Monica Wadhwa discusses how the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and COVID-19 serve as reminders of how our decision making directly impacts climate change
Illustration by Jon Krause
PHILADELPHIA, April 22, 2020 — This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and if there is a silver lining with COVID-19, it might be with regard to its environmental impact. For instance, cities that declared a state of emergency in February due to outbreaks of COVID-19 reportedly saw air pollution decrease by up to 40%.
Monica Wadhwa, an associate professor of marketing and supply chain management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, has done considerable research on consumer decision making and believes that it directly links to climate change.
“Reversing climate change is about changing societal behaviors,” writes Wadhwa in a first-person essay published on the Fox School’s website last year. “Resistance toward adopting sustainable behaviors often comes from our tendency to focus on short-term benefits, while devaluing long-term, more significant rewards.”
However, due to COVID-19, many of us have had no choice but to change our regular behaviors. Could that have long-term benefits, especially for the environment? We caught up with Wadhwa to get her take.
Q: Your research has focused on how human behaviors and decision making impact sustainability. As you have pointed out, many of us just make decisions based on the short-term benefits without looking at the long game. Why is that often the case?
A: One of the primary reasons that people make decisions based on short-term benefits is that we don’t know what the future is going to look like. It’s like choosing between a chocolate cake and a salad. The chocolate cake is right in front of you, it’s delicious and you can eat it right now. The salad, on the other hand, is going to be good for your health, but your health in the future. Not only are we not going to get that benefit immediately, we don’t know if we’re going to get that benefit at all in the uncertain future.
The concreteness and the vividness of the immediate benefits lead to more positive emotions, which, thereby lead us to make short-term focused decisions. The future isn’t as concrete or as vivid as the present is.
Q: Because of COVID-19, some decisions are now being made for us. We’re being forced to stay at home more, and we see the environment reaping some of the benefits like decreased air pollution. How do you think society is perceiving this and could it have lingering positive effects, well after COVID-19?
A: It’s nice to see the environmental benefits. However, I am not sure if this would lead us to become more environmentally friendly in the long run. This current situation is imposed on us; people don’t have the freedom of choice. When the freedom of choice is taken away, people feel threatened, which leads to what is known as reactance. After this crisis ends, people who felt threatened because their choice was taken away are likely to increase their consumption of certain experiences that they are currently not allowed to engage in. They will choose to go out for long drives, take more flights and engage in other non-sustainable behaviors.
There is another way perception of threat could impact behaviors. It is likely to motivate people to adhere to their traditional values. So, what does that mean from a long-term perspective? People who have cared about the environment, either a lot or moderately, will care about it even more. But for people who haven’t cared about the environment and now are being forced to stay in, it’s going to have an even more negative effect.
Interestingly, one of the things I’m currently testing is a behavioral nudge of empowerment. Right now, if we can make people feel that they have a choice in life—it’s still a perception because there’s still a mandate to stay at home—but if we can frame it as a choice, the more people will feel empowered and the more likely they will be to make decisions to benefit them in the future. We might also be able to encourage populations of people like Gen Z, who crave freedom of choice, to save lives by staying at home. Choice is power.
Q: Your work is especially relevant this year as 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. What research are you working on that, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19, will have a significant impact on how we can all do our part to make the world more sustainable?
A: One of the things I noticed, for me, at least: I don’t waste food anymore. Food waste is a huge problem in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans wasted approximately 133 billion pounds of food in 2010. The majority of people in the U.S. never thought we’d have a short supply of food. However, right now we’re seeing that money can’t buy us everything. Even if you have the money, you might not be able to find food in your grocery stores.
During the pandemic, we’re making decisions about rationing food. We’re looking at expiration labels differently; we’re taking them to be more like guidelines. I might make the decision that I can eat the rest of this yogurt even though its expiration date was technically five days ago. Before, I might have thrown it away.
I’m working on a behavioral nudge that tells people that the world is connected. For example, if you eat or waste more food than you need, someone living in another part of the world will get a little bit less food. This idea that the world is connected is becoming more salient. With that thought, food waste might go down.
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