Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Neuroscience of Sustainability

Research identifies key brain areas involved in conservation thinking.

Key points

  • Whether or not people make decisions geared toward the future is critically important for the well-being of future generations.
  • The factors that determine whether people are oriented toward sustainability remain unclear.
  • Neuroscience research during simulated sustainability exercises boosts understanding of what determines decisions.
  • Understanding these factors can aid development of public health, educational, and related efforts in the service of a brighter future.

The Great Sadness

We are facing myriad crises today like no time in the past. Yes, the environment has been a known problem for years; yes, we’ve faced the specter of nuclear annihilation since before the first bombs were dropped in the middle of the last century. Intelligence without wisdom is dangerous, and our technological prowess has brought us to a tipping point, spurred on by population growth and an explosion of technology expanding far faster than our ability to make sense of the very things we've produced.

We are great at imagining the future, dreaming of new worlds—but not so great at basing decisions on those simulated outcomes.

Soapbox Moment: Humanity's Marshmallow Test

Like the classic study in which a young child is offered a tough choice–have one marshmallow now or wait a while and get two, ostensibly correlated with future success via the capacity to delay gratification and assess future outcomes–humanity can't have its cake and eat it, too. I've wondered elsewhere if existential threat can scare us into sanity; the jury's still out on that one1.

Source: Pixabay/Pexels

The individual factors that go into the decision to support sustainability versus gratify the ease and pleasure of the day may be understood through the lens of individual psychological (such as orientation toward social dominance and authoritarianism, correlated with climate change denial) and brain-based factors.

The Research: Sustainable Behavior and Regional Brain Differences

With these considerations in mind, a new research paper stands out. Rosales, Baumgartner and Knoch, in the journal Neuroimage (2022), published their findings on the neuroscience of “intergenerational sustainability”. Intergenerational sustainability, they explain, “requires people of the present generation to make sacrifices today to benefit others of future generations.”

In reviewing the literature, Rosales and colleagues point out the not-so-obviously obvious: Decisions we make now are unidirectional–they affect future generations, but they don’t affect us now beyond what we can foresee2.

Furthermore, they note, there are two types of “psychological distancing” that interfere with sustainability. First is our predilection to choose things that directly benefit us or those close to us over more distant others (“social distancing”). Second is our sense that things farther in the future matter less (“temporal distancing”). Prior research on “temporal illusions” highlights this second point: Just as things look smaller visually when they are farther away, the more distant things are in the future, the less important they seem.

People with stronger environmental leanings are more likely to see the world as an interdependent system (“biospheric”) and to hold altruistic values, while the less environmentally inclined are more likely to hold hedonic (pleasure-seeking) and egotistical values. Overall, however, the impact of individual personality isn’t clear, with small to medium impact on actual pro-environment behavior, versus reported attitudes and beliefs.

Study Method and Findings

Researchers recruited a group of 63 university students as part of a larger study (a second paper is coming) of intergenerational sustainable behavior. Participants completed a series of relevant measures and underwent brain imaging after completing a simulation (“intergenerational sustainability game”) of real-world behavior.

The game (from game theory) involved considering a series of decisions on how much to allocate scarce resources, assessing the impact (“payoff”) from one generation to the next: If the present generation collectively surpassed a pre-set threshold of resource consumption, the payoff for the next generation either reduced by 80 percent but did not affect the present generation, or there was no impact on the next generation but an 80 percent hit for the present generation. They played 16 rounds in all, eight in each condition.

Rosales et al., 2022, Creative Commons
The Sustainabilty game
Source: Rosales et al., 2022, Creative Commons

Based on their decision in the game, participants were identified as either sustainable or unsustainable in their behavior.

Additional data was collected on their attitudes about the game. After completion, they answered several questions related to how easily they could empathize with the next generation, as well as how tempted they were to allocate more resources to themselves versus conserving for the future. They also completed the Schwartz Value Scale, assessing altruism, hedonism, egoistic and biospheric attitudes.

Thirty of the participants were in the sustainable group, and 33 in the unsustainable group. Notably, there were no differences in personal values or gender. Neuroimaging told a different story, identifying considerable differences in cortical thickness in two brain areas: the left dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC) and the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).

Rosales et al., 2022, Creative Commons
Structural Neuroimaging
Source: Rosales et al., 2022, Creative Commons

Did cortical thickness vary as a function of how strongly participants engaged in sustainability thinking? Yes; analysis showed that DMPFC thickness correlated with stronger consideration for the next generation’s needs and a greater tendency to choose sustainability in the behavior-simulating game. Likewise, greater DLPFC thickness predicted more success in resisting temptation to use up scarce resources and greater favor for sustainable choices.

These two brain areas are, respectively, involved in perspective-taking and self-control—overall involved in social information processing as well as individual self-awareness and self-regulation, part of key executive function networks and default mode, or “resting state,” networks. They are key to our overall capacity to “mentalize”, having a full appreciation of and ability to reflect on both our own inner world and needs and the inner world and needs of others.

The DLPFC-DMPFC pair is crucial for overall decision-making, balancing one’s own needs with those of others. By default, for individual survival, we are neurologically inclined to think more about ourselves than others.

This study, focusing on structural difference (the thickness of gray matter regions) elucidates important brain differences related to sustainability behavior. A separate paper will publish results on brain function from the same experiment, important for rounding out the implications of this work.

Surprisingly, values measured in this study (altruism, hedonism, egotism, biospheric) were not significant predictors of behavior during the sustainability game. Future research is important to clarify the role of individual psychological factors, including personality, and other values beyond those measures, in helping to understand why people behavior they way we do—and how to influence people to make more prosocial, collectively sustainable decisions.

Thinking Ahead3

It will be important to understand whether capacity for mentalization, which can be enhanced through interventions including mentalization-based therapy, increase sustainability behavior. Related approaches, such as empathy training and compassion-based practices, as well as direct efforts to modify any personality traits identified as having impact on sustainability behavior, will also be important to identify and include in educational and public health initiatives.

For instance, approaches that enable consumers of material to put themselves in others’ shoes, and that increase the chances of exercising self-control—for example through well-designed communications—may be effective in conjunction with governmental regulatory approaches to secure sustainable long-term outcomes. Are people with children more future-oriented?

Hopefully, we won't have to risk it all IRL, but if we can learn from simulation, from imagining the future, from putting ourselves in others' shoes, we may avert still-avoidable catastrophes. We have been endowed with an amazing brain: We are still working out how to make best use of our capacities together.



1. Most species go extinct, but only advanced species like us can see their own self-destruction coming. What’s different today? More and more people are “woke", at least waking–the time is now, and scientists fear we have already passed key climate change tipping points.

Understanding why we don’t collectively get the message and act on it is a question for social psychology, for large group psychology. We are in a situation in which long-term cooperation has been shown to be the most effective solution (mathematicians have proven it), stuck as we are together on an increasingly claustrophobic orb (the "collective prisoner's dilemma").

2. Older generations need to do a better job of listening to younger generations. After all, young people will outlive older ones, and inherit the earth. This is important for the perspective-taking discussed in this work, and elsewhere, as well as a practical matter.

3. Pun intended.

Emmanuel Guizar Rosales, Thomas Baumgartner, Daria Knoch, Interindividual differences in intergenerational sustainable behavior are associated with cortical thickness of the dorsomedial and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, NeuroImage, 2022, 119664, ISSN 1053-8119,

Obligatory Disclaimer: An ExperiMentations Blog Post ("Our Blog Post") is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. We will not be liable for any loss or damage caused by your reliance on information obtained through Our Blog Post. Please seek the advice of professionals, as appropriate, regarding the evaluation of any specific information, opinion, advice, or other content. We are not responsible and will not be held liable for third party comments on Our Blog Post. Any user comment on Our Blog Post that in our sole discretion restricts or inhibits any other user from using or enjoying Our Blog Post is prohibited and may be reported to Sussex Publishers/Psychology Today. Grant H. Brenner. All rights reserved.

More from Grant Hilary Brenner MD, DFAPA
More from Psychology Today