Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The seekers effect: why we keep seeking growth at all costs


Already in 1972, the classic study "The Limits to Growth" had shown that economic growth could not last forever (above: the "base case" scenario from the study). Even without complex calculations, it should be clear from simple physics that infinite growth is not possible in a finite world. Yet, politicians, leaders, economists, decision makers and the like are all pushing for growth, growth, and more growth. In an earlier post, I tried to find rational reasons for this attitude, but I tend to think that it can be better explained in terms of the "Seekers effect." The term comes from the name of an esoteric sect, the "Seekers" active in the 1950s who believed to have been alerted by aliens of the incoming end of the world.


If you are trained in science or engineering, you probably think that your views should be based on the available data and that, if better data become available, then you should change your views. You may think that this is the obvious way to behave, but think twice. Most likely, you are part of a minority; possibly a tiny minority. By far, most people seem to act on a different set of principles. They will normally stick to their opinion no matter what the data say. And if new data contradict a previous held opinion, the hell with the new data. It is something that we could call the "Seekers effect."

The Seekers were an esoteric sect active in the 1950s. A summary of their story is told by Chris Money in an article titled "The science of why we don't believe in science." In short, the Seekers had gathered around a lady named Dorothy Martin who was claiming  to be receiving telepathic messages from aliens. She had been told that a major cataclysmic event would take place on a specific date: December 21, 1954. Most of humankind would be destroyed; but the Seekers themselves would be taken to safety on an alien spaceship landing on that day.

The special element that makes the Seekers a paradigm in human behavior is that they had been infiltrated by a group of social psychologists, led by Leon Festinger, who watched them until and after the fated date when, obviously, no catastrophe occurred. In Festinger's 1956 book "When Prophecy Fails" we can read how the seekers reacted to the failure of their leader's prophecy. Their first reaction, of course, was of dismay. But that didn't last long. In a few days, the Seekers had closed ranks and restructured their beliefs: their prophet, ms. Martin had not been wrong at all; the aliens had decided to spare humankind as the result of the faith of the Seekers! The most interesting twist in this story is that not only the seekers didn't accept that their prophecies were wrong; they stepped up efforts to recruit new followers and to convince everyone of their ideas. Eventually, the were ridiculed so much that they disappeared, but that took a few years.

The story of the Seekers is one of the best studied of what is called "motivated reasoning"; that is the tendency of twisting facts and logic in order keep one's beloved worldview. Money says that:

We're not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn't take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that's highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about... we have other important goals besides accuracy—including identity affirmation and protecting one's sense of self—and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should.

Motivated reasoning is very common. Today, you don't need to infiltrate any esoteric sect to see it at work: you can see dramas similar to the one of the Seekers unfolding on discussion sites and on Facebook. A recent case in point is that of the "E-Cat", the fabulous nuclear device that should have brought us eternal prosperity. Give a look to some of the sites of the believers and you'll see that, despite the accumulation of proof that the E-Cat is nothing but a glorified teapot, the believers are unmoved in their stance. Not just that, but are also doubling up their efforts to convince everyone that their teapot is, really, a nuclear reactor.

Most of the discussions that take place on the Web, say, on climate, energy, peak oil and the like, are not based on data or logic; have you ever seen anyone changing his/her opinion in one of these discussions? Maybe it happens, sometimes, but it is almost a miraculous event.

The same motivated reasoning seems to be at work on economic growth. It takes place mostly on the media, rather than on the web, but the psychological factors at play seem to be the same. So, it is growth, growth and more growth; it is always the same concept, repeated over and over in the media. Yet, there is no rational reason (even though I tried to find one) for choosing growth over every other possible strategy. It is our tendency to stick to our previous beliefs. In the past, we put so much effort in the belief that growth can cure all ills, that now we cannot back up without losing face. It is the Seekers effect.

14 comments:

  1. Ugo, maybe not so, even Business Insider is questioning the feasibility of economic growth, see here:

    We Can't Keep Growing Like This

    True, not one of the most popular article on Business Insider, but the number of people questioning the infinite growth is increasing, though not necessarily exponentially :-)

    Alex

    ReplyDelete
  2. I hope you are right, Alex. Personally, I have to see the "reverse seekers effect" at work, but it may come!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Ugo. With minor changes from Economy to Economy, there is always a direct relationship between GDP growth and unemployment. Around 1% yearly GDP growth unemployment is stable, below that it expands and above that it contracts. This is the reason why politicians seem obsessed with growth, it is the best indicator of how well their rule goes.

    What many are unable to grasp is that GDP growth is not the same as biophysical growth.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Luis,

    true, but e.g. China needs +6% real or fake (debt based) economic growth in order to avoid social unrest. So until population stops growing, we have a problem.

    And we are lagging the population control/education/planning about 70 years (Bartlett). Ideally, population would have been stabilized by now, but it is not,

    Alex

    ReplyDelete
  5. Luis, you have a good point, but, the way I see it, most people intend "growth" not just in terms of GDP. Growth is seen as good in all senses, including, for instance, growth in agricultural and industrial production. Whereas, theoretically, you could get GDP growth without increasing the use of mineral commodities (what people call "dematerializing the economy), there is little escape to the fact that if you want to increase the production of material goods you'll have to increase the consumption of material commodities.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I think that another significant component is what I call the "this cigarette won't kill me" effect. Most smokers know that, ultimately, their habit is likely to result in extremely serious health effects and an early death. They know that, to avoid this, they must stop. But the cigarette they're reaching for now won't be the one that kills them, in fact, not smoking this next cigarette will not measurably prolong their life. There will be a time "later" when they quit.

    Similarly, even among smart leaders who understand the limits to growth (the lack of capitalization is intentional - I'm referring to the concept rather than specifically to the book and its successors) they rationalize that "even though infinite growth is impossible, 3% growth this year won't make a difference in the ultimate outcome and we'll stop in time, just not now."

    This same discounting of the future can be seen in those who will change their diet "soon but not now," those who will begin a program of physical fitness "soon but not now," etc. It seems to be an inherent tendency of the human condition. I'm certainly subject to it.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Ugo, very interesting article, I agree constant growth in output from a finite resource is imposible, even constant use of a particular resource which is not replenished will deplete!!!

    Regards,
    David

    ReplyDelete
  8. Acually, we can observe, that the emission of green house gases per Euro (or Dollar) GDP is going down already substantially, so a kind of dematerializing is happening.
    Concerning clinging to growth: I think, that there is not even some kind of arguing happening like "this year won't make a difference." - it' s more like completely ignoring the problem at all, just like it does simply not exist! Only read the economy part of your journal (not to mention the automobile devoted pages) and you will just not find a singel bit of reasoning concerning that problem. May be slightly exaggerated, but not much.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hmmm..... dlen, it is true that "emissions per dollar" are going down, but "emissions" are growing and the ecosphere doesn't care about dollars :-)

    ReplyDelete
  10. In all humbleness, I just wrote a blog post with some plots on ghg efficency and how absolute growth is overcompensating its effect and how good for the climate the 2007/2008 economic crisis actually was (and how much population growth in the USA contributed to emission growth). Unfortunately in german, but the plots speak for themselves. (http://anmerkungen.wordpress.com)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Well, I agree that the economic crisis has been good for climate. For a moment, it seemed that the worldwide emissions had taken a falling trend that would last. Unfortunately, with the economic recovery, emissions picked up again and the most recent data are scary. There has never been such a rapid increase in CO2 concentration in the experimentally recorded history. So, the crisis is creating a structural problem which involves a big rise in the use of coal and other dirty fuels. We can still hope that a new economic crisis will bring down emissions again, but the coal industry is not going to disappear and, very unfortunately, we are becoming dependent on it.

    About the "dematerialization" question, in my humble opinion we are looking at a ghost of no substance. The reduction of the GHG/dollar ratio doesn't mean that we are becoming more efficient; only that we can't afford certain expensive things any more. But that just IMHO.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I don't think so - there is a lot GDP made from cell phones and other little gadgets lately which are not so exergy intensive, cars are getting better and in some countries also homes get better insulation etc etc - there is something positive going on.
    Though it would be interesting how much the growing social inequality counts - the bigger part of GDP growth went straight to the rich and maybe those could just not use up even more exergy than they did anyway.

    ReplyDelete
  13. dlen, please give a look to today's post (Feb 21st). GDP may increase a lot or a little, what counts is that emissions keep increasing. And not just that: the increase is becoming faster!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good Goodness! Thats quite a thing. I hadn't realized that China is already at 6.8 t/capita year, nearly at European level. In the web I had only found old numbers of 4 t/capita year. in www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R41919.pdf one can see that China emitted in 2005 a lot more GHG per buck than the US (and EU, for that matter). I don't think that has changed fundamentally. So they pollute and don't even have much prosperity from it...
      If we in the west had pushed our emissions down stronger and earlier, may be China would not go on so bold and if, it would add to a lower baseline. And the US - forget it.

      Delete