Cold, Hard Grass

People treat environmental choices like financial decisions

Money in grassWhen it comes to weighing quick benefits against long-term gains, people make environmental trade-offs in much the same way as financial ones, according to a new psychology study.

It’s well-known that people prefer to grab money now rather than wait for a larger amount later. For instance, most would rather get $250 right away instead of $300 in 10 years – a process known as “discounting” future events.

Researchers presented similar choices to people but included scenarios that focused on environmental issues. They found that participants preferred to get, for example, 22 days of good air quality now rather than 31 good days a year later. This “discount” rate was roughly the same for money-related decisions, suggesting that extensive research on financial discounting can also be applied to environmental policy, the authors report in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Participants were less short-sighted when faced with unpleasant scenarios. For instance, they said they would rather deal with a small trash-collection problem now than suffer through a much more severe problem later. So environmental policies might be more effective if they focus on what people will lose, rather than what they stand to gain, says co-author Elke Weber at Columbia University. – Roberta Kwok

Source: Hardisty, D.J. and E.U. Weber. 2009. Discounting future green: money versus the environment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/a0016433

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