By Bryan Caplan
Like me, Tyler Cowen often believes that people’s beliefs are irrational and their motives are expressive. But unlike me, he doesn’t think that low stakes are an important reason for these tendencies. In fact, he delights in the counter-intuitive view that if you raise the stakes, irrational and expressive tendencies become even more pronounced.
So I wonder how he’ll react to this recent Yale-GMU survey on recycling. The title of the press release: “Americans Favor Conservation, But Few Practice It.” Key findings:
A majority of Americans say that it is “very important” or “somewhat
important” to turn off unneeded lights (92 percent), to lower the
thermostat in winter (83 percent), and to use public transportation or
carpool (73 percent), among other conservation behaviors. Yet the study
* 88 percent of Americans say it is important to recycle at home, but only 51 percent “often” or “always” do;
* 81 percent say it is important to use re-usable shopping bags, but only 33 percent “often” or “always” do;
* 76 percent say it is important to buy locally grown food, but only 26 percent “often” or “always” do;
* 76 percent say it is important to walk or bike instead of drive, but only 15 percent “often” or “always” do; and
* 72 percent of Americans say it is important to use public
transportation or carpool, but only 10 percent say they “often” or
Large majorities do “important” stuff that’s in their interest anyway, like turning off lights when they’re not needed. Few do “important” stuff that’s a giant pain, like not driving or composting food waste.
According to the project director, “There are many possible explanations for the gap between people’s attitudes and their actual behavior.” Such as?
For example, public transportation may not be locally available or
convenient. Overcoming barriers such as these will make it much easier
for people to act in ways consistent with their values.
In other words, if something isn’t “convenient,” even people who say it’s “important” usually don’t bother. But as I keep insisting, people often eagerly vote for things they won’t do. Why? Because from the individual’s point of view, voting is talking, not doing.