Show of hands—how many of you came here because at some point, before applying to college, you read "The End of Poverty"? How many of you scrambled to take or even sit in on a class with professor Jeffrey Sachs? Decided to major in sustainable development or work for the U.N.? Perhaps gravitated toward management consulting by the end of your junior year? After all, the current set of incentives we have as soon-to-be college graduates does suggest that the most likely way we will make an impact is by running a large company. Provided some of our idealism survives our ascension of the corporate or political ladder, we might even bring about some new, evolved form of social responsibility. End poverty. Fix climate change. I think many of us have grappled with these issues, but we and our future selves tend to act on our incentives. What we need is a working knowledge of how to alter these incentives more carefully. We need to gear higher education away from insular academic fields and toward interdisciplinary areas emerging at the intersection of economics, psychology, and neuroscience, which promise some solutions to global problems. Climate change, for example, may be the greatest tragedy of the commons out there. It extends far beyond the control of single individuals, even those former Columbians working in the White House. It creeps in and out of the media and garners far less attention than familiar political faces, because we are not capable of changing each other's minds consistently about things that really matter in the long run. Here at Columbia, pioneering decision scientists explore where these limitations come from in the hope that one day, we as a society will know better how to act together despite individual biases. Conversations with some of them reveal potentially surprising career choices: Why would a Ph.D.-holding engineer, for example, take a U-turn and become a psychologist? The answer is not obvious, just as it is not obvious why the ongoing research happening in a nontraditional organization like Columbia's Center for Research on Environmental Decisions is in any way valuable when compared to, say, alternative energy or high-yield food crops. According to an article by Jon Gertner in the New York Times , a mere 2 percent of federally funded climate change research goes into so-called "human dimensions" research, with the rest consisting in work in the physical and natural sciences. Closer to home, the Columbia undergraduate sustainable development major covers basic science and some quantitative foundations, yet has no niche for potentially relevant psychology courses and labs that deal comprehensively with how individuals make decisions, and thus with effective policy strategies. But if we can agree that humans are causing climate change, it is natural for some academics to argue that the solution will eventually come from better insights into how to shape the human behavior that generates the problem. This is not news. Advertising and propaganda have arrived, through trial and error, at some of the same core principles that neuroeconomics is codifying as science. The key is the end goal: What leaders in the field are now focusing on is putting their laboratory experiments in specific, socially relevant contexts like environmental risk and other issues that the market will not resolve for us. It turns out that because of limitations on how we make choices under uncertainty, we cannot constantly keep the threat of climate change at the forefront of our minds. We think of it as distant and immaterial. We selectively remember and respond to stimuli that are sorted through experience, so most people who have not been near obvious consequences of climate change will be oblivious to it, even after being warned. CRED researchers have also found that something as simple as using the words "carbon offset" versus "carbon tax" can make randomly selected undergraduates more supportive of policies that would increase the cost of airline tickets in order to fund alternative energy. In other words, a policy could, in theory, become acceptable if its proponents methodically tailored the environmental message to the context. This experimental approach has applications in sustainability outside the realm of climate change. At MIT, researchers in the emerging field of randomized field trials have shown that giving teachers in rural India small point-and-shoot cameras and instructing them to take a photo of themselves at the end of the teaching day significantly reduces teacher absenteeism. Cameras, word plays, and simple psychology. These are not commonly cited as fixes to our larger issues. Yet when combined in context, the psychological principles they rely on give us a better understanding of our collective humanity. If we are to make a difference, we should rethink our learning process and better integrate these principles into solving big-picture problems. Angela Radulescu is a Columbia College senior majoring in neuroscience and behavior. She is a former Spectator photo editor. The Rookie Brain runs alternate Thursdays.
Columbia Spectator Staff