The NIMBY Brain, and the Abstraction of Global Warming

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

You may have noticed that over the past few years we've learned a lot more about how the brain works. This is mostly due to advances in functional neuroimaging (fMRI), which makes brain scanning much less onerous and dangerous (no radiation involved). Researchers are using this new access to the brain to send it through various puzzles and thoughts and seeing where and how the brain reacts. 

Josh Greene is an assistant professor at Harvard, and he has used his research to explore questions of moral judgement and decisionmaking. One puzzle he's looked at is called the "Trolley Problem." Here's the setup: 

1. You're standing near the railroad tracks, and a track switch is nearby. There are five men working on the tracks, and a train is hurtling towards them. If nothing is done, they will surely die. If you flip the switch, the train will be rerouted to another track, where there is only one man working.  Do you flip the switch?

2. This time, you're standing above the railroad tracks on a footbridge, and there is a fat man standing next to you. The train is still hurtling towards those five men. If you push the fat man off of the bridge, you'll stop the train and save the other five. Do you do it?

railroad tracks 

On the surface, it's the same moral equivalency: one man's life in exchange for five others. But most people say YES to flipping the switch, and NO to pushing the man. Philosophers have tackled the discrepancy for ages, but now science has an answer. The first question stimulates a part of the prefrontal cortex, which presumably is where our monkey brains learned over generations the instinct to save as many lives as possible. The second question stimulates that area, but then a completely different area of the brain kicks in that is perhaps even more primitive and strong that says, "DO NOT KILL." So the problem ricochets around these two sections of the brain for a minute, before DO NOT KILL wins. 

What this reflects, according to Josh, is that common-sense, gut instinct thinking can be overpowering, and often fails to account for the larger picture. As Josh puts it, "our social instincts were not designed for the modern world." Morals are actually wired into the brain, but have developed over thousands of years and aren't well-suited for abstraction, like, say, global warming. 

Here's one more moral equivalency Josh is interested in: 

1. You come upon a woman drowning in a lake. You're wearing a $1000 suit, which will be ruined if you jump in the water and save her. Do you do it?

2. You get a plea in the mail that says a small donation of $1000 will save the life of a woman in peril that you do not know and lives on the other side of the world. Do you send in the money?

This one's a lot simpler to answer- most of us would save the woman, but not mail in the donation. But why? Josh proposes that it is because the "up close and personal" person stimulates our primitive emotional instincts, whereas the other person is an abstraction and therefore our perceived moral obligation to them is significantly less. According to Josh, we've only taught ourselves to think abstractly for a hundred years or more. We've got a long way to go before abstract thinking is hardwired. 

This is exactly the struggle one faces when dealing with a NIMBY: that person is engaged with the emotional charge of the up close and personal, and has difficulty abstracting out to the greater good. To anyone who has dealt with NIMBYs, this is an obvious conclusion. But for me, Josh's research adds a new perspective on the NIMBY dilemma. We'll rarely win by approaching the pre-frontal cortex- the emotional, primitive, local brain will always override it. We have to find a way to appeal to the gut when promoting an idea to local residents. 

I spoke once at a community meeting in Livermore, California about the benefits of transit-oriented development. As soon as I was done, a woman stepped up to the mic and told me, "I live across the street from this new planned development, and the people in the upper floors are going to be able to see directly into my front window! What if I'm naked?" The next woman stepped up and said, "We want a Trader Joe's we can walk to. Get us one."

There's a pretty good solution right there- if you want your project to appeal to the primitive brain, go for the groceries.

Tim Halbur is communications director for the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).



Saving the $1000 suit

The different parts of the brain need not have much to do with this. We already know we are strongly engaged by matters that affect us personally. Let's say I have a moral duty to help the people I can ("Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them"; "what you did to the least of these, you did to me" - abstractions invented long ago by Buddhism and Christianity). But I'm nothing special - we all have this duty - or none of us does. I won't personally respond to all anonymous pleas for $1000 because if I did I'd be bankrupt in a few minutes and email scammers would be rich. However, I can realistically respond to distress right in front of me, knowing that if many people behave like this, countless life/death situations will be resolved and the workload shared.
This is a restatement of Kant's 'categorical imperative', which was developed to establish a 'rational' rather than an 'emotional' basis for ethical action. For Kantians, the maxim 'help some arbitrary but viable subset of those seeking your help' is more rational than the maxim 'try to help everyone who asks you, however unviable in practice', since if universalized it would be quite efficient at distributing help.
In a sense, any arbitrary subset could be helped (When I used to collect door-to-door for development aid charities, I often got the response: 'but I only give to dogs'). But if we all chose to help, say, only canines, many non-canines would go unhelped. Localising assistance to those near us in space goes some way towards avoiding this problem. In this sense the 'local brain' is far from primitive. The arbitrary helping which happens to satisfy our emotions, like rescuing a drowning person from the local pond, does triple duty - it helps someone, makes us feel good and also receives popular approval. Perhaps we can start from here and work towards the universal.
This approach could gain traction when it comes to climate change: since I can't even see CO2 I'm never going to get much of a buzz out of abstract reductions of the stuff. However, there are plenty of practical mitigation actions I can get a buzz out of, so it makes sense to start there (one example is to install a power usage meter in every home - people love looking at these).
When it comes to NIMBYs at planning meetings, appeals to the categorical imperative can and do help. 'Plan so that no-one's front window is directly overlooked' and 'plan so urban residents can walk to a store' are well established planning objectives that Kant would surely approve of! Time and time again we see emotive planning disputes resolved by the recognition of universalizable principles. These reframe the issue from personal problem ("what if they see me naked?") to common solution ("Lady, no one should have to look at that!") The danger is that pandering to the emotions always begs the question, whose emotions?


NIMBY = No Progress

Unfortunately, according to the fundamental economic maxim in effect from the end of the seventeenth century up to right now, the only object Man should pursue is his very own pleasure. If he takes into consideration the happiness of others, it is only to keep his own happiness from being interfered with by the sanctions of society. By solely pursuing your own pleasure, it is thought that you add to the general happiness of society and, by pursuing this, you once again add to your own pleasure. Thus, a motive is only considered to be "good" if it brings happiness to the person directly involved.

Individual consumers are essentially brainwashed from birth to care about price rather than costs, and the dominant economic theory says that they are autonomous entities except at those points at which they come together for exchange. A system predicated on human selfishness such as this not only recognizes but also encourages a selfish element in human nature, which has begun to fray the moral fabric of American society. Special interests "win" while society as a whole "loses."

Jean Jaques Rousseau wrote a poem (in, I believe, 1778) that encapsulated his opinion about what the ultimate fruition of a society adhering strictly to Capitalism would be, which I must paraphrase:

An increasing range of products
Fragmenting needs into elements
Real needs indistinct from false needs
Emotions now ambiguous states

Identifying emotional conditions
Consuming personal identity and integrity
But only achieving a temporary solution

In any case, Perth Australia has formulated a pretty decent public policy strategy that mitigates NIMBY-ism...if we as a society can't somehow reduce it, we are going to have one heck of a time increasing density.

David Parvo
Most Senior Fellow
The Placemaking Institute

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