It’s a behavioral-economics gig

A few years back, I stumbled on an online course in behavioral economics. It sounded really interesting so I took it. I was definitely not disappointing. It was indeed very interesting and useful.

Behavioral economics is sort of a mix of economics and psychology. Basically, studying the reasons underlying why people do what they do.

Behavioral economics is applied by advertisers and marketers to feed the engines of consumerism, so people may well be inclined to mistrust this branch of social science. But it can just as easily be applied by beneficial social movements. And by us as individuals trying to motivate themselves to adopt beneficial actions and behaviors.

That’s one of the things I realized about this whole “deep green” thing I coined to sum up my book, blog, & other channels: It’s a behavioral-economics gig. Like, how do I motivate people to take some beneficial actions on behalf of the biosphere and on behalf of living things other than themselves?

How do I motivate people to see that they have a self-interest in taking certain actions and adopting certain behaviors, when doing so involves moving out of the comfy groove of established norms?

And, this applies to me motivating myself also.

If we think of it as behavioral economics, we can see that it’s a soft discipline as opposed to needing some sort of special equipment or hardware. Unless you consider our brain equipment and hardware, which actually yes I kind of do.

BTW, for those of you who may not be aware, online courses have existed for a very long time. Long before the pandemic shutdowns. Many prestigious universities offer free online courses known as MOOCs (Massively Open Online Course).

I guess it’s sort of the modern computerized version of what used to be called correspondence courses. Yes, back in the “old days,” people took courses by postal mail. There were correspondence courses in shorthand and other secretarial skills, and I imagine there were academic courses offered by mail as well. And definitely drawing, painting.

One of my takeaways from that course was the idea that the more times in a day that we are compelled to exercise our willpower, the more worn-down we get and the harder it is to exercise our willpower successfully by the end of the day. I guess that makes sense. If you think about what it’s like being on a diet, for example. Or trying to avoid single-use plastic without having to starve or go thirsty.

And add to that the fact that many of us in the Degrowth, Deep Adaptation, and related movements feel we are some sort of helpers/guides for some level of planetary biospheric hospice care. And just like with a hospice patient, we don’t know necessarily what stage of the end-of-life we are in. That kind of thing can wear on a person’s mind and heart. And we still have to keep a level head for the little daily stuff all around us.

Further Exploration:

• The behavioral-economics MOOC I took a few years back was titled something like “The science of irrational behavior.” It was offered via Duke University and the professor was Dan Ariely. Here in this article by Isabel Engel on, Ariely offers his top 4 money tips. You may find some overlap with your efforts to make daily living choices that are more ecologically aware. Especially the first two tips I find resonate very much. The novelty of new stuff wears off fast; and also we need to consider the future, not just the present.

• I can’t seem to find a reference to Ariely’s MOOC that I took, but he does have an extensive online presence, including a YouTube channel and writings.

• And here’s another Scooby snack for you, this one courtesy of Farnam Street blog. Dan Ariely on 10 irrational human behaviors.

“Alienation Is a Losing Game: What Urbanists Can Learn From the Haters”. Article by Tristan Cleveland; cited in StrongTowns digest newsletter today. Talks about how we (activists etc.) often make the mistake of using speech that adds heat and divisiveness instead of being persuasive. Cleveland mentions three recently published books about changing minds. He also mentions Daryl Davis, the black jazz musician who convinced multiple KKK members to leave that organization. He did this by spending hours talking with them and listening with them. Links to this transcript of those conversations are included. So definitely some reading homework for me there!

• The three books Cleveland mentions in his article on StrongTowns are: How Minds Change (David McRaney); Think Again (Adam Grant); and How To Have Impossible Conversations (Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay). I haven’t read any of them, but they are all instantly bumped to the top of my nonfiction reading list.