Mark Van Vugt Ph.D.

Naturally Selected

Are We Hardwired to Damage the Environment?

Lessons from psychology for sustainable practices in policy and business.

Posted Jun 20, 2012

When mentioning Rio de Janeiro, one normally thinks of beaches, bikinis, soccer, and slums. But this week there is something else going on in Rio which could determine the fate of humanity. It is the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development (the +20 refers to the 20 years that passed since the 1992 Rio conference on climate change) and many world leaders are making an appearance. 

So how far have we come since the last Rio conference in fostering environmental sustainability? Well, many people nowadays are aware (1) that there is such a problem as global climate change, and (2) it is largely a manmade problem, (3) the problem cannot be solved by technology alone and (4) solutions require behavioral changes in consumption patterns, fossil fuel use, mobility, waste disposal, and family planning.

Yet as long as we do not implement environmental policies that are sustainable themselves—because they are not based on a sound understanding of HUMAN NATURE—we are not going to see any enduring green improvements.

So what does human nature tell us about environmental sustainability? In a recent article with Vladas Griskevicius and Stephanie Cantu from Minnesota University—just published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing—we discuss sustainability in light of scientific knowledge about how the human mind works.1

In our article we first dispel the myth that our ancestors were the Green Types. Our ancestors were no "noble ecological savages", I am afraid. Historical research into the deforestation of small islands such as the notorious Easter Island and the massive extinction of  large animals in places such as North America and Europe (mammoths and rhinos), Madagascar (the dodo) and New Zealand (mao birds) shows that these  problems coincided with the arrival of humans in these places.

Wherever our forebears went on the planet, they caused massive environmental damage.2

Unfortunately, this is largely due to how the human mind works.  Evolution has equipped us with a certain  psychology that is best suited to leading a hunter-gatherer life style (as our ancestors did for several millions of years). But this psychology makes it difficult to lead a sustainable life style in the modern world. 

We argue that many modern environmental problems are caused, or at least exacerbated, by five human instincts. Knowledge about these human tendencies should help us develop more sustainable policies.

(1)    Humans  value their personal interests more than others’ interests.

As an illustration, suppose you could herd an extra cow on the commons to feed you and your family without anyone noticing, would you do it? The environmental literature on the tragedy of the commons literature shows that most people are selfish if they can get away with it. Humans care first and foremost about themselves, their family and their community but they have little regard for humanity as a whole.3

(2)    We value the present over the future.

Would you rather have 100 dollars now or 150 dollars a year from now?

When we give people these dilemmas, most of them prefer the immediate reward although it is smaller.  The reason is that if the future is uncertain it is much better to get your rewards now. Our ancestors  did not know if they would still be around next year and so. Thus, our minds are designed to weigh immediate outcomes more heavily than distant ones. Naturally, this affects how humans  make environmental decisions, for instance, whether or not to invest in expensive solar panels.

(3)    Humans are obsessed by status.

Research shows that although the average income of people in the US has gone up by 140% since 1946, the average happiness level has remained unchanged. The reason is that our minds are concerned with our relative status rather than absolute status. We are so concerned about “Keeping up with the Joneses”  that we do not appreciate what we have got. It is not difficult to see that our excessive consumption rates are due to this obsession with status.

Don’t  you believe me?  Here is a test. Would you rather have a 200 square meters flat in an apartment building with mostly 250 square meters flats or a 175 square meters flat in a building with mostly 150 square meters flats? If you are rational you go for the bigger flat but humans go for the relative size. They are doing better than their peers. That’s what natural selection is about: your relative success.  

(4)    We copy unconsciously the behaviors of people around us.

Humans instinctively copy and mimic the behavior of others and it starts when we are still in our nappies (see another blog Natural Born Followers). Imitation is an underappreciated contributor to environmental problems. Home residents say that the behavior of their neighbors has very little effect on their own conservation behaviors, but it is actually one of the strongest predictors of energy and water use.4

Are you unconvinced? Well, even the experts did not predict such high conformity rates in the classic Asch and Milgram social psychological experiments.

(5)    Humans disregard novel environmental threats.

Here is a final question. How do you know that your environment is being destroyed? Your house smells just fine. Your neighborhood has trees, and you can get plenty of delicious food at the store. At some rational level we know that we are damaging our environment. Yet the human mind is not used to dealing with novel global environmental threats such as pollution, plastic, chemicals, nuclear waste and greenhouse gases, because for millions of years these problems were not around.5

All the research shows that people are poor at comprehending environmental risks and underestimate the severity of many environmental issues. In contrast to the past when environmental problems were local, people cannot see, hear, feel or smell how their behaviors affect their environment.

It is largely because of these five basic human instincts that policy makers find it very difficult to promote sustainability among citizens, public and private organizations.

Humans are simply not hardwired to be green.

If we fail to head the lessons about human psychology, we will get a Rio+40 conference in twenty years time where nothing much has changed.

But there is hope.

In my next blog I will discuss how these five instincts can be harnessed to mitigate or even solve environmental problems. This is useful for policy makers, marketers, and green entrepreneurs.  I will show various cases of successful environmental interventions which were based on a sound understanding of how the human mind works. This is includes the seminal work by the late Elinor Ostrom who won a Nobel prize in Economics for her research on sustainable commons management and who passed away last week. 



  1. Griskevicius, V., Cantu, S., & Van Vugt, M. (2012). The evolutionary bases for sustainable behavior: Implications for marketing, policy, and social entrepreneurship. Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, 31, 115-128.
  2. Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. London: Viking Press
  3. Van Vugt, M. (2009). Averting the Tragedy of the Commons: Using Social Psychological Science to Protect the Environment.Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 169-173. 
  4. Nolan, J., Wesley Schultz, P., Cialdini, R., Goldstein, N., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). Normative social influence is underdetected. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 913-23.
  5. Penn, D. (2003).  The evolutionary roots of our environmental problems: Towards a Darwinian ecology. Quarterly Review of Biology, 78, 275-301.