By JON GERTNER
Two days after Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States, the Pew Research Center released a poll ranking the issues that Americans said were the most important priorities for this year. At the top of the list were several concerns — jobs and the economy — related to the current recession. Farther down, well after terrorism, deficit reduction and energy (and even something the pollsters characterized as “moral decline”) was climate change. It was priority No. 20. That was last place.
A little more than a week after the poll was published, I took a seat in a wood-paneled room at Columbia University, where a few dozen academics had assembled for a two-day conference on the environment. In many respects, the Pew rankings were a suitable backdrop for the get-together, a meeting of researchers affiliated with something called CRED, or the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. A branch of behavioral research situated at the intersection of psychology and economics, decision science focuses on the mental processes that shape our choices, behaviors and attitudes. The field’s origins grew mostly out of the work, beginning in the 1970s, of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two psychologists whose experiments have demonstrated that people can behave unexpectedly when confronted with simple choices. We have many automatic biases — we’re more averse to losses than we are interested in gains, for instance — and we make repeated errors in judgment based on our tendency to use shorthand rules to solve problems. We can also be extremely susceptible to how questions are posed. Would you undergo surgery if it had a 20 percent mortality rate? What if it had an 80 percent survival rate? It’s the same procedure, of course, but in various experiments, responses from patients can differ markedly.
Over the past few decades a great deal of research has addressed how we make decisions in financial settings or when confronted with choices having to do with health care and consumer products. A few years ago, a Columbia psychology professor named David H. Krantz teamed up with Elke Weber — who holds a chair at Columbia’s business school as well as an appointment in the school’s psychology department — to assemble an interdisciplinary group of economists, psychologists and anthropologists from around the world who would examine decision-making related to environmental issues. Aided by a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation, CRED has the primary objective of studying how perceptions of risk and uncertainty shape our responses to climate change and other weather phenomena like hurricanes and droughts. The goal, in other words, isn’t so much to explore theories about how people relate to nature, which has been a longtime pursuit of some environmental psychologists and even academics like the Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson. Rather, it is to finance laboratory and field experiments in North America, South America, Europe and Africa and then place the findings within an environmental context.