hat do typewriters and climate change have in common? The answer: both are based on so-called path dependency, a term used in sociology to describe how past decisions affect the present. One example is the arrangement of letters on a keyboard, which was originally developed in the nineteenth century to prevent the type bars on typewriters from jamming. Though modern devices like laptops or smartphones no longer use type bars, the format has stayed the same. The reason: the widespread use and resultant force of habit.
This also explains why we have a hard time changing our behavior to switch to climate-friendlier alternatives. Certain routines – like driving in to the office – are deeply rooted in our society and based on traditional technologies like the internal combustion engine. In these situations, it can be very difficult to leave our familiar paths. Take electromobility for example: since there still aren’t that many charging stations, electric vehicles aren’t yet a practical alternative everywhere. Plus, commonly held preconceptions about speed and horsepower stand in the way of the new technology.
My research at Hamburg’s Cluster of Excellence for climate research focuses on these types of path dependency. The key question is how people act when their old habits no longer work. In this regard, insights from the field of social psychology provide a helpful basis: people often do not consider the decisions they make and simply imitate the behavior of their “personal experts.” Depending on topic and situation, these can be their personal computer expert, their neighbor or the general public. If the expert proves to be reliable, the person in question will continue to mimic their behavior in the future. Over time, this process creates entire networks of dependencies. These can include friends and acquaintances, but also the media – in other words, all sources that a person uses as templates for their own conduct. The stronger the dependency, the less likely change becomes.
Interestingly, at times the same mechanism can also have just the opposite effect. This can happen when people realize that their customary types of conduct are no longer practicable. For example, we know that exhaust from gas and diesel engines harms our climate. In order for the current situation to change, two things are important: the technological framework and the personal experts. If we had more charging stations, people looking to buy a new car would be more likely to consider an electric vehicle. And those who bought one would then become the brand-new experts within their networks. Even a handful of pioneers could have a considerable effect; just like on Facebook or Twitter, more and more of their friends and acquaintances would adopt the new form of conduct. The result: more demand for electric vehicles, which would push production and lower prices. This in turn could reinforce the new path until the new technology was ultimately accepted on a broad scale. So we see that climate-friendly alternatives definitely do have a fighting chance if there are the right technological conditions – and if enough pioneers can be won over.