Psychology and the city: why the inner-workings of our minds is the greatest obstacle to a sustainable planet

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Psychological barriers and prejudices within the human mind are destroying any chance for individual, and consumer-led action. Can cities be re-designed to overcome them?

By Pierre Herman

The number of times I’ve heard people say they don’t give a damn about the environment and climate change is countless. Hardly born out of ignorance though, they are displaying what is in fact a normal, human psychological reaction to a seemingly distant problem that does not have immediate ramifications in their lives. It’s also an immensely stubborn obstacle to environmental progress that sustainable-lifestyle advocates cannot afford to overlook.

Climate-change denial aside, the psychological phenomena at play are almost too numerous to discuss, but here’s a quick perusal through a few of them.

Diffusion of responsibility

Also known as the bystander effect in situations where someone is in need of assistance, this is certainly one of the most potent, if least talked about phenomena preventing change at the individual level. When individuals are confronted with a problem in a group setting, they assume that others are taking charge and will be responsible for the consequences.

Put more simply: it’s is not my fault and not for me to find solutions to.  The most glaring evidence is our crowded roadways and continued (and contemptuous) love-affair with the vehicle, preferably large and luxurious if you can afford it.

Confirmation bias

This phenomenon explains why people will stubbornly cling to their own beliefs despite hard-to-dispute information that speaks the contrary: Only information which confirms their already consolidated beliefs is read or listened to, while anything that contradicts them is brazenly tossed aside.

It’s certainly at play in cases of climate-change denial and those who deny that environmental problems even exist (the mass media’s reluctance to publish stories about the environment are certainly a contributing factor) but it also affects environmentally forward-looking people who believe that sustainability will consist of only minor changes and quick fixes.

This bias gets reinforced every time drivers encounter traffic jams and packed parking lots. The message is: so many people can’t be wrong.

Tied to this is our biological tendency to follow the herd, which makes keeping up with the Joneses and conforming to what our friends think far more important than speaking out on important issues.

So many of us can't be wrong.

So many of us can’t be wrong.

Optimism bias

Humans are hardwired for optimism. It’s what has allowed us to evolve and thrive in a hostile environment that has no exit aside from an often cruel death. It lingers at the back of almost everyone’s minds: we will find a way forward because humans have always managed to do so.

Not a small number of environmentalists are convinced that technological innovation and development as well as green markets will lead the way forward, not swayed by the fact that technology is what has allowed markets to fuel environmental destruction in the first place.

Psychologists also remind us of a phenomena called Social inertia – also known as the fire alarm phenomena.  It explains why when presented with a situation that requires immediate and resolute action for survival, like a fire in our home or the moments after a plane crash, humans will freeze like deer in the headlights, and do absolutely nothing.

It also illustrates with remarkable clarity why despite urgent warnings from 97% of climate scientists, humans are avoiding action scientists say is necessary to stave off serious climate-change related risks, not to mention species extinction (including possibly our own).

We might add our darned short termism which affects everyone from career politicians to business executives concerned with immediate shareholder gains.  We’re also genetically predisposed for self-interest, which in some cases leads to sociopathic behaviour like extreme greed and corporate decisions made despite the clear detriment to others and the environment.

There is, however, a sliver (ever so fine) of hope.

Those individuals who can’t give two hoots about the environment? Well they also claim to be worried about their own health, longevity and that of their family.  These individuals don’t sign up for an urban bike-share scheme out of concern for the environment. Rather, they do so because cycling is practical, helps them stay in shape, and is financially feasible for them.

So the most successful cities are going to be ones designed around people’s intrinsic self-interest, designed to help them improve their own health, to enjoy a higher quality of life (including a better work-life balance), and be entertained along the way.

There’s more good news too. Humans will adapt to almost any environment. Separate home and work with a 40-minute commute on an eight-lane highway, and people will buy gas-guzzling SUVs that make them feel safe. Build gargantuan  homes, and people fill them to capacity with all manner of superfluous junk.

Conversely, citizens in high-density downtown areas are much more likely to dispense with a private vehicle, walk to work and support urban-agriculture. It’s no surprise then that despite outward appearances, New York City is by a large margin America’s most sustainable city.


Among the good news is the ease with which people adapt to new environments.

The moral is, people dislike being forced and will stubbornly adhere to factual misinformation, but they will readily adapt without the least bit of pressure when it suits them.

And rather than battling all the psychological workings at play, we can build cities that take advantage of them.

The idea of “nudging” us into being better citizens has received considerable media attention. Also called “choice-architecture”, a nudge pushes people subconsciously towards the more socially, or environmentally, responsible action, even if the chooser believes he is making the choice out of personal self-interest.

A nudge might consist of a letter to your home telling you that your neighbours recycle. This has been shown to increase recycling rates. Or it might involve something as banal as putting healthy food at eye level in your supermarket.

Nudging has naturally led to questions about freedom of choice and social-engineering by the state, never mind that Richard Thaler, the University of Chicago professor of Behavioural Science who developed the theory, has said that nudging alone wouldn’t be enough to battle climate change.

Gamification, or “incentive-centred design” is also garnering attention, aiming to make the least attractive option more enjoyable. A staircase with steps that play music to lessen elevator use or a park with a light show driven by people’s footsteps to encourage exercise are just a couple of examples.

There’s another reason why cities are well placed for psychology-driven change: it’s where social trends begin and spread like wildfire.

The idea has even been supported by recent science. Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found through computational models that it takes just 10% of the population to have an unshakable belief in something for it to be adopted by the rest of society.

Professor Boleslaw Szymanski of the institute said:

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas, [but]once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame. In general, people do not like to have an unpopular opinion and are always seeking to try locally to come to consensus.”

This tipping point certainly bodes well for the sustainability movement. With our tendency to follow the herd, adapt to our environment and to believe what we see around us, cities are the perfect place to expose people en masse to new ideas that support the transition to sustainable and low-impact living.

But then again, with so many psychological obstacles making individual and consumer-led change less likely than ever, it’s possible that more stringent laws and penalties for environmentally destructive behaviour will have to be on the agenda too.



2 comments on “Psychology and the city: why the inner-workings of our minds is the greatest obstacle to a sustainable planet

  1. Glider Omega
    September 22, 2014

    Thanks for a great read. I agree with some of the article but I humbly suggest you should also focus on other issues before it becomes convincing. For example, the way that power concentrates in the city maintained by destructive narratives like progressivism, and what the implications are for that on sustainability and socio-economic inequality in dense urban populations.

  2. ecoinformer
    September 22, 2014

    Hello and thanks very much for your comment, which I’ve found quite inspring. I do agree with you that the wider tendency to take for granted what progress is, including corporate gentrification of neighbourhoods, growth, and the role of technology, is disenfranchising for many and especially at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. The undemocratic nature of cities reflects the same nature in the rest of society, i.e. entrenched economic interests that sway (or corrupt) political decision making. I plan on discussing this in later articles and I welcome any more tips and suggestions you might have! Thanks again

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