Understanding Choice and Behavior

"...the "environment" is where we all live; and "development" is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable."

Gro Harlem Brundtland, in the Chairman's Forward of the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future in 1987.

Development results from the choices we make, every day, to keep ourselves fed, warm, dry, safe, and comfortable, and entertained. Every choice we make is in some way connected to our environment, so understanding how and why people make the daily choices and decisions that they do is critical to sustainability work.

The World Bank Group recently released a fascinating overview of new research and insight into how people make choices and decisions that is an excellent introduction to the material. In the words of Jim Yong Kim, President of The World Bank Group, "Recent research has advanced our understanding of the psychological, social, and cultural influences on decision making and human behavior and has demonstrated that they have a significant impact on development outcomes."

I've pulled out a couple short excerpts worth starting on:

The title of this Report, Mind, Society, and Behavior, captures the idea that paying attention to how humans think (the processes of mind) and how history and context shape thinking (the influence of society) can improve the design and implementation of development policies and interventions that target human choice and action (behavior). (Overview, p. 2)

From the hundreds of empirical papers on human decision making that form the basis of this Report, three principles stand out as providing the direction for new approaches to understanding behavior and designing and implementing development policy. First, people make most judgments and most choices automatically, not deliberatively: we call this “thinking automatically.” Second, how people act and think often depends on what others around them do and think: we call this “thinking socially.” Third, individuals in a given society share a common perspective on making sense of the world around them and understanding themselves: we call this “thinking with mental models.” (Overview, p. 3)

Responding to climate change is one of the defining challenges of our time...Addressing climate change requires individuals and societies not only to overcome complex economic, political, technological, and social challenges but also to get around a number of cognitive illusions and biases (chapter 9). Individuals ground their views of climate on their experience of recent weather. Ideological and social allegiances can result in confirmation bias, which is the tendency of individuals to interpret and filter information in a manner that supports their preconceptions or hypotheses. Individuals tend to ignore or under-appreciate information presented in probabilities, including forecasts for seasonal rainfall and other climate-related variables. Human beings are far more concerned with the present than with the future, and many of the worst impacts of climate change could take place many years from now. People tend to avoid action in the face of the unknown. Self-serving bias — the tendency of individuals to prefer principles, particularly principles regarding fairness, that serve their interests — makes it hard to reach international agreements on how to share the burdens of mitigating and adapting to climate change. (Overview, p. 17)

Read or get the report here: World Development Report, 2015; Mind, Society, and Behavior