Ehrlich Joins the Headshrinkers

by | Feb 14, 2013

He is better known for his work on population, but neomalthusian, Paul Ehrlich is listed as an author on a new paper, the abstract of which reads as follows,

Government policies are needed when people’s behaviors fail to deliver the public good. Those policies will be most effective if they can stimulate long-term changes in beliefs and norms, creating and reinforcing the behaviors needed to solidify and extend the public good. It is often the shortterm acceptability of potential policies, rather than their longer-term efficacy, that determines their scope and deployment. The policy process should include a consideration of both timescales. The academy, however, has provided insufficient insight on the coevolution of social norms and different policy instruments, thus compromising the ability of decisionmakers to craft effective solutions to the society’s most intractable environmental problems. Life scientists could make fundamental contributions to this agenda through targeted research on the emergence of social norms.

In other words…

Scientists Should Advance Management of Behavioral Norms

.. says the press release from the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

Needless to say, I find this weird. The press release explains…

The authors maintain that effective policies induce not only short-term changes in behavior but also long-term changes in norms. More effective management of social norms will be necessary, they write, to persuade the public to accept the inconvenience and expense of many environmental policies.

What is weirdest in my view is that biologists should take an interest in the development, and indeed the deliberate manipulation — engineering — of ‘social norms’. Almost as weird is the authors’ understanding of what a ‘social norm’ actually is:

This is how domestic recycling, for example, has become the accepted habit of many people who were at first resentful of having to separate recyclable items.

This is addressed in the paper:

Recycling provides a simple example. In many places, recycling programs began with much grumbling, under the pressure of increased costs for oversized garbage loads. Today, recycling is second nature for many people, who have come to view it as a normative behavior. This has led to increased recycling even under reduced enforcement. Prohibition provides an illuminating counterexample: Short-term declines in the consumption of alcohol in the face of severe penalties did not lead to widespread or long-term temperance. Effective policies, then, are ones that induce both short-term changes in behavior and longer-term changes in social norms.

A better example of what recycling is — at least as far as life in the UK is concerned — is a transformation of the relationship between local authorities and the people they (in theory) serve. And this transformation came from on high. Rather than local councils implementing policies through decisions made by the voter, most UK recycling rules are the consequence of EU directives on the management of landfill sites. A tax is imposed on the tonnage of waste sent to landfill. Notably, the people who select their representatives at local and national levels do not get to select the executive branch of the EU government. Yet, say the authors of the paper…

Some may object to an expanded governmental role in influencing norms, but we feel strongly that our recommendations can be carried out in a way that abides by the principles of representative democracy, including transparency, fairness, and accountability (Norton et al. 1998). Furthermore, government is only one of many parties and interests in democratic systems acting to influence values and social norms; other parties include, for instance, corporations, charitable organizations, neighborhood groups, organized religions, and public and private schools. Therefore, people’s behaviors, values, and preferences—and the social norms to which they give rise—are under continuous pressure, but government is uniquely obligated to locate the common good and formulate its policies accordingly. A central role of academics in this process would be to elucidate both the intended and the unintended effects of governmental policies and regulations on social norms, to help ensure transparency and a focus on the common good.

In fact, there was a fair amount of resistance to the recycling rules. And rather than accepting them, the antagonism that developed between local authorities and people was mediated by a relaxation of the rules — many councils backed down after public pressure, others themselves campaigned for changes, and the fines for householders’ non-compliance were quickly dropped. Where people ‘accept’ recycling now, it is because there is no alternative. ‘Social norms’ have nothing to do with it. For there to be evidence of a ‘social norm’ developing, there has to be a choice to do otherwise.

The authors believe that ‘government is uniquely obligated to locate the common good and formulate its policies accordingly’. But this, like the claim that ‘social norms’ follow recycling policies, get’s the concept of democratic government on its head: government’s seek to engineer values around their preferred politics and policies.

It is not for democratic governments to determine what ‘the common good’ is. ‘The common good’ is established in a democratic society by a much wider debate, and a contest of competing arguments, which the elected government then delivers on. Where there is no contest — where there is a political consensus on the government’s role — there can be, by definition, no possibility of the government identifying a ‘common good’; the claim to have identified the greater good is simply self-service, necessarily.

Perhaps that’s a bold claim. but the author’s take their definition of ‘democracy’ from another paper — Norton B, Costanza R, Bishop RC. 1998. The evolution of preferences: Why “sovereign” preferences may not lead to sustainable policies and what to do about it. Ecological Economics 24: 193–211, the discussion in which includes this interesting claim:

A commitment to democracy, and a rejection of any role for philosopher kings, scientific experts or, especially, for totalitarian manipulators of opinion, demands that preference formation be a highly individual, non-coercive process, according to this view. In this sense the individual consumer is sovereign, even as his or her preferences change, because the process of preference change is directed by the individual, rather than by an outside agent (this, of course, flies in the face of the fact that preferences are being manipulated by outside agents every day).

Norton et al confuse ‘democracy’ with ‘consumer sovereignty’. They continue on this tack, to examine ‘four degrees of consumer sovereignty’…

Degree 1: unchanging preferences
Degree 2: preferences as given
Degree 3: consumer sovereignty as commitment to democracy
Degree 4: democratic preference change

This leads to a painfully loaded discussion about a hypothetical society, which is gripped by a religious sect whose beliefs dictate that the first-born child from each non-believing family be sacrificed in order to prevent Armageddon.

Hoping we will never face a situation so dire as to live in a society solemnly and with due legislative process committed to human sacrifice (as in our hypothetical example above), one hopes that policy will be set in a situation of open debate, with experts weighing in, and with interactions between the public, experts, and political decision makers. If a democratic process, including safeguards for individual rights of present people, is in place, then surely it makes sense to inject into the debate moral concerns about the well-being of future generations, even if these arguments require questioning and criticizing individuals’ sincerely felt preferences.


Evidence that current behavior has negative impacts on other individuals, other species, or the future may require re-consideration of that behavior and the preferences that generate it. We can come to a democratic consensus about our shared preferences for a sustainable society through a process of discussion and debate, and then use these principles as guides to encourage people to
see the inappropriateness of some preferences, given the scientifically demonstrable impacts of acting on those preferences.

So the paper itself starts from poor premises: a shallow understanding of democracy as ‘consumer sovereignty’, and an egregious example of respect for individual preferences leading to the slaughter of infants. After some hand-wringing and indeed, hand-waving, the article concludes:

Actively seeking to influence preferences is not inconsistent with a democratic society. Quite the contrary, in order to operationalize real democracy, a two tiered decision structure must be used (Fig. 1). This is necessary in order to eliminate ‘preference inconsistencies’ between the short term and the long term and between local and global goals, a phenomenon described in the social psychology literature as a ‘social trap’ (Platt, 1973; Cross and Guyer, 1980). There must first be general, democratic consensus on the broad, longterm goals of society. At this level ‘individual sovereignty’ holds, in the sense that the rights and goals of all individuals in society must be taken into account, but in the context of a shared dialogue aimed at achieving broad consensus. Once these broad goals are democratically arrived at, they can be used to limit and direct preferences at lower levels. For example, once there is general consensus on the goal of sustainability, with agreement by all the major stakeholders in society, then society is justified in taking action to change local behaviors that are inconsistent with this goal. It may be justified, for example, to attempt to change either people’s preferences for driving automobiles or the price of doing so (or both) in order to change behavior to be more consistent with the longer term sustainability goals. In this way the foresight that we do possess in order to modify short-term cultural evolutionary forces toward achieving our shared long-term goals is utilized. If economics and other social sciences are to adequately address problems of sustainability, it will be necessary to develop evolutionary models that make preference formation and reformation an endogenous part of the analysis, and to develop mechanisms to modify short term cultural evolutionary forces in the direction of long term sustainability goals.

So this is the sleight-of-hand… Government’s can be coercive on the condition that there exists ‘general, democratic consensus on the broad, longterm goals of society’. So what the environmentalists do — NB Ehrlich’s earlier work — is to outline the possibility of some kind of ecological Armageddon. Once this is established as a party political consensus (rather than a broad societal consensus) the ‘general, democratic consensus on the broad, longterm goals of society’ consists of no more than ‘we want to survive’. This in turn reduces democratic politics to the elitism — “philosopher kings, scientific experts [and …] totalitarian manipulators of opinion” — that Norton et al set out to avoid.

Returning to the Paper co-authored by Ehrlich, it is notable, then, that there has been no ‘situation of open debate, with experts weighing in, and with interactions between the public, experts, and political decision makers’ that Norton et al speak of, not in the case of recycling or climate change and energy policy in the UK. Indeed, the entire point of constructing supranational political organisations and panels of experts to lead policymaking on climate change has been to circumvent the problem of democracy. As Chris Huhne revealed in an interview with the BBC in 2011:

All through human political history, you have had governments that have tried to set up particular objectives and have realised they can only go so far so fast without the rest of the world going along with them. For example, back in the bad old days of communism you had the whole argument about whether Joe Stalin could have socialism in one country. You can’t have environmentalism in one country.

Political leaders that do not enjoy the authority of a genuine democratic mandate have a preference for supranational political institutions. Huhne was no exception. Politically ambitious, the only way he could secure whatever vision he wanted to realise was by seeking authority from above, rather than below. The problem that remains is how to get the below to respond whilst maintaining the notion that a merely nominative democracy is more than that.

So what is a social norm?

We adopt Ellickson’s (2001) definition of a social norm as “a rule governing an individual’s behavior that third parties other than state agents diffusely enforce by means of social sanction” (p. 3) for those who violate the norm and with rewards for those who follow it. […] Social norms may exist even when there are government regulations constraining behavior. The likelihood that any of us would get caught and fined were we to drop a candy wrapper in a park, for instance, is very small; we probably resist littering not because of the state regulations but because of personal (e.g., “I’m not the kind of person who litters”) or social (e.g., “I wouldn’t want others to think I am the kind of person who litters”) norms

And what’s the point…

Our intent in this article, however, is not to provide an exhaustive review of social norms (which we have neither the expertise nor the space to do) but to provide an overview for life scientists, from an interdisciplinary team interested in the issues, of the potential links between policy instruments and social norms.

There follows in the article some discussion and speculation about governmental attempts to change social norms through marketing campaigns and other interventions: fines, subsidies, changing ‘choice architecture’, and banning things. It’s insipid stuff that smacks more of desperation than of rigorous academic research. There is a recognition here that the attempts to build policies on the back of claims to scientific authority have failed as comprehensively as the attempt to build a popular environmental movement. The article is superficially about changing ‘social norms’, but in fact the way in which signals are transmitted to government all speak about depriving the individual of his autonomy. Adopt this social norm, or I’ll punch you in the face. As this cack-handed prose, demonstrates, nobody is as confused about social norms as these authors:

Laws and regulations, like fines, can serve to create or reinforce social norms merely by signaling to the members of a community that this is an issue that others think is important. Some have argued that regulations are inherently coercive and cannot or should not exceed implied levels of public permission for such regulations. An alternative viewpoint is that governments can and even should move beyond extant levels of public permission in order to shift norms, allowing public sentiment to later catch up with the regulation (House of Lords 2011). The abolition of slavery in the United States (Guelzo 2004) and the ban on smoking in public places in the United Kingdom are both government actions that exceeded public sentiment at the time but later gained widespread public acceptance.

When an argument treats the abolition of slavery in the same terms as the abolition of smoking in public, we can know that we’re looking at a weak argument. It’s unlikely that there was a ‘social norm’ in favour of slavery amongst slaves. Even weaker is the idea that a law can produce a change in social norms. The point is hopefully made more precisely if we imagine the reversal or inversion of such policies: can we imagine that making smoking compulsory in public spaces or the legalisation of slavery would produce a change in social norms? No doubt some people might welcome such moves. But then, if it is the job of government to create social norms, why not bring back slavery? At the very least, it would serve the ‘common good’ by ending the problem of unemployment. Anything can be justified by the terms Ehrlich and his co-authors employ.

The article then goes on to outline five areas of research that biologists can emphasise, to help in the coercion of the wider public:

1. More realistic policy interventions in collective-action models.
2. The role of error (deception) in displaying and detecting behaviors.
3. More realistic network structures.
4. The role of absolute versus relative payoffs.
5. The role of viscous (i.e., slowly changing) and fluid (i.e., rapidly changing) norms and behaviors.

None of these areas, however, speak about biological science in the strict sense. “Scientists should introduce perturbations in their models of cooperative emergence that mimic the policy interventions described above.” says item 1 on the agenda. “Scientists could effectively explore the impact of certain agents engaging in deceptive behaviors; the incentive to do so will rise with the sanctions and will decline for more visible behaviors”, says item 2. Item 3 asks scientists to look for “distant geographic connections sustained through social media networks, exchanges of letters and e-mail, and periodic face-to-face visits”. Item 4 urges scientists to use game theory to identify what “influences perceptions of fairness and the adoption of cooperative strategies”. Item 5 asks, “Does it benefit society to have some behaviors and norms be fluid, while others are viscous, and, if so, which behaviors and norms can tolerate fluidity?” and “What does this mean for
the policy interventions that governments might make to alter behaviors?”

Each item on this agenda for biologists extends biology, not just into the social sphere, but into the political sphere. In this way, it would seem that biology is being made a normative science. Before biologists embark on their agenda, they should ask themselves about the rights and wrongs of developing coercive techniques, and robbing individuals of their moral autonomy. The fact that biology has no real conception of moral autonomy, they should probably also ask whether their science is up to this task.

… it is clear that structural changes need to be made that would allow society and policymakers to more effectively assess the longer-term implications of policy proposals. Initially unpopular or only modestly popular measures may gain wider acceptance if they prompt reinforcing changes in how people define themselves and their society, particularly if the changes are aided by innovations that make their implementation easier or more effective. For instance, a poll of American opinions on global warming suggested that the public by and large opposes taxes on gasoline or electricity as a way of combating global climate change and, instead, favors stricter fuel- and building-efficiency standards (Leiserowtiz 2009). Although standards may be the path of least resistance, many environmental economists view taxes and other market-based instruments as a more efficient means to internalize the external costs of consumption. Political scientists have found that people have come to accept other taxes as normative after they have been convinced that the taxes effectively address shared concerns (Bobek et al. 2007). A carbon tax might therefore prove effective even in the face of near-term opposition. What needs to be assessed is the possibility that behaviors and values would coevolve in such a way that a carbon tax—or other policy instrument that raises prices, such as a cap-and-trade system—ultimately comes to be seen as worthy, which would therefore allow for its long-term effectiveness.

The authors recognise the problem that they cannot win the climate debate through democratic processes — that the case for environmentalism and environmental policy has not been won. The article argues for the problem to be framed in the terms of biological science. This is to reduce the voting public, from thinking, feeling, rational beings to mere organisms that need to be managed — farmed.

The academy, therefore, needs to increase its capacity to work with policymakers to effectively use existing knowledge on policy–behavior–norm interactions and to generate needed new insights in a timely fashion.

As previous posts here have shown, where once the academy, like the press, might have been a critic of power, it is increasingly the case that it is being sought to defend and extend power. Arguably, the interests of politics and research have coincided as they have struggled to identify their value to the wider public; the former unable to produce a democratic mandate, and the latter increasingly incapable of making an argument for academic enterprise as a good in itself. Being detached from the public means both institutions struggle to identify societal goals — the ‘common good’. The possibility of ecological catastrophe is a stand-in for a shared goal — it can be presupposed that we all want to survive. But in the process, the public are made objects of a ‘science’.

Whether or not climate change is a real problem, the compact between politics and the academy as is proposed by the article plainly aims to position science as a remedy to extant political problems. No good can possibly come of it. Even if biologists could produce ‘insights’ into the control of behaviour, it would come at the expense of policy being advanced on the basis of consent between rational people, resulting in only a further degradation of the concept of democracy. The reality is likely to be much more a broadening of the gap between the public and public institutions, and a deepening of the mutal cynicism between the public and politicians, into which scientists will be dragged. At the very least, before any researcher attempts to follow the agenda, they should attempt to form a critical view of that agenda in the same terms, before rising to the challenge of engineering social norms.


  1. Kevin R. Lohse

    “Government policies are needed when people’s behaviors fail to deliver the public good.” Stalin would have been proud of that sentence and enthusiastic about the rest of that paragraph

  2. Pathway

    How about a good old fashion re-education camp for changing hearts and minds or better yet, a concentration camp to get your mind right.

  3. Alex Cull

    Paul Ehrlich has been in the behaviour-change biz for a while now; some years ago he formed an institution called MAHB (the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior), which has since been renamed the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere:

    From the MAHB welcome page:

    How the MAHB works:

    There are two arms to the MAHB—a research arm and an action arm. The research arm relies on multi-disciplinary collaboration and scholarly research on critical questions about shifting individual, cultural, and institutional behavior from the current self-destructive patterns to actions that support equity and ecological stability. Here we house our initiatives to 1) define foresight intelligence and 2) create a compelling and plausible vision for a 2050 headed for sustainability, pathways to that desirable world, and measurements of success.

    The action or engagement arm comprises the Nodes and Associates that focus on interventions, projects, and initiatives and who use the MAHB to interact, share information, lift individual work to higher visibility and fuel a sense of urgency. The MAHB does not direct Nodes or Associates, but rather provides resources for them to amplify their work. When a Node signs up and joins the MAHB they are automatically listed on the MAHB website and a web-page is set up for them to use to present their work, mission, goals to the MAHB community; they can also link their MAHB webpage to their own website. In addition, their activities become part of the catalog of activities and ideas for others to view and be inspired by. The MAHB website provides a library of books, articles, movies, editorials and unique initiatives so that Nodes and Associates have easy access to the best thinking about meeting the challenge facing those committed to a more equitable, secure, and ecologically sound world.

    Finally, and hopefully unobtrusively, there is a secretariat that maintains and develops the website, recruits Nodes and Associates, organizes meetings and workshops, and helps develop and manage research and public education agendas.

    There’s a 2010 article (well worth reading in its entirety) by Ehrlich on the PLOS Biology website which also has information:

    Undertaking a World War II–type mobilization, possibly lasting several times longer, to reduce GHG emissions fast and deal with the rest of the predicament would take vast political courage. The urgent need now is clearly not for more natural science (although in many areas it would be helpful) but rather for better understanding of human behaviors and how they can be altered to direct Homo sapiens onto a course toward a sustainable society, to muster that courage before it’s too late. Indeed, the academic focus for solving the predicament needs to shift dramatically to the social sciences and the humanities. Understanding such things as how social norms are generated and how individual actions get translated into group behavior are, in my opinion, central to organizing a successful effort.

    It is human behavior, toward one another and toward the planet that sustains us all, that requires rapid modification. The MAHB hopes to provide a basic mechanism to achieve this by (1) exposing society to the full range of “inconvenient truths” regarding population–environment–resource–ethics–p​owerissues, (2) sponsoring a broad global discussion involving the greatest possible diversity of people, and (3) trying to close crucial parts of the culture gap.

    Could possibly be lots of interesting stuff to investigate, when it comes to the MAHB – although going by the vaguely sinister acronym, there might also be a risk of ending up sleeping with the (sustainably sourced) fishes… :o)

  4. Mooloo

    “Government policies are needed when people’s behaviors fail to deliver the public good.” Stalin would have been proud of that sentence and enthusiastic about the rest of that paragraph.

    That is exactly what I thought reading that paragraph. If people aren’t thinking right, then we aren’t employing sufficient encouragement yet.

  5. geoff Chambers

    Is Ehrlich joining the headshrinkers, or is he rather suggesting that the social scientists haven’t done a good enough job of understanding (and therefore controlling) human behaviour, and it’s time for the biologists to step in?
    He seems to be saying: “Enough of studying beliefs and attitudes, social structures and ideologies. Treating people as rational beings can only take you so far. Let’s look at the way the brain works and why bees swarm”.
    There are twelve authors for this twelve-page paper, one of whom is Michael Oppenheimer, whose track record for forecasting is as bad as Ehrlich’s. His 1990 book “Dead Heat” predicted a rise of 8° Fahrenheit (= 14°C) for 2065.

  6. Craig Loehle

    The presumption among green activists is that environment trumps all other social goods. From this they go to all sorts of contortions to make people tow the line on their preferred social good. But for many people immediate pleasure (getting stoned or drunk) trumps all other considerations. For others, religious values trump recycling. If an artificial shortage of landfill space means that people have to obsess over their garbage instead of playing ball with their kids, is this really maximizing the social good? They want to make “social good” a single dimension because for them it is. For me it is not. Their conceit is to insist that their values trump every one else’s, and I do mean insist.

  7. Stonyground

    Though many of the ideas put forward by the ecoloons are ludicrous and impractical, I think that recycling is the one thing that they seem to have got right. About fifteen years ago, I bought into the recycling thing. The first thing that I did was to go down to the recycling centre at ASDA with a notebook and make a note of everything that they had a container for. At the time this was, Plastic containers, Glass, brown, green and clear, Aluminium and steel cans. I went home and set up a recycling centre with a bin for each of these categories.

    Emptying our kitchen bin was always an unwelcome chore, recycling moved it from a daily to a weekly job. Our next door neighbours fill their green bin to the top every week, ours has one small bin bag in the bottom.

    One thing that I find puzzling is that the recycling centre now has a bin for mixed containers. Why when it is such a simple matter to sort stuff out and not mix it up in the first place, are we deliberately mixing recyclables up when we then have to separate them out before we can re-use them?

  8. Mooloo

    Though many of the ideas put forward by the ecoloons are ludicrous and impractical, I think that recycling is the one thing that they seem to have got right.

    The greens did not invent recycling.

    The most recycled thing on the planet is probably gold. Old jewelry is not thrown away, but resold or melted down and used again. In any industrial use of gold, you can be pretty sure that all the “waste” is 100% recycled.

    In industrial terms, it would be iron – there is a massive industry devoted to it, chopping up entire ships if need be. Glass has been recycled from almost as soon as it was made, and beer bottles were recycled glass from long time past. Paper was made with rags from the Middle Ages. Second hand shops re-sell old clothes and furniture. Where there is a profit to be made from recycling material, it has been done for a long time.

    The Greens invented the concept of uneconomic recycling. It’s value is less than worthless.

  9. Jeff Guinn

    Though many of the ideas put forward by the ecoloons are ludicrous and impractical, I think that recycling is the one thing that they seem to have got right.


  10. Bernal

    One thing that I find puzzling is that the recycling centre now has a bin for mixed containers. Why when it is such a simple matter to sort stuff out and not mix it up in the first place, are we deliberately mixing recyclables up when we then have to separate them out before we can re-use them?

    Green jobs, yay!

    Fine piece.



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