Short Termism and the Human Brain: How We Tune Out the Long-Term Consequences of Our Actions

Published on February 9th, 2014 | by

Short termism

Sometime between fifty and one hundred thousand years ago, the ancestors of modern-day homo sapiens are believed to have left their African homeland and begun their relentless expansion across the world. Within a comparatively short time period, early humans had extended their influence to every continent. Life is believed to have existed on this planet for at least 3.8 billion years prior to the evolution of humanity, yet over that immense span no species has ever had such a dramatic effect on the Earth, in so short a time. The time interval between the first humans leaving Africa and the present day is only a blink of an eye in geological terms.

The world early humans would have experienced was vastly different to today’s world. On every continent, wildlife abounded. Many of the species which existed at that time were considerably larger than today’s animals. It was at this point in our history that the ability of humans to dramatically impact their environment was first demonstrated. On every continent the same pattern was repeated. Within a few hundred years of the arrival of people, most large animals had simply disappeared. The one exception to this is Africa, where wildlife had co-evolved with the upright apes, and had learned to be wary of people from the very start.

This pattern reveals a fundamental characteristic of how our brains work; we tend to focus on the short term, and have little thought of the long-term consequences of our actions. The early hunters devised ever more efficient ways of killing the existing inhabitants of the new lands they occupied. There was no thought of long-term consequences. Why should there be? The supply of prey animals was believed to be inexhaustible. Yet one day they were all gone!

The problems we face in today’s world suggest that little has changed in the last fifty thousand years. In his 2004 book “A Short History of Progress”, Ronald Wright describes human beings in today’s world as running 21st century software on fifty thousand-year old hardware. Our brains have evolved to react to short-term crises, such as an attack by a hungry lion. The more subtle cognitive abilities which would allow us to assess and respond appropriately to longer term threats  are much less developed within the human brain. As a result we are very good at responding quickly to an emergency, but we are hopelessly inept, both as individuals and as a society, when it comes to taking effective action to head off threats which are perceived as being distant.

In March of 2011, a massive earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a tsunami which killed thousands and destroyed many coastal communities on northern Honshu Island. The relief effort which followed was unprecedented in scale, as emergency crews from across Japan, along with international rescue crews, moved in to help the surviving residents of beleaguered coastal communities. In total it is estimated that almost twenty thousand people lost their lives in this disaster, and approximately half a million people were displaced. The response to this disaster shows how people can mobilize effectively in response to a crisis, and highlights our ability to cooperate and to work together when we are faced by a situation beyond our control.

However this disaster also indirectly highlighted another side to our character. The tsunami damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant, cutting the supply of cooling water to the reactors. While the emergency diesel-powered cooling system initially took over, it soon broke down, leaving the reactors uncooled, with disastrous consequences. Though a complete reactor meltdown was avoided, problems continue to this day, with highly radioactive water continuing to escape into the ocean from cracked holding tanks.

The idea that we could build a system which, even when working as designed, requires our continued intervention to prevent a disastrous meltdown illustrates how we tend to focus only on the short-term. The assumption is that the conditions for which the system was designed will always remain the same. Many nuclear power stations require continuous cooling to prevent the reactors overheating. There appears to have been no thought given to the possibility that multiple systems may fail, that emergency supplies of diesel fuel may be insufficient, or that critical personnel may not be able to access the site.

It is not just the nuclear industry which suffers from this form of blindness. Many industries, from oil refining to chemical production, require continuous active intervention to stave off disaster. A logical assessment of potential long-term threats, which included the possibility of natural disasters, power failure, terrorism, sudden economic collapse, or incapacity of critical personnel, would surely conclude that complex industrial systems should be designed to shut down in a fail safe manner in the event of a problem. Such systems should further be designed to remain in a safe dormant state indefinitely, until restarted or decommissioned.

Some would characterize this as an example of our arrogance as a species. However it is largely a system design problem; our brains are simply not wired to consider and react effectively to abstract long-term threats. Short term thinking assumes that environmental and economic conditions will remain constant, despite frequent examples to the contrary. Therefore by this logic we don’t need to worry about earthquakes, there will always be a supply of diesel available to power backup generators and the idea of a major pandemic killing off all critical personnel is so far-fetched as to be simply ridiculous. Therefore why should we even bother to consider those possibilities?

There are many parallels with the environmental issues which we face today. Problems such as overpopulation, deforestation, over-fishing, pollution, loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, aquifer depletion, and especially climate change often seem far off and abstract to us. Yet these are the very problems which are going to define our future. The difference is that these are not remote possibilities; they are actual real problems which are completely predictable. In spite of this, many people see such issues as being of lesser importance than daily variations in the stock market, or the latest activities of minor celebrities.

We are fortunate today in that we possess tools which allow us to compensate for our short-term focus. Computers allow us to analyse data in a completely objective way and identify trends long before they become obvious. Modelling can help scientists to simulate complex environmental interactions and to identify possible courses of action to help mitigate the worst consequences of our actions. The internet allows us to disseminate information almost instantly, making it possible for concerned citizens to come together and demand action.

In a sense technology is therefore making it possible for us to overcome our limitations, both on an individual and a societal basis. However, the fact that the message is able to get out does not mean that it is being taken up by the majority of people. Our penchant for focusing on the short-term means that most people still continue to tune out the message of long-term environmental consequences resulting from our current lifestyle. It  is only when a critical mass of people become aware of the damage that we are doing to the environment and start demanding action, that we are likely to see meaningful change.

Once we wake up as a species we will take effective action; it is hard-wired into our brains to react to an obvious crisis. However the question is whether we will respond in time to secure a viable and productive future for the human race. The Earth will go on unaffected either way. Within a few million years evolution will have filled the gaps created by our actions. The main question is whether our descendants will be part of that future. That is likely to depend largely on decisions we take in the next few years; decisions which need to be informed by more than short-term thinking.

photo credit: OneEighteen via photopin cc


About the Author

Ken Whitehead is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary, where he specialises in using unmanned aerial vehicles for a variety of environmental monitoring applications. For his PhD he developed methods for measuring glacial flow rates and ice loss in the Canadian Arctic. In the past he has been a remote sensing instructor, and has worked as a remote sensing / geomatics specialist in the UK, South Africa, and Canada. Ken is originally from Scotland, but currently lives in interior British Columbia, where he enjoys life in the great Canadian outdoors.