A looong time ago I posted on bringing better psychology research into the climate debate. Others have also posted occasionally about the psychological dimensions of environmental issues (here and here and here).

In the last few days there were a couple of items, unrelated to environmental issues (on the surface at least), that reminded me why I love this stuff so much. See below for details …

John Tierney at the NYT reports on fMRI studies of tightwads and spendthrifts, revealing that (surprise!) we’re not wired to be rational consumers. There are distinct regions of the brain that activate pleasure and pain in the presence of shopping decisions. If the pleasure areas are stronger than the pain, you may be heading to the mall a little too often.

The environmentalist in me loves this is because of the obvious connections between consumerism and environmental degradation. Many of our policies are based on rationality models of consumer behavior; hence, we find ourselves up this particular environmental creek, trying to paddle with the wrong oar. Can we please stop pretending in that we are all rational consumers, and build in some safeguards that account for our actual tendencies?

Shankar Vedantam in the WP reports on studies of racial diversity and decision-making. Turns out that (surprise again!) diversity actually changes the way people think and the kinds of decisions they make. One study found a positive linear correlation between diversity and profit, market share, and customers. Another researcher found that with simulated juries (where the participants could not speak to each other), all-white juries found the defendant guilt 50% of the time, but in a mixed-race jury the white participants found the defendant guilty 30% of the time. In yet another study, the researcher found that when white people tried to answer questions from a passage that dealt with race issues, those who were answering the question in the presence of an all-white group (of people who did not talk to each other) got more questions wrong than when they were in the presence of a racially diverse group.

The environmentalist in me loves these studies because they make a strong case (business and social) that diversity is better for us, even the non-minorities among us. Perhaps we slow down a little more, check our assumptions, open our eyes, and take in more of what’s happening around us. I don’t know what exactly is going on, but hiding out alone with only ourselves to talk to does not help us make better decisions.

Thinking about environmental problems, perhaps we need diversity of inputs, not only to ensure participation for its own sake, but because we will actually be stimulated to think differently about the problems. Positions about environmental issues may be entrenched to the degree that different stakeholder groups only talk to themselves (think about Cheney’s energy summit way back when). When different stakeholders get together, they don’t just accommodate each other’s position, or compromise — they may actually see the problem differently.