Princeton speaker highlights reasons behind human hesitation toward climate change

 Guest speaker Dr. Elke U. Weber presents on the statistics and the future of the environment and our species as a whole in the Dodd Center on Wednesday, Feb. 1, as a part of UConn's Edwin Way Teale Lecture Series. (Jon Sammis/The Daily Campus)

Guest speaker Dr. Elke U. Weber presents on the statistics and the future of the environment and our species as a whole in the Dodd Center on Wednesday, Feb. 1, as a part of UConn's Edwin Way Teale Lecture Series. (Jon Sammis/The Daily Campus)

Thursday evening’s “Giving the Future a Chance” speech brought a full crowd to the Thomas J. Dodd Center as Princeton professor Dr. Elke Weber offered an in-depth look into the psychology behind humanity’s reluctance toward investing in the future.

Weber, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a Gerhard R. Andlinger professor in energy and the environment, discussed the psychology behind human decision making and how it plays into long-term decisions such as combating climate change, as part of the Edwin Way Teale lecture series on nature and the environment.

Weber said her research demonstrates how human beings often choose short-term profit over long-term gain under a decision making concept called “query theory.”

“Query theory predicts that whatever option is considered first generates more arguments (for) that choice,” Weber said. “Immediate consumption is the default.”

As an example, Weber said that when subjects are faced with the option of either a low payout immediately or a higher payout at a later time, most frequently chose the immediate option.

Weber said that the “default” choice humans frequently make is to keep what they already have.

“We shouldn’t be surprised that people don’t like change,” Weber said. “People don’t like change, because they consider what they have first, so that has an advantage.”

To incentivize change, Weber said she seeks a shift in attitude toward making environmentally friendly choices the “default” choice, such as making LEDs more available than incandescent light bulbs and green electrical providers over more polluting options.

Weber also said her studies attribute a sense of legacy to a more giving and future-minded individual.

“Reminding people of the fact that they might want to leave something for the future generations; that they’re not going to be around forever but their kids and grandchildren might be, is a way of motivating more future generative action,” Weber said.

Weber said that when her subjects were reminded of a long history within their country, they were more mindful toward the nation’s future.

“People gave $13 when they were reminded of the long, glorious past of the United States,” Weber said.

Weber said that subjects donated less when viewing images that made the U.S. seem very young.

Thursday’s speech was one of many planned throughout the academic year as part of the Edwin Way Teale lecture series.

“I really love the Teale series,” Zachary Dillon, a fourth-semester environmental science major, said. “They’re always really interesting. Science portrays (information) to you in a way that’s not filtered out by media.”

The talk also catered to students looking to apply psychology to their own environmental efforts.

“I personally work a lot with conservation, so learning all the psychology behind the choices that people make and how I could possibly use them towards conservation was really important,”   Kayla Morin, a sixth-semester studying ecology and evolutionary biology student, said.

In regard to the future of studies such as hers in academia, Weber said she seems optimistic.

“There are more and more, especially in professional schools, courses that talk about these kinds of biases, these kinds of processes,” Weber said. “It’s a step towards greater awareness.”


Collin Sitz is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at collin.sitz@uconn.edu.