Five Inconvenient Human Tendencies that Wire You for Unsustainability

Bertrand Russell said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts”.

Imagine for a second that I am Betrand Russel. To give you a visual support, this is what I look like:

Now imagine, it’s a sunny afternoon and you and me sit in your favourite coffee shop. You order a soy latte, I order a non-caffeinated coffee with skim milk and light my pipe. You sit in the shadow of a birktree. I have sun rays shining on my forehead. The kind that only an early spring day can bring.

“Berti” you say “Why should I doubt myself?”.

“Because”, I say.

You thank me for the insightful conversation and I leave.

Your thirst of knowledge doesn’t let you sleep. You want to know what this whole doubting thing is about. So you call your mum. She is certain that there is no reason to doubt yourself and gives you a pep talk. You are elated for another year. One day your best friend calls and tells you that you are an idiot. Your doubt creeps back in. Now you really want to know. And because you are on your holiday in Norway, you call the Norwegian Parliament. They are happy to help you and know the right person: Per Espen Stoknes, a psychologist and politician for the Green Party studied why humans are primed to act in ways that are not conducive to sustainability. Here is what he tells you:

1. You care mostly about yourself

An unfortunate side effect of being a human - or any living creature - is that everything you experience in your life involves you somehow. You were part of the dinner last night. You got yelled at by your boss. You stole the beautiful, lush flowers from your neighbours garden. You ran out of sugar. As a result, you tend to be biased that everything needs to please you. From an evolutionary perspective, your self-interest is not egoism only, in the sense of me-first. Self-interest is also expressed in the drive to spread your genes like wildfire.

Self-interest shows itself especially in social-dilemmas where there is a clear winner and loser. The degree to which you exploit others might vary. You tend to act more selfish towards strangers and opponents than you do towards your in-group. From an evolutionary standpoint, this can be explained with reciprocity. When you give food to someone in your group who was unable to gather or hunt for themselves, you can expect that one day, when you are unable to gather or hunt for yourself, you will also get food. People that don’t belong to your in-group are seen as not-me or not-us. Your primal drive calls for you being the center of the universe.

This is, when your mind runs rampant and you let your primal brain take over. Fortunately, to control your egoism, humanity developed a mechanism, called culture. Culture developed to shape the biological short-term self-interest into longer term group and community interests.

2. You want to be first

You know what chimpanzees, wolves, horses, moose and you have in common? They create hierarchies. The higher your status, the more likely it is that you can have sex with whom you want. The drive for high status can be explained with the same reason as egoism: you want your genes to spread. The problem though is, that status is relative. You don’t want much, you want more than others.

You want to be the ruler of the world. The most beautiful person in the room. The smartest gal in town. And you would kill to get there.

OK, maybe that’s exaggerated. But you get the point.

Winning in relative status feels more urgent in the human brain than any long-term threats, like climate change.

As we have access to the whole planet via news and social media, there are always others ahead of us that have more: money, fame, brains, friends. Your primal drive rather wants you to gain in status than to allow for long-term goals.

3. You are a copycat

Did you really come up with that idea yourself?

Were you really the first one on this planet who did this?

Is your style really your own making?

Yes, you are unique. Like a perfect little snowflake, sitting on your fingertip. No one has ever been like you, is like you, or will ever be like you. But as painful as it might be to admit: you became what you are by imitation. When it comes to your behaviour, imitation is paramount. You do as your big brother does, who does as your dad does. If I show you these two lines
And I ask you which one is shorter. And I put you in a room with a bunch of people who say the second one is shorter. You are likely to agree. At least, that’s what research experiments found out.

My dog Zula doesn’t like to eat dry food. When her dog friend eats dry food though, she wants it. Imitating others is efficient and safe. It encourages learning and survival. We all do it. All the time.

Because of this imitating instinct, it comes hard to us to do something rather novel. As long as the majority doesn’t do it, we won’t. Sucks for climate change. There is no majority already behaving responsible that you can imitate. The good news is: imitation is not destiny. You can choose differently. You can choose wisely.

4. You only care about the next 2 seconds

Habits are formed through a trigger, followed by a reward. Did you know that the optimal time interval for learning between a trigger and reward is one to two seconds. 1-2 seconds!

I have experienced this first hand with Zula. If I don’t give her her treat immediately after I teach her something new, she doesn’t get it.

From an evolutionary perspective, as hunter-gatherers we got immediate rewards. It was only when we became farmers, that we had to wait a couple months for the reward. There are large differences in how good individuals are to delay gratification. We still weigh present outcomes as much more important than distant ones. Never mind the future.

5. You are incapable of perceiving risk

Here’s another funny quirk about you. You are bad at many things, but one of your worst skills is your ability to perceive risks. You are not only biased by your history defining which risks you even notice. You also disregard risks that you cannot see or feel. Just as you suck in delaying gratification, you also suck in considering delayed or invisible risks. From an evolutionary perspective this of course makes sense. When you see a tiger in your kitchen who eats your dinner for tomorrow, you better make sure to run away.


“Those are the five distinct reasons” Per says “why you should doubt yourself. They are partly the cause for our inability to act sustainably. Understanding those five tendencies will help you overcome them. That is, if you keep doubting yourself.”