He had a Dream, not a Cost-benefit Analysis


I’ve always felt uneasy about attaching a monetary value to nature and the “ecosystem services” she provides. Time and again, against my natural inclinations, I’d wind up in conversations about how we should persuade decision-makers to consider the monetary value of nature; you know, by “speaking their language.”  Heck, there’s even a field called “ecological economics” with its very own International Society and academic journal that seem poised to do just that.

Everywhere you look, you’ll come across the economic argument for “saving the planet.” Advocacy groups produce reports like “Bicycling Means Business: The Economic Benefits of Bicycle Infrastructure”and they really want us to know about “The Economic Value of Walkability”.

Our federal government champions the fact that “Weatherizing Homes Saving Money for Families Across the U.S.”. And county governments appeal to the benefits of recycling by distributing pamphlets that say things like “Recycling Saves Money”.

For a long time I thought these ways of thinking about environmental conservation were misguided, yet I couldn’t exactly explain why.

Then came an illuminating conversation with a psychologist friend of mine. He told me about this world of research on human values which explains why the economic argument may not be the best approach. Why, in fact, it might be a harmful approach.

According to the “Schwartz theory of basic human values” – a theory developed by exploring the value systems of dozens of cultures – we humans all share roughly the same arrangement of values. The expression of these values is largely dependent upon our culture and how it privileges some values over others. For example, to some extent, we all naturally value achievement, but its our culture that determines the emphasis placed on achievement.

Another striking finding from this research is that we can all be swayed by appeals to any values – be it values for winning a beauty pageant or for hugging trees.

This seemingly odd discovery is due to how values and goals are arranged in our minds. The following visual helps to illustrate what I’m talking about.


As you can see from this figure, our values are situated along a circle or “circumplex.” We all possess every one of these values. Our circumstances and present frame of mind determine which of these values are salient to us at any given time.

Those values located closest to each other on the circumplex are often “activated” together or “spill over” into one another. Those values located opposite one another in the circumplex tend to “de-emphasize” or “suppress” each other.

This means, for example, it relatively easy for me to protect my personal security by conforming to social norms (these values are “close” to each other). But it’s hard for me to exercise power over someone while also caring for his welfare (benevolent dictators aside). This is because values for benevolence and power are in “conflict” with one another.

Nonetheless, examples of appeals to conflicting values abound:

Both of these common examples pit values for “universalism” (saving the planet) against values for “power” (exerting control over resources by saving money).

We know now that appealing to our values for power and achievement tends to create “collateral damage”.

As is the case with our muscles, our values become stronger the more we “exercise” them. This means that if we continue reinforcing power- and achievement-related values, we run the risk of suppressing those values that produce lasting change (values for benevolence and universalism).

A recent study by British psychologist, Laurel Evans and colleagues is particularly telling. These researchers assigned study volunteers to two conditions: (1) one group received environmental information on car-sharing; and (2) the other received financial reasons for car-sharing.  The researchers weren’t interested in car-sharing per se, but on the volunteers’ behavior at the end of the experiment. They asked volunteers to discard of a checklist that they were given at the beginning of the experiment either in a trash bin or a recycling bin.

I’m guessing you already know what happened: 89% of those who received environmental information on car-sharing recycled the checklist, whereas only 50% of those who received financial information on car-sharing recycled. Also, only 50% of those who received both environmental and financial information (i.e., conflicting values) recycled.

Why did this happen? It seems that appeals to self-transcendent values (providing environmental reasons) for ride-sharing “spilled over’ into another pro-environmental behavior (recycling). Making a financial appeal alone, and a “mixed” appeal (to both environmental and financial values) “conflicted” with the perceived value of recycling. Research that’s arrived at similar conclusions is springing up all over the place.

Isn’t it worth asking then, why advocates, scientists, decision-makers, and citizens appeal to people’s self-interested values for saving money when they’re desperately trying to promote environmentally friendly behavior? I think they believe that money motivates people. And it does, for a little while. But in the long run, it seems we’re fighting a losing battle by making economic appeals to do what’s we believe is ethically right.

That said, I think it’s time we all learn how values work and engage those values that will advance a collective concern for the welfare of our human and non-human brethren. After all, in the words of Tom Crompton, “Martin Luther King had a dream, not a cost-benefit analysis.”

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