How to promote sustainable decisions in polarized times

by | Aug 14, 2019

Sustainability needs evidence. Evidence enables us to better understand how our actions affect the environment. It empowers us to make more sustainable choices, both as consumers and as managers. For example, as managers, is that new initiative really going to reduce water usage? As consumers, is recycling that peanut butter jar worth all the energy it takes to clean it out? (For the record: cleaning out that peanut butter jar, especially if it’s plastic, is probably not worth it.)

But evidence can get caught up in larger social and societal conflicts. Consider the political polarization surrounding climate change: Research shows that people on either side of the political spectrum are likely to have different perceptions of the strength of the evidence suggesting climate change is happening. They also perceive the risks climate change is likely to pose differently.

When sustainability issues like climate change become part of larger conflicts, making evidence-based decisions on these issues is more difficult. Productive discussions about what course of action the evidence suggests are replaced by unproductive discussions about whether the evidence should be believed.

These discussions often have more to do with people’s identities, such as their political views, than with the decision at hand, making it hard to move forward.

Research that I and others have conducted suggests a few strategies managers can use to prevent stalemates in sustainability decision-making:

We often don’t know we’re biased.

Our identities often influence our decisions without us realizing it. This means that it can be very difficult to know when to take a step back and ask ourselves whether we are thinking objectively about a problem. Research from me and my colleague Baruch Fischhoff, published in Thinking & Reasoning, finds that an external warning to think carefully about the problem at hand, combined with an opportunity to warm up participants’ critical thinking skills, reduces the influence that participants’ political views have on their evaluations of evidence. Try building reminders to focus on the problem at hand into your organization’s decision-making processes.

We don’t always consider the alternatives to our favored decisions.

Research on good decision-making has found that decisions can be improved by asking decision-makers to argue against decisions that they favor. As described in an article by Wharton Professor Katy Milkman and colleagues, published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, asking decision-makers to “consider the opposite”—by considering what might go wrong with a favored decision, and what might go right with a non-favored decision—can promote more critical thinking and better decision-making. Try asking colleagues to argue both for and against their favored decisions.

These strategies can help decision-makers focus on the immediate problem, rather than the broader social and societal context, helping organizations make sustainability decisions based on the evidence.