The IPCC on Risk, Part 3: Decisions, Decisions

In the previous article of this series I introduced the IPCC’s views on the landscape for decision making. This landscape was described in terms of climate policy choices, levels at which decisions are taken, and the categories of uncertainty that influence such decisions. Whilst I accepted that the IPCC’s taxonomy appeared fair and unbiased, I pointed out that, by taking a risk management perspective that axiomatically treated the climate change risk as paramount, the IPCC was guilty of a cognitive bias referred to as the focusing effect.

Moving on to the second element of the IPCC’s risk management framework (as described in section 2.4 of AR5 Chapter 2) we encounter a preoccupation with the psychological factors that influence the decision maker. These are cognitive biases that adversely affect intuitive decision making, such that the decisions arrived at are sub-optimal. Given the IPCC’s unquestioned assumption of the primacy of climate change risk, one cannot be surprised to see that the IPCC sees a sub-optimal risk-taking decision to be one that fails to correctly recognise the scale and importance of climate change. However, upon reading section 2.4 of Chapter 2, it quickly becomes apparent that the IPCC does not wish to eradicate such intuitive decision making but to cynically exploit it in order that cognitive biases may lead to decisions that suit the IPCC’s purposes. That, unfortunately, is only to be expected given the pernicious influence of the focusing effect.

The Intuitive and the Deliberative

The central idea that underpins the strategy outlined in section 2.4 is the distinction to be made between intuitive (System 1) and deliberative (System 2) thinking. The former ‘operates automatically and quickly, with no voluntary control’. The latter ‘initiates and executes effortful and abstract cognitive operations when these are seen as needed’. In the world of cognitive psychology, neither is considered to be preferable over the other since the two systems of thinking have their strengths and weaknesses.  However, a particular feature of intuitive thinking is that it uses simplified cognitive heuristics to make snap judgments. It is primarily a result of the emotional centres of the brain acting upon mental models of reality, and it is motivated by internal states that embody needs and goals. As such, the decisions taken need not be logical or rational and may sometimes be inappropriate in the circumstances. This worries the IPCC since they can see this as the root cause of the unwillingness of individuals and organisations to act in accordance with the risk posed by climate change. The idea that deliberative (system 2) thinking could also lead people to take decisions that the IPCC would not endorse seems not to have occurred to them.

Of course, the other characteristic of intuitive thinking is that it can be manipulated to suit the agenda of those who don’t like the direction that it might otherwise take. As the IPCC puts it:

“Descriptive models not only help explain behaviours that deviate from the predictions of normative models of choice but also provide entry points for the design of decision aids and interventions collectively referred to as choice architecture, indicating that people’s choices depend in part on the ways that possible outcomes of different options are framed and presented (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008)”  

By ‘normative models of choice’ one can assume that the IPCC is referring here to evaluation frameworks such as are provided by the climate models that made it into CMIP. I will be saying a bit more about normative models of choice and ‘choice architecture’ in the next two articles but, in the meantime, it is enlightening to delve deeper into the various areas of cognitive bias that the IPCC sees as both a problem and an opportunity.

Status Quo Bias and Loss Aversion

A main reason for the IPCC’s distrust of intuitive thinking is that it can treat the status quo and the recent past as a preferred state that the taking of action may jeopardise. This presupposition is deemed particularly likely when evaluating actions that have the purpose of tackling risks associated with unfamiliar low-probability, high-consequence events. According to the IPCC:

“Intuitive processes work well when decision makers have copious data on the outcomes of different decisions and recent experience is a meaningful guide for the future, as would be the case in stationary environments (Feltovich et al., 2006). These processes do not work well, however, for low-probability high-consequence events for which the decision maker has limited or no past experience (Weber, 2011). In such situations, reliance on intuitive processes for making decisions will most likely lead to maintaining the status quo and focusing on the recent past.”  

The IPCC blames this inclination to maintain the status quo on a cognitive bias called ‘loss aversion’. In loss aversion the current situation is used as the datum point, and prospective losses associated with an action are more influential in guiding decisions than are the prospective gains. It is an essentially emotive calculation, influenced further by a desire to always take the line of least effort:

“Sticking with the current state of affairs is the easy option, favoured by emotional responses in situations of uncertainty (“better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”), by many proverbs or rules (“when in doubt, do nothing”), and observed biases in the accumulation of arguments for different choice options (Weber et al., 2007).”  

Given that loss aversion is considered to be one of the climate change denier’s favourite cognitive biases, the document is a little short of good examples of it in action. The best that is offered is the supposed reason why everyone is reluctant to invest in an electric car. According to the IPCC, this reluctance is because the loss incurred in the initial outlay is given too much consideration, overriding the individual’s appreciation of the longer-term financial gains that one should expect from their fuel efficiency. I don’t suppose it could possibly also have anything to do with their impracticality given current states of technology and infrastructure, could it?

As one might expect when the focusing effect is in charge, the IPCC see status quo bias purely as an impediment to taking decisions in line with their own policy. On the subject of how status quo bias explains why we should all be obsessed with maintaining the earth’s climate as it is, as if we just happen to live in the climate Mother Earth has been seeking since its birth, the IPCC is strangely quiet.

Before leaving this point, I should point out that there are other examples where emotive reasoning interferes with decision-making under uncertainty. For example, there is the desire to avoid a high-consequence outcome for which the possibility has been conceived and yet cannot be easily confirmed. This desire is captured by the aphorism ‘better safe than sorry’ and, as an example of intuitive reasoning, it is about as intuitive as it gets. This desire goes by the name of the precautionary principle, and yet the IPCC, far from viewing the principle as yet another simple heuristic that can lead to sub-optimal decisions, chooses to promote it as part of the normative (i.e. logical) decision-making arsenal (see next article).

The Greater Good

When it comes to climate change, it is clear from section 2.4 that the IPCC prefers to see status quo bias and loss aversion as principal causes of maladaptive thinking. Some might find it odd, therefore, that having highlighted the inappropriateness of such cognitive bias, the IPCC should then immediately seek to encourage it – but only when it suits their purpose:

“Patt and Zeckhauser (2000) show, for example, how information about the status quo and other choice options can be presented differently to create an action bias with respect to addressing the climate change problem.”  

So what are we saying here? Cognitive bias is wrong but action bias is okay? Presumably it is okay when the bias is “addressing the climate change problem”. And, of course, we don’t have to worry about whether or not the outcome is sub-optimal because the IPCC has already done all of the deliberative (i.e. correct) thinking for you, so you don’t have to bother:

“More generally, choice architecture often involves changing the description of choice options and the context of a decision to overcome the pitfalls of intuitive (System 1) processes without requiring decision makers to switch to effortful (System 2) thinking (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008).”  

It’s just those nice guys at the IPCC ‘nudging’ everyone in the right direction. And we needn’t restrict our interest to matters of status quo bias and loss aversion either:

“Moser (2010) provides other ways to frame climate change information and response options in ways consistent with the communication goal and characteristics of the audience.”  

Why do I feel so uncomfortable when I read “consistent with the communication goals”? Why am I feeling so worried about the significance of the “characteristics of the audience”?

The Availability Heuristic

There are several more cognitive biases that receive the IPCC treatment in AR5, Chapter 2. These include hyperbolic discounting, risk aversion, uncertainty aversion (which in the hands of the IPCC turns out to be risk aversion by another name) and ambiguity aversion. All of the above are treated as pitfalls for the intuitive thinker, set to lull them into making incorrect decisions that a deliberative thinker would avoid. This may be true, but the IPCC, in the thrall of the focusing effect, can only see how this acts against taking decisions that reduce climate change risk. For example, ambiguity aversion is correctly identified as a cognitive bias that leads individuals to unjustifiably treat less well-defined uncertainties as representing a greater risk. This is then portrayed as a reason why the inexpert decision maker (being supposedly more prone to ambiguity aversion) is reluctant to take risky actions that might reduce the impact of climate change. Nowhere, however, in section 2.4 is there the recognition that, in the absence of well-defined probabilities, this is also a cognitive bias that could lead to an overestimation of climate change risk and is actually the driving force behind the precautionary principle.

But it is when investigating how individuals use new information to re-evaluate risk that the IPCC really gets into its stride. For a long time it had been assumed that the best way to galvanize people into action is to warn of a future catastrophe (think of Charles Dickens and the fact that it finally took the Ghost of Christmas Future to do the trick). Unfortunately, such tactics do not always work as well as one might hope with the intuitive decision maker. In particular, the problem with climate change is that people are inclined to make intuitive decisions regarding climate (i.e. abstract tales of future, potentially horrendous conditions) based upon knowledge of weather (i.e. present, salient and not so bad conditions). Consequently, the decisions are hampered by what has been termed availability heuristics, in which the salient has more influence than the abstract. That’s fine when the decision is informed by weather that is showing obvious signs of a trend for the worse, but not so fine when no such trend is overtly apparent, at least in the purview of the decision maker.

The IPCC is particularly concerned regarding weather-inspired insouciance since it is in the nature of the beast that the impact caused by carbon dioxide emissions today has a non-linear influence on tomorrow’s weather. Such non-linearity poses a further challenge to the intuitive thinker, who may therefore underestimate the implications of a wait-and-see strategy. Consequently, even when the prospect of future catastrophe is taken seriously, it doesn’t always result in the sense of urgency that the IPCC would like to see.

There are two ways to address this perceived complacency. The first is to persevere with the Ghost of Weather Future, and emphasise impact over probability in the hope that fear of a certain demise takes hold. The second is to change the narrative so that the Ghost of Weather Present becomes the more effective spectre; instead of abstract tales of potential calamity, invoke a present day emergency based upon what climate change is supposed to be already achieving. Suddenly, the availability heuristics are working to the IPCC’s advantage.

It isn’t difficult to find an explicit statement in section 2.4 to the effect that availability bias should be enrolled within the IPCC’s arsenal of “entry points for the design of decision aids and interventions”. It starts with the recognition that one can:

“…apply social cognitive theory to develop a model of climate advocacy to increase the attention given to climate change in the spirit of social amplification of risk.”  

An explanation as to how risk can be ‘socially amplified’ follows quickly:

“One challenge is how to facilitate correct inferences about the role of climate change as a function of extreme event frequency and severity. Many parts of the world have seen increases in the frequency and magnitude of heat waves and heavy precipitation events…That said, the perception that the impact of climate change is neither immediate nor local persists (Leiserowitz et al., 2008), leading many to think it rational to advocate a wait-and-see approach to emissions reductions (Sterman, 2008; Dutt and Gonzalez, 2013)”  

The availability bias has found a new roll, and what better way to milk the salience from every extreme weather event than to do so under the aegis of the deliberative or (as the IPCC would say) normative evaluation afforded by extreme weather event attribution. I may be being cynical here but, whichever way you look at it, it is ironic that yet another cognitive bias that looms large in the list of the intuitive decision-maker’s weaknesses should nevertheless end up in the IPCC’s bag of deliberative tricks.

Of course, one downside to the IPCC changing tactics, so that the availability heuristic works in its favour, is that all extreme weather has to be cited as evidence of global warming – including the cold snaps. This requires some inventiveness, such as the coinage of terms like ‘global weirding’ and some quite speculative theories regarding the jet stream. Gone are the times when events such as the Texas winter-storms could be dismissed as the sort of weather event that only climate change deniers fixate upon.

So How Does the IPCC Think Decisions Should be Taken?

In this article I have concentrated upon what the IPCC sees as the weaknesses of intuitive decision making when it comes to climate change. I have also commented upon the brazen way in which the IPCC advocates the exploitation of such bias in order to further the good cause, as they see it. In particular, I have suggested that the currently preferred narrative that treats climate change as a present and salient danger rather than an abstract future peril, can be seen as just another example of how the intuitive decision maker is being manipulated into making the ‘right’ decision. However, particularly with regard to extreme weather event attribution, one has to recognise that there are deliberative evaluations to hand that the expert may employ, and that these (normative) approaches should be respected. But to what extent? In the next article I will attempt to answer that question.

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February 20, 2021 at 02:42AM

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