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The Rationality Fallacy: Why We Make Poor Decisions For The Planet

What decisions resulted in all this plastic ending up on coast? How could it have been avoided?

Our Non-Rational Minds
If you want to solve any human-caused problem you better first understand that humans are far from rational. 

This may not be a surprise today with a clusterf*ck of global environmental, social and political crisis’s mounting as we speak – but in the past many scientists and economists presumed we were purely rational beings, self-promoting our own interests with perfect knowledge of the consequences of our actions. These assumptions are really influential: many world governments rely on our self-interest and perfect decision-making to change our behaviour, hoping rational arguments and penny-savings will alter our trajectory towards crisis.

However, the evidence is clear that humans aren’t rational. We are not purely selfish, often acting in the benefit of the common good (though there is limits). We do not possess perfect computers in our minds, instead our brains use rules of thumb – known as heuristics – to make decisions and these rules lead to certain  biases – such as a aversion to loss and higher perception of extreme risks when making decisions. 

Are you Rational?

If you don’t believe me think about what seems best: 
Option 1) a bet with a 10% chance of loosing £90, with 90% chance of a gain of £10?

Option 2) a bet with a 90% chance of loosing £10, with 10% chance of a gain of £90?

The rational answer is both are equal bets – well done if you figured it out – but if you’re like the rest of us the larger loss seems the scariest option. 

The Power of Contetext

Finally the way in which decisions are put to us – whether they be the default, most popular choice or the least – significantly effects what we choose. These behavioural insights have been used by advertisers to nudge us by more and more stuff (look in any major shop chain or online retailer and see how they use these behavioural nudges to encourage you to shop until you drop).

Nudging for Sustainability

Increasingly the power of psychology is being used in more constructive ways to fight climate change, plastic pollution and improve public health – using our quirks and biases to make better decisions for us and the planet.

If you want to know more about this we highly recommend the book: Nudge (Thaler, R.H., Sunstein, C.R., (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness).

Additional Sources

  1. Baulch, S. and Perry, C., 2014. Evaluating the impacts of marine debris on cetaceans. Marine pollution bulletin, 80(1-2), pp.210-221.
  2. Simmonds, M.P., 2012. Cetaceans and marine debris: the great unknown. Journal of Marine Biology, 2012.
  3. Groeneveld, J., Müller, B., Buchmann, C.M., Dressler, G., Guo, C., Hase, N., Hoffmann, F., John, F., Klassert, C., Lauf, T. and Liebelt, V., 2017. Theoretical foundations of human decision-making in agent-based land use models–A review. Environmental modelling & software, 87, pp.39-48.
  4. Halpern, J.J. and Stern, R.C. eds., 2018. Debating rationality: Nonrational aspects of organizational decision making. Cornell University Press.
  5. Jory, S.R., Benamraoui, A., Madichie, N.O., Ruiz-Alba, J.L. and Chistodoulou, I. (2019). Are retailers “bagging” the carrier bag levy in England? An exploratory enquiry. Journal of Environmental Management.
  6. Russell, M.J. (2018). Plastic planet. Nursery World, 2018. (Sup6), pp.4-6.
  7. Simon, H.A., (1993). Decision making: Rational, nonrational, and irrational. Educational Administration Quarterly, 29(3), pp.392-411.