Should we sanction climate change skeptics

Philosopher: "It is not enough to call a Corona skeptic a granny murderer"

Cristina Bicchieri has lived in the USA for almost 40 years, where she became the world's leading expert on social norms. The Italian has long since left the academic ivory tower; she advises the World Bank and the Gates Foundation, among others. Recently, the interview requests increased, she says. After all, distance rules, hygiene measures and other corona rules are about Bicchieri's specialty: social behavior. Start of a loose series of interviews about tomorrow's economic issues.

DEFAULT: Masks, distance, vaccinations - why do so many people not adhere to the corona rules?

Bicchieri: In democracies you can't always force people, you have to convince them. If we want to bring the crisis under control, this requires us to radically change our behavior. But to wear a mask or to forego social contacts means that we accept restrictions. Older people cope better with it, for younger people these restrictions are very painful.

DEFAULT: How do you get people to follow the rules?

Bicchieri: "Norm nudging". Let me explain what that is. We know from experiments that very often people imitate what others are doing. We confronted the participants with fictional people who are in a similar situation to themselves. The fictional person thought about staying home for Christmas. After the subjects learned that most of the people would stay at home, they predicted that the fictional person would also stay at home. The result: information about social behavior influences what we do. If the subjects believe that there is a new norm of behavior, they also believe that the invented person will stick to that norm.

DEFAULT: Sounds very promising ...

Bicchieri: ... but has a catch. Trust in science plays an important role. The lower the level of trust, the more often people violate a new norm. Anyone who thinks a rule of conduct does not make sense deviates where they can. Take the rules of distance. While many people keep their distance in public spaces, infections are more common in private life. If we don't believe the message behind a rule, we become opportunists.

DEFAULT: Isn't it enough if we trust the government without understanding the scientific message behind the rules of distance?

Bicchieri: Unfortunately not. Amazingly, trust in government is pretty much irrelevant in this case. With regard to the Covid-19 vaccination, that worries me. Above all in the USA, but also elsewhere, there are many opponents of vaccination. Large parts of the population also lack confidence in science. It will not be easy to convince enough people to vaccinate.

DEFAULT: What can you do now?

Bicchieri: Governments should stop undermining trust in science with conflicting messages. It happened in Brazil and the United States. We know how these countries got through the pandemic.

DEFAULT: Trust in science will also play a major role in the fight against climate change.

Bicchieri: The pandemic and the climate crisis are a good comparison. Both cases are social dilemmas. Individuals believe that their contribution is irrelevant. But if everyone thinks that way, the result will be fatal for society. When it comes to climate change, too, people need to be convinced of the scientific message. If we only act a little more sustainably because we believe that others are doing the same, that is not enough. We will always deviate from new norms of behavior where we are not observed.

DEFAULT: How deep into the private sphere should the state rule?

Bicchieri: Not too deep. You have to make private actions public. Even if you or me are not being watched how much we recycle, there are statistics on recycling. Governments should highlight how much more is recycled year after year. If people get the impression that a large part of the population avoids garbage, they follow suit. Media should take that into account. It's not about falsifying information. An example: "30 percent of people did not follow the distance rules at Christmas" is the same as "A very large majority followed the distance rules at Christmas". The effect on readers is not the same.

DEFAULT: What other communication mistakes do we make?

Bicchieri: One has to emphasize the collective benefit. It is not enough to call a Corona skeptic a granny murderer. You protect others, but also yourself. We have so far emphasized this second aspect far too little.

DEFAULT: Many countries work less with communication than with lockdowns and penalties for rule violations. Does that make it difficult for a behavioral norm to emerge?

Bicchieri: No, sanctions are needed - at least in the beginning. Social norms are very fragile, especially when they are young. They arise from the tension between the desires of the individual and the needs of society. If violations are not sanctioned, they often disappear quickly. In communication, governments should put much more emphasis on what other people are doing. What others do is relevant to our own behavior. Always. Not just during the pandemic.

DEFAULT: These are not good news.

Bicchieri: Of course, negative behaviors can also become entrenched in this way. Bribery and corruption are examples. If enough people accept corruption as the norm, it is very difficult to get rid of it. It doesn't matter whether the norm is positive or negative. It is important to establish positive norms so that they can be internalized.

DEFAULT: This pandemic will end at some point. Do we have to learn all the rules again in the next one?

Bicchieri: I don't think we'll soon forget this pandemic. We don't even know whether the vaccination should be permanently immunized or whether it needs to be refreshed more often.

DEFAULT: Can't we also apply the new behavior to climate change?

Bicchieri: The pandemic is close to us. Many know people who have had symptoms or may have died from them. There are masked people everywhere. We only hear about climate change. We don't see the sea level rise. That's what science tells us. Trust in science is even more important in the fight against climate change than in the pandemic. Politicians must not communicate contradictingly and certainly not claim false facts.

DEFAULT: But you win elections with wrong facts.

Bicchieri: Trump is always sure of what he is saying. He's constantly changing his mind. But he never says that he is unsure of himself. That resonates with the people. To trust science means to also accept uncertainties. Science can only say what is likely, given previous research. New research can overturn previous beliefs. Many people cannot cope with uncertainty. They prefer to interpret facts in a way that supports their ready-made opinion. Conspiracy theories are an extreme case. Such people are sure of what they say. Every fact fits into their construct. (INTERVIEW: Aloysius Widmann, 9.1.2021)