Cognitive psychologists generally divide our decision making systems, with respect to risk, into analytical vs. emotional reactions. The former carefully considers costs versus benefits, while the latter interprets risks emotionally; as a “primitive and urgent reaction to danger” intended to rapidly size up a given situation and remove us from that danger. Neither system is particularly suited for rationally considering long-term benefits thanks to our evolutionary past as hunter/gatherers.
As a result our analytical analyses and emotional responses tend to over emphasize those events, threats, etc., that have immediate impact in our daily lives – i.e., job loss, daily deadlines, etc. vs. rising sea levels or green house gas (GHG) emissions. In addition, these studies have demonstrated that the degree of our reactions, responses, urgencies, and calls to action end up being relative to our perception of the impact on ourselves and those we call our own.
However, this picture begins to change when decision making shifts from the individual and very small group level to larger groups, as demonstrated by researchers affiliated with the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED). If cooperation and group unity is achieved, decision making is often made with respect to the common good. Delayed, long-term benefits are given more weight by groups (households, companies, community boards, etc.) than by individuals.
Uniformity among group members, high levels of cooperation, and functional integration become the hallmarks of successful groups (see Evolution: This View of Life and The Evolution Institute for more information on this). Selfish behaviors tend to be locally advantageous and more relevant in the short term, while pro-social behaviors tend to be globally advantageous and more relevant in the long term. Prosocial behaviors also tend to enhance cooperation among group members. And our social/cultural norms act as a kind of “glue”, binding together unrelated individuals within larger groups and providing a measure of uniformity in their behavior.
Relative to the building construction industry, it would seem that short term, local, benefits often outweigh long-term benefits when making decisions on how green to be. Following the above line of reasoning, this suggests that in those cases where short term, local benefits have won out, individuals or small groups whose common good did not necessarily coincide with green’s delayed benefits were the primary decision makers involved. And it would also suggest that these decision makers had less influence from other people within their own organization, as well as outside their organization.
So in 2009 I conducted a pilot study to test the following hypothesis: The more people who have a say in the decisions involved in a construction project (particularly earlier in the design process), the more likely it will be designed and built sustainably (LEED or otherwise), all else being equal. You can see a pdf of the paper and slides I presented at the 2009 Behavior Energy and Climate Change (BECC) conference here: The Decision to Go Green: Individual vs. Group Influences on Our Likelihood to Build Sustainably.
To test this, I compared a data set of certified, non-certified but green, and conventionally designed facilities with respect to the decision makers – the number of decision makers involved, who they were, their demographic make-up, their core values, and the degree of outside influence that impacted their decisions. Specifically I ran a Kendall’s Tau-B correlation test looking at the degree of correlation between the number of people involved in the decision process (directly and indirectly) and both a) the number of sustainable elements incorporated and b) the level of certification sought.
The reader is referred to the slides and paper for a more thorough discussion, but though preliminary, the results did support the hypothesis that the more people who have a say in the decisions involved in a construction project, the more likely it will be designed and built sustainably, all else being equal. This would suggest that by somehow creating an environment where building owners actively reach out to their employees, as well as their clients, tenants, surrounding neighbors, etc., and directly solicit their opinions regarding any new construction or existing renovations, it will increase the likelihood that these projects will be sustainable and certified. Future research will expand the database of projects examined and better control for local/regional variation.