Reward, punishment & climate change

On a train to Birmingham, I looked at the winter wonderland a recent snow had created. The world looked so delicate and beautiful, as I am sure it did to my fellow passengers who were taking picture after picture. Yet we have trouble living a lifestyle that doesn’t harm the planet and drove ourselves into climate change. How should scientific insights on sustainability be communicated?

Should we convey the urge of taking action by communicating doomsday-like consequences of continuing our behaviour? Or should we suggest positive changes we can easily make even if the changes are too small to solve the problem? In this blog, I’ll use a neuroscience perspective on how people respond to reward and punishment to explain why I am not a fan of doomsday scenarios. The information in this blog is loosely based on two books: ‘The Emotional Brain’ by Joseph Le Doux and ‘About Behaviorism’ by B.F. Skinner.

Punishment results in fear responses

You could say that doomsday scenarios provide a prospect of punishment: getting into war, starving, drowning, you name it. Punishment causes emotional fear responses. To explain how fear affects behaviour I’ll use a story of a mouse that entered your house.

When you see the mouse entering your living, you scare it by clapping your hands firmly. You’ll observe the animal freezing in an alert pose. The initial freezing response may be followed by an ‘avoidance‘ response: a move to get away from the punishment. The mouse will run. Moreover, the mouse will also associate the place where she heard the loud noise with the punishment and avoid the place in the future, a reaction know as Pavlovian conditioning. -Until now, things are going like you wanted!

A loud noise (1) results in freezing (2) and subsequent avoidance (3). If the avoidance is also punished (3 &4) this may result in learned helplessness (5)

There is catch however. The punishment does not tell the mouse what to do. You may want it to move downstairs where the neighbour lives. But the mouse can’t know this and may move towards your bedroom instead. You may scare her again, causing her to flee upward -where your study is, only to punish her even harder when you meet her again. As the mouse doesn’t know how to escape the punishment, she can enter a state of ‘learned helplessness‘ in which she lost faith in her ability to escape the punishment.

Doomsday scenario’s can make us passive

When we relate the mouse’s story to climate change messages, we can see that punishment is effective in stopping people from doing something. Unfortunately most doomsday scenarios aren’t attached to very specific behaviour. They are generally related to a set of behaviours that are difficult to avoid at the same time: travel, meat consumption, heating, consumerism. Moreover the prospect of punishment can make us inactive. 

Achievable changes motivate us to act

Sketching achievable changes provides the prospect of reward. I discovered a nice example in alumni magazine of the VU University. In the article, professor Martijn Katan argued that by eating less meat you improve your own health and also benefit the planet. Double reward!

Professor Martijn Katan who wrote an article on how to use a dietary change to benefit your health and the planet

Reward motivates people to act. You can also read more about this in my motivation series. Moreover it steers people towards the rewarded behavior, telling them what to do.

So when it comes to changing behaviour, I am a proponent of suggesting achievable changes. Even if the results in themselves are seemingly marginal. In the end they may evoke bigger changes than expected. Providing doomsday scenario’s to activate people may be like using a cloud to move the sun.



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