Cognitive Biases on the board & Corporate Climate Change Inertia

By Pamela Ravasio, IDP-C and IDN Board Member

The influence of decision bias is nothing new when scrutinizing corporate governance. For good reason a not insignificant amount of time during INSEAD’s International Directors Programme (IDP) is spent looking into decision biases as well as learning about how to remedy them in the board context.

Further, we all are aware: The consensus that climate change is having already huge consequences not just for the planet but also on corporate operations, risk profiles and profits. And yet: by and large businesses continue to fail to adjust their strategic decision-making processes to become more climate viable. At best they have just barely started on their journey.

Why is that? As we look deeper into the corporate discourse on Climate Change, it becomes evident that one of the silent yet crucial culprits behind the climate change inertia lies in the cognitive biases at play in corporate decision making.

A recap on decision biases: What is it, and what types exist?

There exist a plethora of cognitive biases recognised in psychology and decision making theory. Only a subset however seems to be of practical relevance for the decision process on boards. Some of the most frequently encountered biases in this context are the Anchor Bias, the Loss-Aversion Bias, or Availability Bias – all of which are being looked into during the IDP.

Equally drawing from the IDP: A good part of the Fair Leadership Process is also intended to neutralise such decision biases, or at the very least to make them explicit and challengeable.

Decision Bias and ESG: Cause and Effect

A 2017 California Management Review article found that in the context of corporate decision processes related to Climate Change – notably on boards – four bias types are of particular relevance: Framing Bias, Optimism Bias, Relevance Bias, and Volition Biases.

What are those biases, what do they mean for boards in the context of strategic Climate Change decisions, and what can be done about it?

Bias 1: Framing Bias:

  • Definition: “Framing bias occurs when people make a decision based on the way the information is presented, as opposed to just on the facts themselves. The same facts presented in two different ways can lead to people making different judgments or decisions.” (Source)
  • Board decision impact: Already framing the issue for example as ‘Climate Change’ rather than ‘Global Warming’ or ‘Climate Emergency’ disguises the urgency with which actions are needed, as well as the extremely tight timelines, and concentrated actions and investments needed. Framing is often decisive in identifying how urgent, critical, and bottom line relevant an issue is.
  • What to do about it? Language matters. Choosing wording carefully is a good start. Spelling out underlying assumptions is another good way to get to a more realistic picture of reality.

Bias 2: Optimism Bias:

  • Definition: People tend to overestimate the probability of positive events and underestimate the probability of negative events happening to them in the future. (Source)
  • Board decision impact: An example of the optimism bias in action is the assumption that advances in technology and innovation will allow us to revert Climate Change at a later date. Through such assumptions, responsibility is shifted away from the current context, and leads to inaction in the present.
  • What to do about it: Brutal honesty is necessary – and some significant efforts around spelling out what worst case scenarios could and would look like. Can a company successfully survive a worst case? And how exactly?

Bias 3: Relevance Bias:

  • Definition: Our subjective understanding of how important and critical an issue truly is, based on what we know or think to know. (Source)
  • Board decision impact: An example of this bias in action is that we all know that temperatures will rise between 2 and 5 degrees Celsius still this century. And yet – subjectively those temperature rises seem to be inconsequential. The reason being that as human beings – and as a consequence also in the professional roles we embody – we are already primed to ignore it.
  • What to do about it: Investigate how the information is anchored. For example in the above case, a 2 degrees temperature rise would be perceived through a subjective lens and set of experiences. Next, work on replacing those subjective views through a more objective, data driven but equally tangible (experiential, pictorial) description of the same, with the intent to replace the subjective experiences through those rooted in objective knowledge.

Bias 4: Volition Biases:

  • Definition: Broadly, these are errors in judgement that result from deferring responsibility (‘it is not my problem’), and can come in many forms such as through deference to authority or the ‘others do it as well effect’. (Source)
  • Board decision impact: Being reluctant to act because of an absence of a legal enshrined ‘level playing field’ is one of the most frequently cited versions of a Volition Bias. Another example is when companies finger point other players in their industry, say for not paying a living wage, and in this way justify their own behaviour and inaction.
  • What to do about it: Ask the question “What should the company (the board, the individual) do if the responsibility for change was theirs, and theirs alone?”

Conclusion

Climate Change “is the predominant moral issue of the 21st Century” (James Hansen, NASA climatologist). And yet, a recent survey shows that only 17% of Board of Directors serving on Sustainability committees have sustainability expertise. (Source, page 12).

Hence, while we’re waiting for boards to get their sustainability literacy up to speed and at a level comparable to their financial literacy: taking concrete measures to recognise, and remedy existing cognitive biases and their impact on decisions related to Climate Change action, is an effective, reasonably simple to grasp and implement, low hanging fruit that no doubt bears a considerable harvest.

 

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