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Even our best behaviour is benchmarked against others
SOCIAL PROOF: We want to show others we have gone green
AN article in the quarterly Global is Asian magazine (October to December 2011 edition) reinforced the idea of psychic numbing where the devastation or plight of groups does not have much meaning for most of us.
It states that the cognitive effort of comprehending the devastation or plight detracts from our empathetic reaction.
Is this the reason why the world is reacting so slowly towards climate change? Is this the reason why a new climate fund is required to replace the Kyoto Protocol?
I ask myself if this is universally true and how this impacts the work of large-scale chemical and technology phase-out programmes. Will the general public cast aside national initiatives such as the hydrochloroflorocarbon (HCFC) phase-out in favour of localised green initiatives such as changing your house lighting to light emitting diode (LED) to get an assessment rebate all because they cannot personally relate to the larger initiative?
People tend to look to others about how to behave. We often benchmark our actions against social groups and often have a compelling reason for behaving the way we do.
This is particularly evident with trendsetting ventures such as green fashion. People justify their perverse need for consumption and fall victim to marketing gimmicks because they are given the ability to show others that they are environmentally friendly.
This phenomenon of "social proof" has been used to promote conservation but do programmes like phasing out inefficient lighting to LED or even HCFC get the publicity and attention they deserve from the public?
People are reluctant to change the status quo when the consequences seem uncertain. This is very true in broad-scoped issues such as energy efficiency and climate change.
People are unable to access the "social proof" of these issues and feel more averse to short-term losses than welcoming long-term gains. As a result, we tend not to deviate from default positions.
Programmes can be organised and can be extended but how effective are these programmes in the long run? Movies like An Inconvenient Truth just aren't blockbuster hits. It only grossed US$281,000 (RM843,000) in its opening week compared with Harry Potter which grossed US$169 million.
From a development standpoint, we know that we should use this knowledge of forgoing statistics and describing the situation of a single victim in order to maximise returns on a campaign, but we ask if you have read this far into this article that you help us promulgate the importance of our issues.
Because the effects of climate change seem remote, because of poor feedback loops, problems in deferring gratification, and extravagant future discounting, it is difficult to induce people to take action now to prevent catastrophic global warming.
Although behavioural economics has offered valuable insights to improve people's behaviour for their own benefit and that of society at large, it has its limitations. We need your participation.
Are we at the right pace to avoid the early mover dilemma? Like most technological advances, it is extremely costly to catch the first wave especially given our lack of innovation. Therefore, we should always be wary of our timelines for adoption.
It is for that reason I ask that the next time you service your air conditioner; you ask the technician, "What kind of gas is my air conditioner using?" If his answer is R22, ask him "Can you change to R407C or R134?" The technician will be delighted to change it for you and may ask you for some top-up cash for the gas but think of it as your contribution to saving the ozone layer and reducing global warming.