psychological biases and environmental inaction

01 January 2009

Society and Science
View Journal Article / Working Paper

In an ideal world, people would tackle major crises such as global climate change as rational actors, weighing the costs, benefits and probabilities of success of alternative policies accurately and impartially. Unfortunately, human brains are far from accurate and impartial. Mounting research in experimental psychology reveals that we are all subject to systematic biases in judgement and decision-making. While such biases may have been adaptive heuristics that promoted survival and reproduction in the Pleistocene environment of our evolutionary past, in today’s world of technological sophistication, industrial power and mass societies, psychological biases can lead to disasters on an unprecedented scale. Beyond the exploding ecological and socio-economic research on climate change and how to deal with the ‘tragedy of the commons’, it is a better understanding of human psychology – ‘the tragedy of cognition’ – that may ultimately tip the balance against the seeds of our own destruction.