Evolutionary explanations for (un)sustainable behavior

Are there any evolutionary explanations for sustainable or unsustainable behavior that could help me answer my question why too little seems to be done too late about environmental decline, the lack of respect for human rights or other planetary human-caused problems?

A friend pointed me to an article by Vladas Griskevicius, Stephanie Cantú and Mark van Vught, titled ‘The evolutionary bases for sustainable behavior: Implications for marketing, policy and social entrepreneurship.’ (full reference below). Griskevicius and colleagues explain that evolutionary thinking about this issue will start by pointing out that our brains evolved over a long time when humans were nomadic hunters and gatherers. So, they are mostly geared towards grabbing what we need now and moving on to another spot when we deprived the current location of what we need. Yes, humans at some point also developed agriculture which favors brains that do think about re-using and long-term consequences but, evolutionary thinking will point out that that period is relatively short and recent. So, our brains have not yet done a lot of adapting to that. Since a couple of years ago, literally most – more than 50% – of us live in cities, and in the course of a few hundred years our population grew from less than a few hundred million to 7 billion. This has not sunk into the structure of our brains at all.

Griskevicius and colleagues propose that this evolutionary history has given us five ‘ancestral tendencies’ that are not helpful when it comes to sustainable behavior: 1) self-interest; 2) desire for relative status; 3) unconsciously copying the behavior of others; 4) valuing the present more than the future; and 5) disregarding problems that we can not perceive with our senses. I think these are very recognizable traits: Just like everybody else, I want a TV/car/horse for myself, but it has to be the biggest in the neighborhood and I want it delivered today no matter what.

Then, for each of these five propensities, the authors discuss more detailed mechanisms of how they work out in our behavior and attempts to change such behavior. For example (p. 122) : broadcasting that four fifths of a city’s inhabitants do not recycle their plastic bottles and that that is damaging to the environment is not likely to be an effective intervention. Most people will interpret the message as ‘it’s okay to waste those plastic bottle because so many people are doing that’. Instead, the authors suggest, one should broadcast that 30.000 inhabitants are recycling, because that will convey that one will join a big group – even though that might only be one fifth of the population.

A problem with the article or the approach of evolutionary thinking is that these mechanisms are manifold, work in subtle ways, may counter-balance each other, and/ or seem not entirely consistent. When it comes to subtlety, the example given above points out that we tend to copy what the masses do, but ‘what the masses do’ is an issue of perception: we copy what we think we see or know the masses do. Counterbalance: yes, engage in wasteful behavior if that is what we perceive what the masses do, but we also long for social approval which is something that comes from nearby. If our surroundings show approval for less wasteful behavior, we are also likely to follow that.  The mechanisms seem inconsistent : people tend to follow the masses but they also copy some categories of individuals more than others, viz. the prestigious or successful. These examples all come from only one page (122) in the article which deals with only one of the 5 tendencies.

Perhaps this is indeed how it is. The authors can not help it that the evolutionary grown human brain has these manifold, subtle and inconsistent ways of working. The good news for our future is that apparently not all these ways only work in the wrong direction: they can balance each other out, and with the right tweaking of communicative interactions – read advertising – we can use these tendencies to bring out the best in us for a more sustainable world. So the powers working on sustainability have a good tool here. Then again, as the journal’s title ‘Public Policy and Marketing’ points out, that tool has been for a long time in the hands of commerce and powers that are interested in short-term benefits, self-interest, disregard for not-in-my-backyard problems.

So, how do the insights that Griskevicius and colleagues give us, provide answers to my question why too little seems to be done so late? One easy answer could be that the sustainability movement has not been using the tools of marketing in the right way because they did not take into account how our brains are shaped by evolution. The examples that the authors give convince me, but they are still only examples. As a counter example, organizations like Greenpeace come to mind, that are very effective communicators. One of Greenpeace’s founders, Bob Hunter, invented the notion of a ‘media mindbombs’: sounds and images to change people’s consciousness. And it worked, at least back in the 1970s. So, to say something more definitive about the sustainability movement’s use of communication and marketing, one would have to do a lot of systematic checking of all their attempts.

Another easy answer is that even when it turns out that most of these attempts have been taking the insights of Griskevicius and colleagues into account, one can argue that opposite those well-aimed interventions stand the combined efforts of commerce and company. They probably have a huge head start when it comes to investments in their advertising. That would explain, at least in part, why too little seems to be done too late.


  • Griskevicius V., CantúS.M., and Van Vugt, M. (2012). ‘The Evolutionary Bases for Sustainable Behavior: Implications for Marketing, Policy, and Social Entrepreneurship.’ In Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 31 (1), pp. 115–128. doi.org/10.1509/jppm.11.040