The Surprising Enemy of Sustainability? Too Much Analytic Thinking
Introducing Behavioral Sustainability as an Integrative Solution
Dr. Mirei Takashima Claremon
“The world we have created is a product of our thinking. If we want to change the world, we have to change our thinking.” — Albert Einstein
o Sustainability is the ultimate human problem, which means we cannot solve it without understanding human behavior
o The West is still heavily influenced by ancient Greek culture, which emphasized individualism, an independent view of the self, and analytic thinking
o A view of the self as independent combined with extreme individualistic tendencies is not conducive to solving sustainability issues because it leads to myopic and moralistic thoughts and behaviors
o Incorporating behavioral sustainability — a more integrative framework — is the solution to a sustainable future
Table of Contents
- Recognizing Sustainability as a Human Problem
- The Intimate Relationship Between Culture and Psychology
- Ancient Greek Culture and its Lingering Effects on the West
- Analytic Thinking and its Implications for Sustainability
- Holistic Thinking: Lessons from Ancient China
- The Best of Both Worlds: The Importance of a Balanced and Integrative Perspective
- Introducing Behavioral Sustainability as an Integrative Solution
Like everyone else in the U.S. and across the world, I spent most of 2020 wondering what our collective future will look like. There has been a lot to contemplate, including the worsening climate crisis, intensifying racial tensions around the BLM movement, wildfires, hurricanes, and the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Why has the U.S. — given its vast resources and infrastructure — been unable to contain the COVID-19 outbreak to the same degree as other countries have? Why is the U.S. still grappling with institutionalized racism decades after the official end of slavery? Why can’t we reduce and eliminate extreme inequality?
As a cross-cultural behavioral scientist, my instinct is to understand human behavior — how we act, and how we make choices and decisions — using a cultural lens. And using that lens, I have always suspected that individualism is a key part of the problem. Individualistic tendencies don’t exactly help us when we need to tackle sweeping issues that involve the well-being of countless stakeholders.
But I knew I was still missing something in my theory. A few weeks ago, I had an epiphany: to put ourselves on a better, more sustainable trajectory, we need to change how people, specifically, individualists, behave by changing how they think.
Individualism didn’t just appear out of thin air. Individualistic beliefs and behaviors are tied to a certain style of thinking that is prevalent in the West.
Without understanding how this style of thinking influences how people behave, we can’t change how people behave. And to understand and ultimately change how people think, we need to tap into the knowledge behavioral science researchers have gained about human psychology, styles of thinking, and behavior.
Now that I have arrived at this idea, I feel compelled to share it with as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, because we — all humans — need to care about sustainability for our own sake. While the world would indeed be a better place if everyone had the means and the interest to care about the well-being of life on earth and behaved better towards each other, we would be naïve to think that the end goal is that.
Whether you care about the plight of people on the other side of the world or not, ultimately, the sustainability of the earth’s vast ecosystems determines everyone’s quality of life. The difficult truth is that it is only a matter of time until even the affluent will become unable to protect themselves from the effects of unsustainable practices and climate change.
In fact, this year’s global pandemic, extreme weather, and wildfires are emblematic of this shifting reality, as even the most privileged were stripped of their ability to travel, see their friends and family, and enjoy the outdoors.
We need to get serious about building a world that is worth living in and worth passing onto future generations. It’s time to figure out how to change our collective behaviors.
In this article, we will first explore the historical and cultural influences on decision making; we will then examine in detail the relationship between our culture and our psychology, and how our different styles of thinking manifest in our behaviors.
Finally, we will conclude with my concept of behavioral sustainability, and why I think it is a critical framework that can help us build a better future.
Recognizing Sustainability as a Human Problem
Sustainability is the ultimate human challenge, as all sustainability issues — whether it’s climate change, environmental pollution, or extreme inequality — are unfortunate byproducts of our collective human behaviors.
Needless to say, we are quickly running out of time to solve this web of sweeping, complicated issues before our planet and our lives become unrecognizable. Though we may want to rush headfirst into finding solutions, it is crucial for us to pause and think about why we are in this precarious situation in the first place.
We need to admit to ourselves that we humans have created these problems. And that if we don’t understand people and their behaviors, we will continue to create new problems and exacerbate old ones.
In other words, to begin to solve our biggest problems and build a better future, we need to develop a much deeper awareness and understanding of how and why we think the way we do, how that manifests in our behavior, and how we can alter our behaviors by using the wealth of knowledge we have about human behavior.
Today, economists play an overwhelmingly dominant role in the key decisions that are made in society and have a major influence on the way policymakers, business leaders, and other professionals think and act.
As a result, they have a direct and outsized impact on the policies and laws that are put into place and on the investments that are made. Unfortunately, though economists may understand how markets work and how people make decisions — in theory — we have seen time and again how their predictions about human decision making often turn out to be unrealistic and plainly wrong in the real world.
Their seriously flawed assumption that humans are Homo Economicus — ruthlessly self-interested, calculating, and rational, with the unlimited mental capacity and time to make optimal decisions — has often led to wildly inaccurate predictions about human behavior.
The implications of such errors are serious, especially given how much influence and power economists have over key decisions that impact people’s lives across the world.
The work behavioral economists have done since the 1970s has shed light on the fact that people are actually not so rational after all — but act in systemic and predictable ways.
This research has enlightened the world with insights about and remedies for people’s often irrational decision-making behavior in domains ranging from economics to exercising. It’s now time for a behavioral enlightenment in the realm of sustainability.
The Intimate Relationship Between Culture and Psychology
Because culture has an undeniable and crucial impact on how we think and behave, we first need to examine the relationship between culture and our psychology. Culture provides us with a lens through which we examine and respond to the world around us. It has a profound influence on who we are as individuals, and how we view and define ourselves in relation to others.
It affects our cognition, attention and perception, motivations, emotions, and behaviors in various ways, and can even alter our actual physiology. We learn early in life about what is evaluated as good or bad, what kind of values we should instill in ourselves and in our children, the social norms we should follow, and how we should generally behave.
In turn, we shape the culture we live in, and so a cycle of mutual constitution continues.
Because of the degree to which our culture shapes who we are, there is tremendous value associated with looking across different cultures.
Examining other cultures gives us a rare window through which we can see what makes our own culture truly unique. By looking outside, we are able to develop a more nuanced perspective on our own culture and identity.
It helps us understand what makes American culture American, Japanese culture Japanese, and Macedonian culture Macedonian. It provides a ying to our yang. It reveals to us our relative strengths and weaknesses, and if we are humble and open-minded, it enables us to gain insights on how we can be doing things differently and better.
Ancient Greek Culture and its Lingering Effects on the West
The ancient Greeks were unique. Atypical for the time period when most civilizations were built around cooperation and interdependence — primarily out of necessity — even the average Greek man had the luxury to enjoy a sense of personal freedom and choice.
The cultural emphasis on individual freedom was reflected in how much value the Greeks placed on the art of verbal expression and debate, and their ability to use reason. In fact, for a man, being a skilled public speaker and debater was considered to be almost as important as was being a powerful warrior.
The Greeks spent their days hypothesizing and speculating about various topics and believed that identifying and formulating rules were essential to making sense of the world. In effect, the ancient Greeks are, for better or for worse, the originators of the individualistic, analytic style of thinking that dominates the West today.
In general, a culture with an independent social orientation, as opposed to an interdependent one, emphasizes individualistic values such as self-expression, autonomy, and personal agency.
Further, it encourages individuals to view themselves as being independent, relatively stable over time and contexts, and distinct from others as well as from the environment. In fact, viewing and experiencing the self as constant is so critical to Western individuals and their psychological well-being that they are willing to make costly sacrifices to maintain that perspective.
Relatedly, because of the emphasis on independence and autonomy and the belief that everything is distinct and separate from the context, people from an individualistic culture also tend to adopt a more analytic — as opposed to a holistic — style of thinking.
They use formal, rule-based, analytic thinking when making decisions and solving problems, all of which lead to certain cognitive and behavioral tendencies as described below.
- They tend to focus their attention more on the parts rather than on the whole.
- They tend to view objects and individuals as separate from each other and from the environment and attribute causality to an object or individual rather than to the context. In other words, they think the object or individual — instead of something else in the context — is responsible for or determines an action or occurrence.
- Because of the belief that individuals are autonomous and separate from the environment, they tend to think that they have personal agency over their actions and that the world is a more linear, controllable, and predictable place.
- They tend to use formal, linear logic in their reasoning. When there is a conflict or a contradiction, they prefer to solve it by choosing one option over the other rather than by finding a middle ground.
Perhaps not surprising given its founding history and ideology, American culture is the most individualistic in the world even when compared to other Western cultures and has arguably taken the ancient Greek’s cultural inclinations to an extreme. Specifically, Americans more so than do their non-American peers, strongly believe in individualistic values such as freedom, independence, self-determination, and personal control; consequently, they tend to prioritize individual rights and interests over those of the greater group.
That also means that they are highly analytic thinkers with an extreme proclivity to decontextualize or make decisions and develop opinions without considering the overall context. To be sure, an individualistic, analytic mindset can contribute positively to society in various ways.
That being said, an extreme form of individualism combined with the inclination to think hyper-rationally and analytically can have serious — and often negative — implications in the context of sustainability, as we will explore below.
Analytic Thinking and Its Implications for Sustainability
For an analytic thinker, the ultimate goal is to identify a single truth by decontextualizing and distilling information.
Therefore, the analytic approach can be quite valuable and work well when the issue at hand requires deductive, linear, and rational thinking, such as when solving logic questions on the LSAT or mathematical equations — types of problems that are best solved when one uses specific rules to drill down and reach a single, logical conclusion.
This style of reasoning is also generally useful when the problem requires the ability to narrow one’s focus and separate the focal object from other factors in order to validate or invalidate a scientific or mathematical theory.
However, analytic thinking is not as helpful when we are faced with complex, nonlinear, real-world challenges that involve countless stakeholders and multiple, overlapping issues. In fact, it can be counterproductive and even detrimental. With that in mind, I want to discuss three key implications of an over-reliance on analytic thinking in the context of sustainability.
First, analytic thinking drives even well-meaning individuals and organizations to define sustainability narrowly and fail to understand the intersectionality of issues.
Second, it hinders people from being able to effectively engage and communicate with others, particularly when they have different opinions.
Third, it interferes with people’s ability to look beyond what is in front of them to identify more creative and effective solutions. As a result of these three issues, we have been severely handicapping our ability to tackle sustainability initiatives efficiently and effectively.
Implication 1: A Myopic and Disjointed View of Sustainability
Sustainability issues are inherently dynamic and involve social, economic, and environmental factors that affect people and our planet over an indefinite period of time. The basic idea of sustainability is that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
Unfortunately, many individuals, particularly in the West, have developed a skewed and incomplete understanding of what sustainability means.
Because the term sustainability is most often used when discussing environmental issues, the vast majority of people currently only equate sustainability with environmental issues and with initiatives such as saving polar bears or reducing consumption of single-use plastic.
They do not associate sustainability with social or economic issues and with initiatives such as eradicating homelessness or eliminating food insecurity.
This difference in how sustainability is understood may not seem like a serious issue, but it has grave consequences on the world. In reality, achieving sustainability is possible only if we simultaneously balance people, planet, and profit. Why is this the case? Because our society, environment, and economy cannot — and do not — exist in discrete vacuums.
The tendency to believe that an issue can be decontextualized disincentivizes individuals to look beyond what’s apparent and to discover how various underlying causes may be jointly contributing to the issue.
People then fail to see the complex and inextricable links within and between environmental, social, and economic issues. Decontextualization hinders people’s ability to realize that issues are not static — they can and often do change over time. Moreover, not appreciating the context can make people more blind to negative externalities and other unintended consequences because of the delineation of the issue from the larger context.
We will continue to miss critical opportunities to address sustainability in comprehensive and meaningful ways if we do not replace our myopic and inaccurate interpretation of sustainability with a more holistic one.
For instance, though many individuals may have a vague sense that saving polar bears or producing less single-use plastic is important for our planet, they may not be aware of all of the key reasons why.
They may not understand that saving polar bears is important not only because they deserve to live, but also because they are a vital part of the food chain that regulates the health of the marine environment, and because biodiversity is critical to our own survival.
Similarly, they may not know that reducing consumption of single-use plastic is important not only because the waste pollutes our oceans, hurts marine life, and gets into our food and water as microplastics, but also because the upstream and downstream effects disproportionately impact the poorest, most vulnerable communities in the world — a somewhat unknown fact that is the perfect illustration of environmental racism.
Specifically, toxic fossil fuel plants that process the raw materials for the bulk of the world’s plastic and the landfills that spill over with plastic waste are often located in or near such communities.
Ironically, more people are aware of plastic pollution’s detrimental effect on marine life than on people, and only think of plastic pollution as an environmental issue and not as a social issue.
Moreover, they don’t think of polluted areas where some communities live as part of what people typically call, “the environment.” As a result, it is much harder for people to imagine the impact plastic pollution has on vulnerable communities and the rest of us.
If we can better illuminate the intersectionality between the different aspects of sustainability and demonstrate the reasons why saving polar bears and reducing single-use plastic are critical initiatives, more people will take these threats — and the available solutions — more seriously.
Similarly, in the context of the COVID-19 global pandemic, environmental racism is one of the key reasons why our most recent and ongoing crisis has disproportionately affected populations that were more vulnerable, to begin with.
These populations are more likely to have preexisting health conditions due to the general stress from living in poverty, a higher exposure to pollution, and having limited access to clean, nutritious foods. They are also less likely to have access to quality healthcare.
Other than just the various environmental reasons, they are also at a higher risk of infection because they are more likely to be frontline workers and often have no choice but to take public transportation when commuting.
They have also been more likely to lose their livelihoods which has further hindered their ability to pay the bills, put food on the table, and ensure their family’s overall health. Clearly, the pandemic has not been the Great Equalizer that certain celebrities, politicians, and media outlets claimed it would be.
To be sure, thinking abstractly and discretely about society, the environment, and the economy can help us make better sense of our world. In real life though, we cannot operate as if these actually exist independently of each other; because no matter how we frame the world in our minds, they overlap and spill into each other in messy and complicated ways.
The real world consists of a complex and intricate web of systems in which individual components cannot be put away and categorized into neat, tidy boxes. Rather, environmental issues overlap with social issues, social issues overlap with economic issues, and economic issues overlap with environmental issues.
So, to create a sustainable world, we must acknowledge and incorporate social, environmental, and economic factors simultaneously. A truly sustainable world is one that is socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable.
Implication 2: Increased Polarization and Friction in Interactions
Analytic thinking can increase polarization and create unnecessary interpersonal friction, especially when people with different values and perspectives interact. Why is this the case? First, analytic thinkers tend to believe that people are always in control of the environment as well as their own behaviors and outcomes, and as a result, that the world is a linear and predictable place.
Moreover, they also believe that who people are on the inside — their identities, intelligence, inherent abilities — is relatively fixed and constant, and therefore that behaviors should not vary across different contexts and across time.
Analogously, the individualistic ideal is that being consistent across context and time — to be true to one’s self no matter what — is a good thing. In contrast, changing one’s mind is often perceived as wishy-washy and altering one’s behavior depending on the situation is perceived to be disingenuous.
Because these thoughts and values result in the belief that one can understand and evaluate others without considering contextual factors, analytic thinkers are prone to committing the fundamental attribution error, which is the tendency to attribute an individual’s behavior to his or her internal characteristics while under-emphasizing relevant contextual factors.
Further, because they tend to think that people have more personal control over their actions than is actually true, analytic thinkers place more blame than is appropriate for individuals for certain life outcomes or their misfortunes.
Under certain circumstances, the narrative that individuals are in control of their destiny because they have free will can be dangerous and damaging. That belief can lead people to be insensitive to the plight of others, especially when combined with their proclivity to quickly and confidently make a judgment or decision about someone or something and commit to it.
Relatedly, analytic thinkers are less inclined to think that individuals can change for the better, and as a result, do not give them the benefit of the doubt.
These beliefs and behaviors are further exacerbated by their motivation to enhance their self-image. Individuals who view themselves as independent (as opposed to interdependent) have an innate need to view themselves in a positive light and are intensely motivated to maintain this image because they believe themselves to be self-sufficient, autonomous, and stable.
Specifically, since their key focus is on preserving their inner state and attributes (e.g. “I am a competent person,”) they are prone to engage in self-enhancing biases in a manner that protects their sense of independence and self-sufficiency.
Moreover, we can imagine how this bias can lead to another bias — the commitment bias. If the focus is on proving — to themselves and to others — that they are not swayed by external factors and are smart and competent, they will be reluctant to change their minds. It can also lead individuals to have strong moral convictions and confidently believe that morals — specifically their morals — should be universal across time and cultures.
We can see how this type of thinking — especially when combined with overconfidence in one’s knowledge and abilities — can have powerful implications for how people perceive, approach, and interact with others. An analytic mindset can make it difficult for people to find common ground with others for several key reasons. Specifically, analytic thinkers are:
- Less tolerant of, less cooperative with, and possess less goodwill towards others who do not share their views or their strong moral convictions.
- Less likely to try to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and explore alternative perspectives
- More sensitive to criticism or anything that may threaten their self-image and internal well-being, and tend to become more defensive when their ideas are challenged
- Less likely to entertain the possibility of changing their mindset
- Less willing to compromise
Sociocultural phenomena like Cancel Culture and the compassion crisis perfectly highlight the downsides of analytic tendencies, especially when so much of our interactions with others happen digitally. Debates ranging from the reality of climate crisis to institutionalized racism escalate in this abstract, virtual world.
The digital environment is the perfect medium for decontextualized thinking that increases people’s susceptibility to the fundamental attribution error, as people are primed to make instant judgments in a vacuum about various people and topics upon watching a brief video clip or reading a short Tweet.
It is also conducive to intensifying people’s moral outrage, as unlike in face-to-face interactions, people can get away with expressing whatever is on their mind with limited personal consequences.
Also, the positive reactions in the form of comments, likes, and shares people get from their peers create an echo chamber in which their opinions feel validated and augmented. At the same time, the antagonistic reaction people get from dissenters makes them dig their heels in and feel even more convinced of their righteousness. As this toxic feedback loop perpetuates, people start to perceive that the world is more divided than it really is, since the angriest, most extreme voices get amplified the most.
Ironically, excessive, hyper-rational, and analytic thinking can actually make people irrational, as this mental framework makes them more stubborn and more susceptible to a range of biases, such as the commitment bias, the confirmation bias, and the illusion of control.
In effect, an analytic mindset combined with the firm belief in one’s freedom of expression (I can say whatever I want) and immutability (I am who I am) may lead to irreconcilable disagreements and interpersonal conflict that hinder progress towards achieving a common vision and win-win solutions. This combination of traits is especially harmful in the context of sustainability, mainly because the issues we face are global, and therefore require mutual understanding, empathy, and cooperation.
Implication 3: Commitment to Suboptimal Solutions and Blindness to Unintended Consequences
Because analytic thinkers tend to view the world as linear and logical, they are often uncomfortable with contradictions. As a result, analytic thinkers will go above and beyond to avoid contradictions that create cognitive dissonance.
Consequently, when faced with multiple alternatives that seem contradictory, they attempt to eliminate the contradiction by choosing a single alternative as opposed to entertaining multiple options or thinking beyond what is presented and coming up with novel solutions. In this way, analytic thinking makes people more susceptible to perceiving a false dichotomy — that there is only one single, correct answer when there could be other viable possibilities.
Furthermore, compared to holistic thinkers, analytic thinkers prefer to make a more extreme, black-or-white choice that is more easily justifiable rather than choose something in the middle, i.e. the gray zone.
Relatedly, an empirical study on resource allocation illustrates that analytic thinkers tend to concentrate their resources because they believe that the world is linear and predictable. In the context of sustainability, that means that analytic thinkers are not inclined to diversify their risk by playing out different scenarios or to develop various contingency plans to prepare for an increasingly uncertain future. Clearly, this kind of myopic and short-sighted strategy is not ideal when applied to sustainability initiatives.
As we touched on earlier, once analytic thinkers believe they have the answer, they may inadvertently close doors to alternative options or ideas. In this way, their eagerness to find a distinct, silver bullet solution — especially when combined with the overconfidence that they have the definitive answer to what in reality are messy, multidimensional sustainability questions — can lead them to settle on suboptimal solutions. Again, because of this propensity to quickly commit to a decision, they may be less likely to speculate about potential unintended consequences. These tendencies have serious implications on how legal, policy, business, investment, and other key decisions are made, as once decision-makers believe they understand the issue, they may not seek other relevant information or disconfirming evidence that could prove invaluable.
For example, during the first few months of the COVID-19 outbreak, public figures such as Dr. Fauci and Senator Lindsey Graham, and animal advocate organizations like PETA, as well as many members of the media, aggressively called for the immediate closure of wet markets around the world. This outrage was due to a theory based on some converging evidence that the outbreak had originated at a wet market in China. However, to manage and solve an issue as complex as a global outbreak, relying exclusively on an analytic approach has serious consequences, because we end up focusing on the obvious symptoms of an issue while ignoring less salient but critical, underlying factors and root causes that can help identify effective solutions. In the case of the pandemic, we should be focusing on identifying the key underlying reasons why zoonotic diseases are becoming more prevalent. Further, we need to realize that rapid economic development around the world has resulted in massive destruction of wildlife habitats, and as a result, we are living ever closer to animals we typically don’t come into contact with. This unnatural proximity between humans and animals increased the likelihood of a zoonotic outbreak. In addition, industrial farming practices — that raise animals in cramped, unsanitary quarters which make them highly susceptible to diseases — also increases the likelihood of zoonotic outbreaks.
At the same time, instead of debating about whether all wet markets should be closed down or not — which is a false dichotomy — we should have expanded our thinking. The better approach would have been to first understand what wet markets are, why they exist, and given all of that, determine the best course of action.
We would then realize that American media falsely depicted wet markets as inherently exotic, when in fact they exist in developed countries around the world, including in the U.S. And that wet markets are an important part of cultures — even in the U.S. — and an essential way for less affluent communities to access nutritious food.
And that most wet markets don’t sell exotic, illegally captured wildlife, and therefore should not be equated with illegal wildlife markets. The questions we should have asked are: Given that wet markets are an important part of many communities, how we can ensure that only wet markets that comply with the law and enforce stricter hygiene standards can operate? How do we ensure that we can mitigate unintended consequences?
Given the interwoven relationship between our cognitive style and our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors, we can see why the interrelated combination of an independent self-view, an analytic style of thinking, and individualistic behavior is not conducive to achieving sustainability.
Clearly, sustainability is a multidimensional topic that requires us to think beyond what is in front of us and to thoughtfully consider the negative externalities and other unintended consequences of specific actions or inactions in a more holistic manner.
Holistic Thinking: Lessons from Ancient China
Just as ancient Greek culture played a key role in shaping today’s Western culture, ancient Chinese culture has been a dominant force in molding today’s East Asian — and to a lesser degree Southeast Asian — cultures.
In stark contrast to the ancient Greeks, the ancient Chinese organized their society more collectively and emphasized the importance of social interdependence and harmony. East Asians today still tend to behave more collectively, view individuals as interdependent, fluid, and indivisible from others, and engage in holistic thinking.
In such cultures, since individuals are perceived to be embedded in a larger collective, cultivating social harmony is considered more important than is winning a debate or maintaining a consistent view of the self across situations. Rather, being flexible and adapting the self to different situations is expected and lauded.
To understand the world, they rely more on intuition, tacit knowledge, and experimentation rather than on developing formal rules, as the assumption is that the world is everchanging. Consequently, individuals who engage in a more holistic style of thinking exhibit cognitive and behavioral tendencies that are distinct from those who engage in analytic thinking.
- They tend to focus their attention more on the whole rather than on the parts.
- They tend to view objects and individuals as embedded and inseparable from each other and the environment, and attribute causality to situational factors rather than to an object or individual. In other words, they think external forces play a significant role in determining outcomes.
- Because they believe that the world is a transient and continuous place where everything is part of a larger whole, they do not emphasize personal agency or control.
- Because of the belief that everything is fluid and ever-changing, they tend to use dialectical reasoning, which prioritizes the resolution of conflict and the acceptance of contradictions. When there is a conflict or a contradiction, they prefer to resolve it by finding a compromise solution.
It is not difficult to see why employing holistic thinking in the context of sustainability makes sense since a holistic approach is most valuable when it is necessary to step back and assess the bigger picture. From a high level, it encourages people to comprehensively examine various factors, understand how they are interrelated, and develop solutions that serve the greater good.
In effect, holistic thinking can help illuminate the interconnections between the different aspects of sustainability, and thereby widen people’s definition of sustainability.
Additionally, a holistic approach can help make interactions with others less contentious, as it spurs people to be more humble, open-minded, and flexible. Holistic thinking can make people more receptive to others’ perspectives and more likely to empathize for various reasons.
Since holistic thinkers do not view the world as controllable or predictable, they are less prone to being confident about and married to their views. As a result, a holistic approach renders individuals less susceptible to self-enhancing biases. Moreover, because holistic thinkers emphasize the importance of situational factors, the approach reduces people’s susceptibility to the fundamental attribution error.
Additionally, it makes people less prone to believing that people cannot or do not change, and to definitively categorize and label phenomena or individuals. Further, holistic thinking encourages the idea that morality is not universal but is dependent on the context; therefore, a holistic mindset reduces people’s urge to impose their strong moral convictions on others.
In these ways, incorporating a more holistic style of thinking encourages people to practice humility, give others the benefit of the doubt, and to engage in a more effective and open-minded conversation. In effect, a holistic style of thinking can help us facilitate a more productive, less contentious dialogue with others who possess different values and perspectives from us.
Remarkably, holistic thinking can also make us better analytic thinkers. When undertaking a specific initiative or task that requires an analytic approach, understanding the bigger picture and the high-level goals can help us better realize how we — as individuals or as a group — can add value effectively in our own domain.
If we understand the consequences of plastic pollution more holistically, for example, we may decide to shift some of our focus to petitioning against the construction of new fossil fuel plants in vulnerable communities instead of dedicating ourselves to cleaning up beaches.
In this way, holistic thinking can help us identify and allocate our time and energy to initiatives that we care about and use analytic thinking when and where it makes sense.
Given these implications about the different styles of thinking, the key question we must ask is whether or not we can influence people’s cognitive tendencies.
Are there ways to inspire analytic thinkers to approach the world more holistically? Fortunately, there are surprisingly straightforward and effective ways to change how and what we think. For instance, asking people to imagine how they are similar to — as opposed to different from — relevant others or exposing people to stories that focus on group identity — rather than their individual uniqueness — prompts people to think about who they are as a member of a collective group (e.g. “I am an American”) rather than about who they are internally (e.g. “I am hard-working”), and act more collectively.
Similarly, exposure to plural pronouns — as opposed to singular pronouns — can drive people to think of themselves more interdependently and behave as such.
Finally, encouraging people to think about the reasons how — as opposed to why — something came about can inspire people to think more holistically. These simple but powerful examples illustrate that it is indeed possible to shift people’s mindsets with minimal investment.
Alternatively, we can also think of ways to manage people’s perceptions. Since Americans tend to be more motivated and perform better when they believe they have personal control over their actions, we can frame certain situations in a way that emphasizes a sense of personal control.
Or, in situations in which we want people to change their decisions or behaviors, we can provide them with an opportunity to attribute the change they make to an external factor that is beyond their control; this enables them to more easily justify their actions to themselves and to others, and to eliminate cognitive dissonance. Given the existing wealth of knowledge about the different systems of thought, there is no reason why we should not be making the best use of it.
The Best of Both Worlds: The Importance of a Balanced and Integrative Perspective
To be clear, it is not that one style of thinking is superior to the other. Nor is it true that changing how we think is the one and only way to solve our sustainability issues. Rather, a thoughtful, multi-pronged approach that incorporates our collective knowledge from various domains is required, as there is no silver bullet solution.
The truth is that most, if not all, major issues and initiatives require a combination of both styles of thinking, albeit at different stages of the problem-solving process.
Specifically, it may make sense to use a holistic approach when first assessing an issue so that we can incorporate all of the potentially relevant factors into our analysis. Once we identify the key issues, the best approach may then be to use an analytic approach and drill down.
Subsequently, we may want to go back and look at the issue from a higher level again to make sure that we did not miss anything, and that there aren’t any new factors that we should examine. Tackling complicated, nonlinear issues needs to be an iterative process that is dynamic and adaptive.
Unfortunately, analytic thinking is so deeply embedded in the Western mind that people don’t even realize that this style of thinking is not typical or universal. In fact, due to the lack of interest in and appreciation for non-Western styles of thinking (probably at least partly due to analytic thinking), analytic thinking is synonymous with “thinking” in the West. Therefore, one of the key steps to changing people’s thoughts and behaviors is to put things into a more global, balanced perspective.
In modern history, the vast majority of knowledge that has been accumulated and shared across the world has originated in the West, most notably in the U.S.
This hegemony is problematic because it creates a kind of hierarchy in which Western culture is perceived to be more enlightened and advanced by both the West and the rest of the world. That in turn creates an implicit assumption that non-Western countries should strive to become like Western nations.
This creates an illusion that how the West operates is typical of the rest of the world, and or that it is the global standard. As a result, the individualistic, analytic way of being becomes the archetype of how all people should think and behave.
Such an ethnocentric bias may not be as much of a problem when it comes to advancements in technology and the hard sciences. However, this bias becomes a serious problem when the goal is to understand general human psychology and behavior.
In a 1975 article, an American anthropologist warned us that to develop general psychological theories based on American research will result in psychological models and an understanding of the self that is peculiar and ungeneralizable to the rest of the world.
Yet, a 2008 survey of the top psychology journals revealed that stunningly, 68% and 96% of research subjects were from the U.S. and Western industrialized countries, respectively. There is still no indication today that this trend has changed.
To make matters worse, the majority of such research is conducted at Western research institutions on undergraduate students — a highly self-selective, educated, and mostly affluent subject pool that is far from being representative of the global population, let alone of even the domestic American population.
In fact, converging research evidence shows that Westerners are consistently outliers in a variety of cognitive and behavioral domains when compared to people from the rest of the world. And as it turns out, Americans are extreme outliers — even when compared to other Westerners — because, simply put, the U.S. is the WEIRDest country in the world. In this context, WEIRD is an acronym that stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.
It is precisely in the minds of these research subjects — the WEIRDest people in the WEIRDest country in the world who then become our politicians, lawmakers, and business leaders — that analytic thinking is most deeply ingrained.
Given this context, it is perhaps not at all surprising that Homo Economicus, the paragon of analytic thinking — is still alive and well in the WEIRDest, the most individualistic, and most analytical country in the world.
As you can imagine, conducting research on such a highly analytical and highly unrepresentative group of subjects is problematic, since the implicit assumption in the vast majority of psychological research continues to be that these findings can be generalized across and applied to different populations.
Rarely does this questionable assumption get tested except by researchers who explicitly focus on examining cross-cultural or other inter-group differences.
As a result, policymakers, business leaders, and other change-makers are more likely to make incorrect assumptions about people’s psychology and their behaviors and create policies, programs, or products that are fundamentally flawed and often have unintended consequences that hurt vulnerable individuals the most. This is because, in reality, people respond differently from what educated individuals — at least in the West — learn in school and assume to be true: that regardless of the context, people have free will and are rational decision-makers. Context absolutely matters.
Similarly, both domestic and international discussions and negotiations may not go smoothly if the two parties hold a different set of expectations and assumptions about each other and or about the situation at hand.
This is a critical point especially in the context of creating a sustainable world, an objective that necessarily requires us to collaborate and coordinate with various communities and stakeholders, both within nations and across the world.
Introducing Behavioral Sustainability as an Integrative Solution
- Behavioral Sustainability: An integrative decision analysis framework that is built on human behavioral insights from the social sciences (e.g. psychology and sociology) and humanities (e.g. philosophy and history) that informs us about how we can create meaningful change — both at the individual and group level and across different cultures — in how we think and behave so that we can create a more sustainable world.
Because humans are the problem, humans can — and have to be — the solution. Accordingly, I envision behavioral sustainability as an integrative, human-focused framework and a discipline that will help us understand: a) the direct relationship between our mind — how and what we think, what we pay attention to, how we perceive the world, and what motivates us — and our behaviors; and, b) how in turn, our behaviors can then cause ripple effects in the real world.
The framework will reveal why we behave the way we do, and help us predict, prevent, manage, and shape our behavior for the better. Additionally, it will help us understand the interconnectedness of the world, and how different issues overlap; it will reveal the psychological and behavioral barriers we must overcome to build a more sustainable society.
Though we often assume impactful change is expensive and time-consuming, it doesn’t have to be. One of the key benefits of changing behaviors is that such initiatives don’t require a huge investment in time or resources.
Since we don’t need to build fancy labs or equipment to implement behavioral changes, we can execute relatively quickly; though of course, it is critical to have a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary team of experts so that the behavioral insights can be translated into an effective and actionable strategy.
In this way, behavioral sustainability can be a powerful tool that is accessible not only by those with resources but also by anyone who is interested in making a difference. This includes change-makers at nonprofits, entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and policymakers who want to do their part to create a more circular, environmentally and socially conscious world.
Behavioral sustainability can democratize the power to create change.
And the good news is that we don’t have to start from scratch. Behaviorally-informed strategies have already enabled us to save more for retirement. They have informed savvy investors on how to make less biased investment decisions, helped employers boost their employee’s healthy eating habits, and have enlightened us about a simple tweak to increase the number of organ donors.
They have also changed the way some organizations hire new talent and have been applied to encourage individual sustainable behaviors, such as saving electricity, reusing hotel towels, and charitable giving.
We should continue to develop and implement such “nudges,” as they illuminate clever and effective ways to reduce our individual carbon footprints and encourage us to behave better in specific contexts.
At the same time, we need to go deeper and make full use of the knowledge that we have about human behavior. It is time for us to think beyond creating simple and temporary behavioral changes, and fundamentally transform the way we think about and approach sustainability.
By now, I hope it is abundantly clear why we cannot solve our biggest sustainability challenges without understanding human behavior and specifically, how we think. Behavioral sustainability will help us realize why analytic thinking is not a cure-all for our problems, and why it is beneficial to expand our thinking to include a more integrative approach to sustainability.
Analytic thinkers must accept that the real world is not as neat and controllable as they would like it to be. Whether we like it or not, the reality is that the world is constantly in flux and contradictions are a part of life.
But what we do have significant control over is our own thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors, as well as the way that we think about and approach the world around us.
We have the power to incorporate flexibility and practicality in how we think and behave. Individuals can deliberately shift their focus from proving to themselves and others that they are right — and demonstrating that they stick to their guns no matter what — to figuring out how to implement realistic, practical, and effective solutions that move the needle in a positive direction.
At the same time, we need to recalibrate the way WEIRD individuals think about individual rights in the context of sustainability and people’s collective future.
It would benefit both the U.S. and the rest of the world if certain people unlearned the biased and mistaken belief that considering the needs of the greater group necessarily threatens individual freedom, and that changing one’s mind is a bad thing. Taking others’ perspectives and or cultivating empathy for someone we may not agree with or personally care about is not at all the same as “being soft” or not having a backbone.
Rather, having the capacity and the humility to learn and incorporate new information into one’s decision calculus means that one is being open-minded, reasonable, and practical, and thus such behaviors should be viewed positively. As the social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt says, “empathy is an antidote to righteousness.”
We can build a sustainable future if we are willing to make fundamental, systemic changes to how we think and act, and cultivate the ability to take different perspectives and empathize.
Though our cognitive and behavioral tendencies may differ across cultures, we all possess both independent and interdependent views of ourselves — to varying degrees — and can toggle back and forth between different styles of thinking. That means that people can change how they think and behave.
It is time for economists to make room at the table for a diverse group of behavioral scientists who can contribute unique and valuable perspectives. We need psychologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists, philosophers, and sociologists — not only from the West but from across the world — who can contribute their invaluable knowledge to crucial sustainability initiatives.
Like everything else in nature and in life, valuing diversity and striking a balance in how we think about and approach sustainability is imperative to designing a better future.
Dr. Mirei Takashima Claremon
Global Citizen. Sustainability Advocate. Behavioral Scientist. Expert on Sustainability, Marketing, Consumer Insights, and Cross-Cultural Differences.