Imagine that you are strolling through a park on a sunny day, dressed in your nicest clothes for a big occasion. As you walk past people on the trail, you stop at a fountain and suddenly notice a young boy struggling in the water who is clearly in danger of drowning. Others in the park seem oblivious to the situation, and you know you could easily save the child—but at the expense of ruining your clothes. What do you do?
To most, the answer is obvious—you’d step in and save the child without hesitation; the cost of the ruined clothes is trivial compared to the emergency at hand. However, in 1972, the philosopher Peter Singer used this question1 to illustrate something crucial about moral dilemmas, something that also sheds light on how we engage in decision-making when it comes to sustainable and altruistic matters.
The solution to Singer’s drowning child dilemma seems obvious to us for a few reasons: it presents an immediate emergency, it is clear our intervention would resolve the crisis, and it overwhelms us with emotions that spring us into action. Yet the world we live in today presents us with plenty of emergencies that lack these psychological catalysts. For example, donating mosquito nets to prevent malaria should warrant the same moral calculus as ruining clothes to save a drowning child, yet many will never give money to this cause. So what’s going on here?
Our minds struggle with modern abstract issues because our evolved emotional responses stem from the types of problems our early ancestors faced. This is a problem when current emergencies like the climate crisis require us to feel concern for people we don’t know and people who don’t even exist yet.
But we are not helpless. There are steps we can take to make positive responses to abstract problems easier.
The Psychology of Sustainability
To understand how we can better align our behaviors with our values, we can delve into the causes of mental biases in decision-making over issues of sustainability. A study published this year2 from Frontiers in Psychology identified some of the most relevant psychological characteristics of sustainability challenges. Here are the first three:
- Experiential vagueness: Climate change can’t be easily perceived.
- Long-term effects and future risk: Sustainable behavior entails costs for improvements that will come years later (with similar delayed consequences for unsustainable behaviors).
- Complexity and uncertainty: It is difficult to know how much change is necessary and what the true consequences are.
These insights show a deeper psychological basis to Peter Singer’s moral dilemma and shed light on the difficulties we face in aligning our sustainable decisions with our values. What makes these findings even more illuminating is that the remaining challenges are directly related to social factors: the threat to the status quo, fear of losing social status, and group pressure. This suggests that a large portion of our sustainability challenges could be addressed through cultural change. Numerous other studies have also found differences in cultural attitudes3 and sustainable behaviors4, including differences in collectivist cultures (where the group is emphasized over the self) versus individualistic cultures, and materialist versus postmaterialist cultures.
This is great news for us, because it is well within our control to change cultural expectations and bring about more sustainable norms and behaviors in society.
The Power of Culture
As a social species, our thoughts and actions are highly influenced by the cultures we inhabit, and they are shaped by the beliefs and practices of those around us. Most of us have grown used to a culture that encourages waste and overconsumption. It is only recently that many have begun to reject these cultural expectations, not just because they are unsustainable, but also because they lead to inherently unfulfilling lives. This is within our power to change.
We change culture every day: we contribute to the culture of our families, of our communities, and, to some degree, of society as a whole. We write the rules for what is moral, we define what is “normal,” and we influence the behaviors of those around us by the examples we set. Ultimately, by leveraging culture, we can all align our behaviors with our values, overcome psychological barriers, and create a world where sustainability is not just an individual choice, but a collective endeavor.
- Singer P., Famine, Affluence, and Morality (1972)
- Korteling J., et al., Cognitive bias and how to improve sustainable decision making (2023), Frontiers in Psychology
- Sarigöllü E., A Cross-Country Exploration of Environmental Attitudes (2009), Environment and Behavior
- McCarty, J., et al., The Influence of Individualism, Collectivism, and Locus of Control on Environmental Beliefs and Behavior (2001), Journal of Public Policy & Marketing