Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2010

Cognitive Barriers to Environmental Action: Problems and Solutions

by Lisa L. Shu and Max Bazerman


We explore interventions at the individual level and focus on recognized cognitive barriers from behavioral decision-making literature. In particular, we highlight three cognitive barriers that impede sound individual decision making that have particular relevance to behaviors impacting the environment. First, despite claiming that they want to leave the world in good condition for future generations, people intuitively discount the future to a greater degree than can be rationally defended. Second, positive illusions lead us to conclude that energy problems do not exist or are not severe enough to merit action. Third, we interpret events in a self-serving manner, a tendency that causes us to expect others to do more than we do to solve energy problems. We then propose ways in which these biases could actually be used to our advantage in steering ourselves toward better judgment. Finally, we outline the key questions on the research frontier from the behavioral decision-making perspective and debunk the myth that behavioral and neoclassical economic perspectives need be in conflict.

Keywords: Decision Choices and Conditions; Judgments; Consumer Behavior; Environmental Sustainability; Cognition and Thinking; Prejudice and Bias;


Shu, Lisa L., and Max Bazerman. "Cognitive Barriers to Environmental Action: Problems and Solutions." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 11-046, November 2010.