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Our Take

Addressing cognitive biases in climate change

10 Minute Read

    Climate change is already impacting the health care industry, and its effects will continue to worsen in the future. Health care directly contributes to climate change and is far behind other industries on meaningful and long-term investment into prevention strategies. As governments increasingly require organizations to report their environmental impact, it’s now vital for health care leaders to address why they’ve failed to act.

    One theory that helps explain why they’ve failed to act is that cognitive biases in health care leaders are preventing the large-scale behavioral changes necessary to make significant commitments to environmental sustainability. Once health care leaders move these subconscious behaviors into their consciousness, they can make changes to overcome them. This is an imperative if health care is to reduce its impact on the environment before it's too late.


    What are cognitive biases?

    Subconscious errors in thinking that arise from our brain’s attempts to simplify the complex world we live in.

    Everyday examples:

    • Not putting money into a retirement fund when you are 30 years old even though you can afford to is an example of “present bias”—the overvaluing of the present because of short-term benefit at the expense of larger benefits in the long term. Because after all, some money now feels better than a lot of money later.
    • Many social media platforms suggest content based on news or opinion pieces a person has looked at before. This can lead to “confirmation bias”—using new information to confirm opinions or beliefs.
    • Sports fans or pundits often question the decisions of the losing coaches or players once they know the outcome of a game. This is an example of “hindsight bias”—the perception that past events are more predictable than they were.

    The conventional wisdom

    For years, environmental sustainability has been a priority for many industries. Health care lagged behind on this issue, but that’s starting to change.

    Health care is a mission-driven industry. We care about our communities, our reputation, and the role we play within society. We care about attracting and retaining staff and patients. And most importantly, we care about our patients’ well-being.

    Working toward environmental sustainability fits with health care’s mission. The health care sector knows it needs to do better, but the challenge is understanding how to change. And as governmental or regulatory action is starting to require organizations to hit emissions or waste-reduction targets, leaders need to act now to avoid financial penalties.

    Almost all health care leaders want to be part of the solution. However, it’s difficult for leaders to link their conscious behaviors to the downstream, slow-moving, and complex effects of climate change. It’s even harder to understand or acknowledge the subconscious behaviors that contribute to climate change in equal measure.

    These conscious and subconscious behaviors make all the difference. Efforts to reduce climate change are regularly deprioritized in favor of other events, pressures, or priorities. We’ve come across many excuses for why health care hasn't done enough to tackle climate change, but three stand out:

    • Climate change is too far off to worry about.
    • Climate change isn’t health care’s problem.
    • Investments in environmental sustainability may not yield any return.

    What leaders need to understand is that every one of those statements is false.


    Our take

    The conventional wisdom detailed on the previous page accounts for much of why health care is lagging so far behind other industries when it comes to powerful messages and actions against climate change. And cognitive biases are a big part of that conventional wisdom. These biases among health care leaders are preventing the large-scale behavioral changes necessary for health care organizations to make significant commitments to and investments in environmental sustainability.

    The first step to changing the status quo is moving subconscious biases into the conscious realm.

    Health care leaders need to acknowledge that these subconscious biases are universal and be aware of when they affect actions. Letting go of deeply held beliefs is critical to making progress on an issue as complex and long term as climate change.

    In his book The Evolving Self, Robert Kegan describes the process of bringing often unconscious beliefs into conscious awareness as flipping the “subject-object relationship.” He states that we are not conscious of our beliefs, we are subject to them. But by bringing our beliefs into conscious awareness, those beliefs become like objects which we can look at and assess for their value to what we are trying to accomplish. In doing so, we can move from unconscious reaction to conscious decision. In essence, that means changing one’s mindset surrounding these cognitive biases from “I am them” to “I have them.” And that will allow people to make decisions that can lead to better environmental sustainability.


    Three key cognitive biases in climate change and how to overcome them

    To mitigate the risks of human biases in preparing for or dealing with exogenous threats like climate change, we must start by looking at the main biases that stand out.

    In this research, we examine three cognitive biases that contribute to health care’s lack of action against climate change. This list is by no means exhaustive—we selected the biases we think are most powerful in preventing leaders from committing to action or investment. We’ve also provided diagnostic questions to help you see what this looks like in your organization and some exercises to help you get out of each way of thinking.

    • Bias

      Hyperbolic discounting

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    • Bias

      The bystander effect

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    • Bias

      Loss aversion

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    Parting thoughts

    Climate change and its impacts are only going to get worse. Health care must act now if we are to mitigate the effects of climate change on our health care organizations, our patients, and to wider society. We must acknowledge why and how our current behaviors are preventing wholesale, long-term action against climate change. We can then make the necessary changes to overcome them in order to make significant progress as an industry.

    The cognitive biases and exercises to overcome them we outlined are intended to help health care leaders understand and identify subconscious behaviors that are preventing the prioritization of health care's action against climate change. It is important to first use these exercises and diagnostic questions to understand when you are exhibiting these biases. Once you have accomplished this, you can make the conscious decisions that overcome them and help other health care leaders do the same.

    In this research, we explored only three cognitive biases. There are a plethora of other biases that also prevent health care leaders from acting against climate change, and we encourage you to explore these and similarly alter your behaviors to overcome them.

    Not many people like to be ‘rearranged.’ Leadership therefore requires the diagnostic ability to recognize those losses and the predictable defensive patterns of response that operate at the individual and systemic level. It also requires knowing how to counteract these patterns.

    Ronald A. Heifetz, Marty Linsky, Alexander Grashow
    The Practice of Adaptive Leadership


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