Like most people, I have been known to procrastinate on tasks and projects that are not at the top of my list of “interesting things to do.” It is not because I am unaware of the consequences of putting these things off. Rather, I am aware that putting the task off is a bad idea, but I do it anyway. Doing something that we know will have negative consequences is essentially an irrational choice.
Psychologists at the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University explain, however, that in the immediate present, putting off a task provides relief — a small, though temporary, reward. Our inclination to prioritize immediate needs over future ones is a great example of present bias. Behavioral decision-making expert Hal Hershfield has found that on a neural level, we actually think about our “future selves” in an abstract way rather than a personal way. When we put things off, our brains view the consequences as somebody else’s problem — the problem of the “future self.”
Much like procrastination, our tendency to bias the present and discount the future can influence not just small tasks but larger decision-making. This is one factor that influences decisions around climate change. Yes, there are politics, science, economics, information and misinformation involved, but there is also the basic fact that addressing issues of climate change means changing the status quo of how we live and consume. For decision-makers, this is often an unpleasant task that would be better dealt with in the future. There is that neural tendency to perceive issues like climate change as the problem of our future selves — a relative stranger in the scheme of things.
Like procrastination, the act of economic discounting in decision-making has an impact on the future. Economic discounting refers to the idea that future costs and benefits are worth less than current costs and benefits. This means that if we are faced with a decision that will have costs or benefits in the future, we will discount those costs or benefits to reflect the fact that they are not worth as much as the costs or benefits that we experience today.
In the context of climate-related decisions, the assumption is that the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions today are greater than the benefits that will be realized in the future. Consider a governmental decision-maker faced with making policy that will require major economic investments or significant behavioral changes. The decision-maker knows there is a collective benefit in the future but given the time it takes for greenhouse gas reductions to have an effect, that person will almost certainly not be in office (or even alive) to see those benefits and so the value of the benefit is much lower. Therefore, according to the logic of economic discounting, it makes more sense to wait and deal with the problem in the future when the costs will be lower, and the benefits will be higher.
How might environmental decision-making be changed to consider the long-term impact of our policy actions? This requires a shift in thinking from the short-term to the long-term benefits. One way to address the limitations of economic discounting is to use alternative decision-making frameworks, such as intergenerational equity. Intergenerational equity is the idea that each generation has an equal right to the use and enjoyment of the environment — to the ecosystem services we enjoy. This idea has long been part of the democratic underpinnings of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee Confederacy) through their commitment to the seventh generation concept. In their decision-making, they consider the seventh generation coming after and remember the seven generations who came before. This allows them to see benefits beyond the present moment.
Perhaps this shift in thinking might serve to rewire those neural patterns that make us see our future self as a stranger and instead bring future generations into our present-day thinking.
Dr. Heather Farley is Chair of the Department of Criminal Justice, Public Policy & Management, Associate Professor of Public Management in the School of Business and Public Management at College of Coastal Georgia, and an environmental policy researcher. She is an associate of the College’s Reg Murphy Center for Economic and Policy Studies. The opinions found in this article do not represent those of the College of Coastal Georgia.