Using a Visual Analogue Scale to Assess Delay, Social, and Probability Discounting of an Environmental Loss

By Kaplan, Brent A.; Reed, Derek D. et al. | The Psychological Record, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Using a Visual Analogue Scale to Assess Delay, Social, and Probability Discounting of an Environmental Loss


Kaplan, Brent A., Reed, Derek D., McKerchar, Todd L., The Psychological Record


Earth's climate has seen a dramatic change in weather patterns and conditions. Global climate hazards such as Hurricanes Irene and Isaac, record amounts of precipitation (and lack thereof), and record temperatures have affected not only the United States, but also many other countries around the world (http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/reports/weather-events.html). Notably, climatologists have observed the most drastic increase in average global temperature within the past 100 years (Kaufman et at. 2009; Mann 2012; Mann et al. 1998). When graphed, this sharp uptick in temperature resembles the end of a hockey stick; thus, this trend in temperature change has been coined the "hockey stick" phenomenon.

The increase in average air and ocean temperature as well as the increased melting of the ice caps has led the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to conclude that global warming is an indisputable reality (Pachauri and Reisinger 2007). Of special emphasis is that, "Global atmospheric conditions of CO2, CH4, and N20 have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial values determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years" (Pachauri and Reisinger 2007, p. 37). As more evidence is collected from the examination of ice cores and other atmospheric dating means, it appears increasingly likely that anthropogenic activity is linked to global climate change (Rosenzweig et al. 2008). Such data underscore the importance of studying psychological factors that contribute to environmentally destructive behavior (Thompson 2010).

There are a number of psychological components that may contribute to and sustain environmental inaction (Gifford 2011). Of relevance to behavioral psychology are uncertainty and judgmental discounting factors. In fact, the report by the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Climate Change (available at http://www.apa.org/science/about/publications/climate-change.aspx) emphasizes that humans are "discounting the future and the remote," a phenomenon behavioral scientists have examined extensively. The phenomenon of discounting refers to the tendency of individuals to devalue outcomes based on contextual factors such as (a) the time until the outcome's occurrence, (b) the likelihood of its occurrence, and (c) who the outcome affects (see Madden and Bickel 2010; McKerchar and Renda 2012). For example, humans often opt for a smaller, immediate reward at the expense of receiving a larger, delayed reward. In other words, commodities available now are often valued more highly than commodities available in the future; the subjective value of the larger outcomes is thereby discounted as a function of its delay. Rewards and other outcomes are differentially valued depending on the likelihood of their occurrence (Estle et al. 2007; Green and Myerson 2004). For example, desirable commodities that have a high likelihood of receipt are valued higher (i.e., discounted less) than commodities that have a low likelihood of receipt; therefore, the subjective value of these outcomes is discounted as a function of the likelihood of occurring. Discounting is also observed when outcomes affect individuals other than the self (Jones and Rachlin 2006; Rachlin and Jones 2008). Outcomes that affect individuals who are closer to one socially (e.g., a relative, best friend) are valued higher than outcomes that affect individuals who are considered more distant socially (e.g., an acquaintance). Outcomes, then, are also discounted as a function of social distance. Given the robust discounting literature in behavioral economics (stemming from the field of behavior analysis), it is surprising that empirical studies on the discounting of environmental outcomes are relatively rare.

Other fields of study, such as environmental economics and environmental psychology, have proposed and examined models of environmentally destructive decision making in discounting contexts. …

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