The world appears to lie in ruins: Climate change is making itself felt in environmental disasters. People in need are heading north; politics responds with nationalism. The concept of “do-gooders” bears negative connotations, although what we do need is people doing “good”; people who put their actions at the service of a better world. We spoke to the cognitive psychologist Stephan Dickert and the philosopher Alice Pechriggl about why it is so difficult to implement a change of mind.
Let’s take the example of climate change: Rationally, we understand that we need to change our consumption behaviour. And yet we do not choose the necessary actions. How do you explain this?
Stephan Dickert: I’m afraid I cannot offer you a single or definite answer. The contributing factors are certainly not mono-causal. Above all, I believe that it would be necessary to reward more environmentally friendly behaviour in the sense of an incentive strategy. Right now, it is far too easy to purchase more, to fly more, to use the car more. Humans need a decision-making structure that helps them to act “correctly” in terms of pursuing these goals. We can find relevant approaches in the idea of “nudging”, which comes from behavioural economics and gently attempts to guide our actions in the right direction.
Alice Pechriggl: I would start my explanation with the systemic, the political. There is no need to mince our words: We live in a profligate, capitalist system that persistently persuades us to want more and more. Part of this system is the idea that the individual feels responsible for the overall economic madness, even though he or she cannot possibly accept this responsibility. The system builds on the ruthless exploitation of the individual and of the resources of our Earth. Of course, we must also consider the cultural level, which differs widely across the globe: While we are already deeply immersed in the logic of wastefulness in these parts, resources are handled more carefully elsewhere, for the time being. We only need to compare the daily volume of packaging material used by a Senegalese and an Austrian household.
The system is man-made. Which human drivers are responsible, in your view, for turning us into such submissive servants of capitalism?
Pechriggl: It basically comes down to the tension between pleasure and pain. We need a culture for dealing with hubris, which is in every one of us, and which is being served endlessly by this system. It was not only the Greeks who were culturally aware of this propensity for arrogance, which – much like mortality – they addressed very thoroughly.
Dickert: Yes, we are dealing with the underlying principle of pleasure and pain. However, I also see distinct differences, to what extent one participates here and whether the two opposite poles – in the sense of pleasure and pain – might not also be served with the help of rewards. If abstinence were to be socially rewarded, it might be possible to incentivize it as pleasurable. Fundamentally, many of us are hedonists.
Pechriggl: Which would be a fine thing, if only the potentiation through hubris and system did not produce such tragic consequences.
Dickert: Staying realistic, let us consider what might be feasible: In my estimation, even if we lived in a perfect system that only pushed the “right” decisions, there would still be people who would not act accordingly. On the psychological level we are simply distinguished by the drivers that shape us. And yet, I also agree with you, Alice Pechriggl: Passing the responsibility on to individuals is challenging and does not solve our problems.
Pechriggl: If suddenly everyone were to be found guilty of wasteful, barely social behaviour, this would render people even more dissatisfied and aggressive. Constant consumption, permanently boosted by the system, is unlikely to be overcome by this self-flagellation.
Is taking pleasure from limitation something that may perhaps be inherent to humankind, much as hubris is?
Dickert: I have to ask myself the question how this value is framed symbolically. If limitation is depicted as something positive, it might lead to certain kinds of behaviour in some circumstances. I must say, though, that I do not think it can always succeed.
Pechriggl: We should probably not refer to it as limitation, but rather as restraint. That sounds nobler and carries a different social significance. I believe that part of getting carried away is to restrain oneself afterwards with a certain sense of regret. We are dealing with a complicated process here.
The consequences of our actions – both ecologically and economically – are increasingly making themselves felt in the physical sense. If, looking at Europe, we find ourselves up to our necks in water more and more often due to floods, can this trigger more rational behaviour in us?
Dickert: Yes and no. I spent many years living in the USA, and there I found that all the evidence on climate change does not affect those people who do not want to change their behaviour. They simply find other explanations for the processes happening in nature. Of course, this behaviour can also be observed in other countries. On the other hand, we know from psychology that mental and real pictures before our eyes significantly drive our actions, and this is especially the case if we are emotionally involved. Seeing the global rise in temperature in the shape of a number has much less of an impact on us than when we ourselves feel extreme heat or cold. I do wonder, though, how long any change in behaviour based on these experiences might actually last.
Pechriggl: I share the view that a lot can change when we have a bodily experience of something. In most cases, several things need to come together: intellect, imagination, and the affective level must be addressed together in order to initiate far-reaching decisions. This was the case in Italy after the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, for example. If the different levels do not coalesce and lead to a judgment and appropriate action, we remain on the level of unconscious action. This action may well be positive and liberating, but radical change needs more, namely decision-making processes that involve as many individuals as possible, so as to ensure that the decisions are also jointly carried by as many people as possible. That would be democratic action for the benefit of the demos rather than for capital or for the technocratic bureaucracy.
Dickert: Allow me to bring up the example of the 2015 refugee wave. The image of the dead boy on the beach moved Europe. It made us feel that we had to offer humanitarian help. This effect did not last; instead it was replaced by a subsequent emotional wave, in which empathy transformed into fear. We conducted studies in Germany at that time, which clearly illustrated, for example, the effects of the assaults that occurred in Cologne on New Year’s Eve: The willingness to help dropped sharply as a result of these kinds of incidents. Feelings of fear took over and they still serve as the basis for the electoral successes celebrated by the German AfD and other populist parties in Europe today.
If fear is such a powerful driver, is it not possible to also use it in a positive sense? Cigarette packets, for instance, are covered with shocking image to keep people from smoking.
Dickert: Looking back, the first thing people did was to place a second packet over the packet of cigarettes so they would not have to look at the negative image. Fear can be a motivator, but research has shown us that we do not tend to feel bad for long. The human system of regulating emotions is amazing: It will always find a way to protect itself, without having to introduce major behavioural changes. If you fan the fear, you must also offer a solution straight away that has to be as specific as possible.
Pechriggl: MDraconian consequences stir up a guilty conscience. In any case, I believe these threats are inappropriate, because they are excessively strict. This has been well researched and implemented, for example in studies on addiction. This radical approach, according to which a dry alcoholic should never take another sip, causes people to suffer. The paradigm was changed and now there is a more relaxed approach to the issue of relapsing.
In this globalized world, our small-scale and individual decisions have an impact on people elsewhere. Are we insufficiently caring and social to consider the fate of people far away from us?
Pechriggl: I think that the empathy we feel for people who live a long way away has grown substantially. This is linked to globalisation, to travel and to the media. However, empathy simply cannot keep pace with the waste and anti-social behaviour that has been further intensified by digitalisation. Concern is growing for our unique planet Earth and for “nature”, as well as for the future generations, but, as I said, the system is all-devouring and so are the lobbies.
Dickert: I would like to mention a thought experiment by Peter Singer, who explored scenarios like the following: Imagine that you are smartly dressed and on the way to a job interview. On the way there, you see that a child is in danger of drowning in a well. Do you stop and help the child, even though this will ruin your outfit for the job interview? Usually, participants in the experiment state that they want to help the child. If the child were to fall into a well somewhere in Africa, however, the willingness to help would be lower. What is not right in front of me does not trigger an immediate need to act. I also want to see the effects of my behaviour, and these are often unclear. Does anything really change, if I stop buying plastic bottles? This explains the common notion that if you cannot solve all the problems right away, you would rather not do anything at all. In decision research on prosocial behaviour we call this principle “pseudo-ineffectiveness”.
What do you do personally to make the world a better place?
Pechriggl: As a private individual I have a clear position on this: I did not ask for all these mechanisms of waste and I make every effort to participate as little as possible, and I do this without a guilty conscience when I choose to travel by car or by plane when taking a vacation. Certainly, one can always do better, but as we all know, better is the enemy of good. As a philosopher I write about these issues and I strive to initiate discussions and reflection processes with my students. Teaching and accompanying young people along their path is a beautiful and pleasurable experience for me, though it can be arduous at times to pursue a high level of quality in my work in the midst of a witless quantification mania.
Dickert: On the one hand, I try to make a difference through my research on the drivers of prosociality, although of course I realize that these scientific publications are only read by a fraction of the population. I gain a lot of satisfaction from mentoring students, who ideally go through an important maturing process and adopt a reflective, critical attitude during the course of their studies. If I can support them during this process, I do feel that I have made a contribution.
for ad astra: Romy Müller
translation: Karen Meehan