The Self Serving Bias is a Thorn in the Side of Climate Negotiations

As if getting all the world’s economies to come together and sacrifice precious growth in order to save the future of the planet wasn’t hard enough, a new study finds that the self-serving bias — the tendency to believe that what is beneficial to oneself is also fair — may be making things even more difficult.

In the experiment researchers presented college students from the U.S. and China with three different scenarios. In the first scenario the students were told that the U.S. and China needed to cut emissions (thus lowering GDP) in order to stave off climate change, and it was up to the students to choose how the countries would divide the burden.  The latter two scenarios were nearly identical. In the second scenario “Country A” and “Country B” needed to split the cost of building a dam that would stop floods, and in the third scenario “farmer A” and “farmer B” needed to split the cost of diverting a river that threatened their crops.

In the latter two scenarios there was no difference in the way U.S. students and Chinese students chose to divide the burden. However, in the first scenario, where the identity of the countries was known, U.S. students chose to place a relatively larger burden on China and Chinese students chose to place a relatively larger burden on the U.S.

The results suggest that even if the countries of the world are able to theoretically agree on the burden that countries of various sizes and emissions levels should bear, once the theoretical burdens became real every country would feel they were paying too high a price. The authors express optimism because the study shows that creating a “veil of ignorance” can eliminate the bias, but I’m not sure there’s any way for high level climate negotiation diplomats to make themselves unaware of what a particular proposal will mean for their country. Sigh. At least there’s always the possibility of black swan geo-engineering breakthroughs.
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Kriss, P.H., Loewenstein, G., Xianghong, W., Weber, R.A. (2011). Behind the veil of ignorance: Self-serving bias in climate change negotiations Judgment and Decision Making, 6 (7), 602-615

2 Responses to The Self Serving Bias is a Thorn in the Side of Climate Negotiations

  1. Neil Bates says:

    Well, at first I thought it was silly since of course there is such a bias, but good to see it somewhat explicated, quantified and scoped into context.

  2. This has been the most difficult part of the movement to save the planet. Governments that are unwilling to cooperate with each other, and make the changes that are necessary to preserve the environment. These things cannot happen overnight, but to many are unwilling to even make a movement away from sheer selfish self-interests

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