State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Understanding the Mind as the Temperature Climbs

By Derek Sylvan

Warnings of potentially cataclysmic climate change have reached nearly every newspaper front page and legislative chamber around the globe since the 1990s. So why has the human response been so limited?

For over two decades, David Krantz has been working to answer this question.

Beneath the grand stone façade of Columbia University’s Schermerhorn Hall, granite steps lead to a set of heavy wooden doors. Inside and down a hallway is a less majestic entrance: a gray metal door covered with some fliers and plastic placards, the largest of which reads, “Center for Research on Environmental Decisions,” (CRED).

“The failures of recent international meetings to accomplish anything vis-à-vis climate change are really pretty interesting,” says Krantz, the director of CRED.  “Our research has given us some questions about what might work, which we want to pursue further.”

The bulk of the research Krantz oversees addresses the psychology behind human reactions to environmental risk and uncertainty.

Inside the small, bustling CRED office, every available inch of space is occupied by a staff member’s desk or a computer used for lab experiments. While findings from Antarctica, equatorial island nations and NASA satellites are constantly updating climate change projections, the research from this modest center may help explain how societies will ultimately respond.

The walls of his office are almost entirely blanketed with well-organized rows of books and academic journals. Krantz, who is 72, spends much of his time here advising CRED’s many researchers on the optimal ways to analyze data from their experiments.

Soft-spoken and fiercely intelligent, Krantz’s default facial expression is a slightly furrowed brow and a penetrating gaze, as if he is on the brink of solving the final step in a puzzle. The path he took to occupy this office is somewhat circuitous.

In 1960, Krantz graduated from Yale with a degree in mathematics and began contemplating his next move. He spent a lot of time contemplating numerous other issues as well.

“I could stand by garden plants and watch bees for a couple of hours,” he recalls. “I’m fascinated by the behavior patterns. I could track individual bees or watch rats exploring a new area or fish swimming in a tank. These are things I find intrinsically fascinating and I feel an urge to understand the mathematical terms underlying the models and, in neural terms, the brain models. I got encouragement with that interest and decided to go to graduate school in psychology.”

Trying to grasp the explanations for why systems work the way they work has occupied Krantz ever since.

As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, he studied color perception—the complex process through which light hits the eye and the brain instantly identifies the thousands of colors we see. Piecing together the structure of an intricate neural system, Krantz became one of the world’s leading authorities on the topic.

His other areas of study cover an impressive spectrum. In one article, Krantz analyzed the meaning of force in Newtonian physics. During a stint as Research Head at the fabled Bell Laboratories, he oversaw human information-processing projects. He has also engaged in measuring measurement itself, collaborating on a mammoth three-volume treatise on abstract measurement theory. Upon its completion, he sought something else to measure.

Around 1990, Krantz found himself particularly fascinated with the economic concept of discounting. Economists had models for how individuals discount the value of resources they plan to use in the future, compared with those they can consume now. Krantz wondered if the architecture behind these models was sound enough to explain real world decision-making, particularly surrounding natural resources.

“When I was first interested in this there wasn’t really anyone around to talk about it to very much. My closest colleagues who could talk about behavioral economics were my marketing colleagues,” he remembered.

Applying his skills in mathematics, measurement, and statistics to environmental issues, Krantz somewhat abruptly found himself at the center of a growing area of study. He was soon logging nearly full-time hours as a key member of the governing committee for what would become Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Krantz helped recruit a colleague in behavioral economics, Elke Weber, to the university. Their work together marked the genesis of CRED.

Krantz and Weber’s early CRED research transferred the study of behavioral economics from the individual level to the group level, analyzing the decision-making processes and social goals that emerge in a group context. In addition to laboratory experiments, Krantz conducted research with farmers in Brazil, Uganda, and Argentina to study the interplay between climate forecasts and agricultural decision-making. He undertook similar studies in the northeastern United States.

He also engaged in experiments to explore how trust is created in groups and what factors determine social goals. Through all of his research, Krantz has steadily honed in on some of the key issues that seem to be aiding or obstructing people when they make difficult decisions regarding future environmental resources.

Degrees of adherence to moral, ethical, and professional standards appear to be a major determinant of how subjects act. Additionally, when facing uncertainty, issue framing appears to play a large role in how subjects mentally represent and react to problems. Krantz thinks this could help inform the climate change mitigation debate, and that climate policies might gain more traction if framed as insurance rather than as responses to clear and present danger.

“If a truck is bearing down on you, you get out of the way. If a huge liability suit is bearing down on you it doesn’t have the urgency of dodging out of the street and getting out of the path of the truck. It raises the question of ‘will your insurance cover it?’”

But will rhetoric about insurance make people more willing to spend heavily on climate change mitigation measures? It may, if other CRED findings are to be believed. In experiments, subjects care more about future losses than future gains in both financial and environmental scenarios.

Krantz is quick to note the gulf between small-group laboratory experiments and international climate negotiations between dozens of countries.

“It’s naïve to think that if you’ve got a problem you’re just going to put that problem in a laboratory and see how it works… What actually happens is that you put the concepts derived from the problem in the laboratory and try to study at a more abstract level, and ultimately a whole new set of concepts emerges, which then makes your view of the real world problem quite different.”

Under Krantz’s guidance, the concepts that have emerged from CRED are beginning to reach a broad audience. In addition to publishing widely in academic journals, Krantz and his colleagues have condensed many CRED findings into a publication aimed at journalists, teachers, and politicians, The Psychology of Climate Change Communication.

How humans will ultimately respond to a changing climate is difficult to gauge. Krantz himself became familiar with the logic espoused by the zero-population growth movement in the 1960s. He then went on to have five children.

“If I saw a bunch of lemmings headed for the edge of a cliff… would I have a basis for optimism that one of them would get up and make a speech and the others would stop? No I wouldn’t. Both human speech and human intelligence probably exceeds that of the lemming. Is it enough to actually change what seems to be kind of a natural process of vast unthinking expansion and overuse of resources? I hope so, but I don’t see any reason to think so.”

Optimistic or not, Krantz is still working away inside the CRED office as many colleagues his age are retiring, finding out as much as he can.

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12 years ago

This really looks interesting. “Climate Change Communication”?

I haven’t had a chance to read the book, but if I have gathered it right and our behaviour changes with the climate, could this also be a reason for evolution?

vytautas kerbelis
vytautas kerbelis
12 years ago

The condition of the mind dear researcher makes a big difference by conditions such as a short attention span.