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AAAS Fellow Elke Weber Studies Decision Making During Crises

Elke Weber
Dr. Elke Weber. Credit: Frank Wojciechowsk.

Last winter, when Dr. Elke Weber saw the massive public health emergency COVID-19 was beginning to precipitate, she became concerned that her own passion, climate science, would suffer because of a phenomenon she calls "the finite pool of worry."

A psychologist, teacher and researcher at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, Weber says “the finite pool of worry” refers to the fact that people are generally only able to process so much bad information at a time. She coined the term in 2006.

Weber, a AAAS Fellow, studies how people make decisions, especially in difficult times.

This AAAS Member is the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment, and professor of psychology and public affairs, at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, and associate director for education at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in April, and is internationally known for her work in decision making in science.

Last year, Weber published several studies on climate change, including a paper on how climate change communicators’ carbon footprints can affect their audience’s policy support.

The public and world leaders alike have been taking climate change more seriously recently, Weber says. Then, the coronavirus struck. Would the emerging crisis brush aside those gains?

Well, yes and no, says Weber. She points to research like this year's Yale-George Mason climate change survey, with 73% of respondents believing climate change is happening, and 62% accepting that global warming is mostly caused by human activity, compared with 69% and 55%, respectively, in 2019. However, social media trends Weber has uncovered indicate that people are much more immediately concerned with COVID-19 than with climate issues.

This spring has been an intriguing time, Weber says, full of both lessons and warnings for climate warriors like herself.

"The positive lesson is that, if the stakes seem high enough, as with COVID, then drastic action can happen" — in this case, basically shutting down the world economy for a period of time. Hopefully, that could carry over to the climate context, she says. In the past, making drastic changes to save the planet has been off the table. 

The economy took a severe hit from that action, but repairing the economy is the kind of immediate problem human beings are good at solving — and willing to address, Weber says. It's hard to stay focused on events that will happen in 50 years, even if we have children or grandchildren who could live through those events. And giving people a lot of statistics is not nearly as convincing as personal experience. In climate science, Weber says, "sea levels will eventually overwhelm wishful thinking."

On "the dark side" of what we can learn from the pandemic is the fact that the virus got out of control in the first place due to belated and inadequate governmental responses, uncertainty about who to trust and even who was in charge, and a dearth of equipment and other public health resources, Weber says. 

And that's concerning, she says, because COVID-19 was not a "black swan," a rare unpredictable event, but rather a "gray rhino," a highly probable threat pushed to the back of our collective consciousness and ignored — not unlike the climate crisis.

Even in the near term, "people hate not knowing what is going to happen, because that's dangerous. Uncertainty is so scary that we deny it: It's all going to go away," she says of people who are struggling to accept both climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

On another movement sweeping the United States, Weber has been fascinated as Black Lives Matter has gained public acceptance this spring. Deep social change, she says, is not necessarily linear, but works rather by means of complex adaptive systems. 

"There are feedback loops and tipping points. For a long time, it looks like nothing is happening, and then change suddenly happens," she says.

Elke Weber
Dr. Elke Weber. Credit: Jessica Lynn Bal.

Weber, who was born and raised near Düsseldorf, Germany, started her career in a perception lab at York University in Downsview, Ontario, Canada, looking at how people would perceive the world if they had only one eye. She loved that kind of research, she says, but was attracted to the study of behavior because it was complex and interesting, and offered her a chance to make a substantive difference in the world. 

Weber joined the Princeton faculty in 2016 from Columbia University. She has created and now directs the Behavioral Science for Policy Lab, which coordinates research projects across disciplines. She sees decision science as being at the nexus of psychology, economics, political science and business management.

"Science is an amazing cultural adaptation, a way in which we as a society use everybody else's personal experience" to expand on what we as individuals know about the world, Weber says. "It hurts me that people have become so distrustful of science. Maybe the onus is on us as scientists to get the public excited about science."

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Delia O'Hara