Human Self-Interest and the Problem of Solving Long-Term Issues

Posted on Friday, November 8th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
link Categories: Long Term Thinking   chat 0 Comments


We are a selfish, short-sighted lot. As many a game theory experiment has shown, we simply aren’t as motivated by the promise of collective future benefits as we are by the gratification of instant private rewards.

A group of researchers based at NYU now argues that this kind of self-interest can throw up significant hurdles to the process of solving long-term, multi-generational problems like climate change. As reported in the October issue of Nature Climate Change, The team conducted a study that measured participants’ willingness to invest personal resources into a group effort that would lead to rewards in the future: each subject was given €40, and was then asked to deposit €0, €2, or €4 into a collective “climate account” that would fund an environmental awareness advertisement. If each participant deposited enough for the account to reach a total of €120, all would receive an additional €45.

However, the reward of cooperation, the €45 endowment per group member for meeting the €120 target, was distributed on three different time horizons. In one treatment (T1), the €45 cash endowment was paid the next day; in the second treatment (T2), the €45 cash endowment was paid 7 weeks later; in the third treatment (T3), the €45 endowment was invested in planting oak trees that would sequester carbon (as well as provide habitat and greenery) and therefore provide the greatest benefit to future generations, although in a currency different to the monetary endowments offered in T1 and T2.


Just as the scholars hypothesized, participants’ willingness to invest was highest in the T1 scenario, and lowest for T3. In other words: the further a reward lies in the future – and the less likely the individual therefore is to benefit from it himself – the less motivated he is to give his personal resources up for the greater good. The research group concludes:

The results show the power of intergenerational discounting to undermine cooperation …. Immediate monetary rewards seem to matter most. Applying our results to international climate change negotiations paints a sobering picture. Owing to intergenerational discounting, cooperation will be greatly undermined if, as in our setting, short-term gains can arise only from defection. This suggests the necessity of introducing powerful short-term incentives to cooperate, such as punishment, reward or reputation, in experimental research as well as in international endeavours to mitigate climate change.

The article explains that immediate and delayed rewards trigger entirely different parts of the human brain, suggesting that long-term and short-term strategizing involve divergent cognitive processes. It seems, then, that our best chance of fostering a sense of accountability for the future may be to create scenarios in which both parts of the brain are stimulated simultaneously: by coupling the incentive of long-term rewards with that of very short-term consequences.

  • PT

    Hey Dave, Couldn’t agree more. Human beings are short term thinkers. This is almost certainly an evolutionary adaptation, as our existence historically has much more precarious, and long term thinking did not make much sense. However, this pattern of behaviour has now become maladaptive. The question for all of us is, can we change? In the broader scheme, this maladaptive behaviour might even act as sort of safety valve, in that climate change will almost certainly trim a couple of billion human beings off the population, and other life forms will probably thrive in our absence. Even that might be constructive longterm, although tragically, many wonderful life-forms wil be lost in the upheaval. The real issue is how much damage will be done to the Earth’s life-support systems while this adjustment is taking place. Personally, I think that we don’t have the capacity to change, before the rate of environmental change becomes irreversible, but I believe that all efforts to avert this catastrophic scenario should be made.

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