In the Humanities and Social Sciences category

The Frontiers Award goes to Elke Weber for her research on environmental decision-making and the factors that motivate action against climate change

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Humanities and Social Sciences has gone in this sixteenth edition to Elke Weber (Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment at Princeton University) in recognition of her work on “environmental decision-making and human responses to climate change from an interdisciplinary perspective that draws on psychology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, sociology and environmental science.”

17 April, 2024


Elke Weber

Professor Weber’s contributions, says the award committee, can be summed up in three fundamental insights: that extreme weather events, like hurricanes, are likelier to move people to action than climate change as a general concept; that fear or guilt over climate change tend to paralyze rather than mobilize people, when what is actually needed is to “encourage sustained responses”; and that having direct personal experience of the negative impact of climate change is a more powerful mobilizing tool than mere statistics on the global warming process.

Weber is “an influential policy advisor and participates widely in forums such as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),” in the words of the citation. She was in fact the first to introduce psychology into the campaign considerations of this scientific body in the year 2010. The award to Professor Weber, the citation concludes, is also motivated by “her ability to draw on insights from a wide range of disciplines and to use them to put her ideas into consequential action that will be of benefit to the whole world.”

Professor Weber’s nominators – Susan Fiske, Frontiers of Knowledge Laureate in Humanities and Social Sciences in the 12th edition of the awards; and Simon Asher Levin, Frontiers of Knowledge Laureate in Ecology and Conservation Biology in the 14th edition – say of the awardee: “She has discovered that people’s decision-making about environmental and climate action is much more dependent upon perceived social norms than on stable personal attitudes, an insight that is rapidly transforming our understanding of what motivates positive social action and how to design behavioral interventions and policy to achieve that goal.”

“Combine and conquer”

In the mid 1980s, Professor Weber began studying decision-making and uncertainty as applied to the financial world. She then took up her first academic appointment at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where the Dean tasked her with bringing together all the researchers on campus who were working on decision-making, regardless of their field of expertise. It was then that she coined a phrase she has since employed many times to express the importance she lays on crossing the lines between scientific disciplines in order to tackle an issue holistically: “Combine and conquer”.

As part of this effort, she organized a series of meetings that gave rise to a field study on perceptions of climate change among farmers in the region: “Three behavioral economists, experts on agriculture, were working on a National Science Foundation project and needed a psychologist on board to conduct the interviews.” What she discovered from these conversations was that farmers were trying to safeguard their business from the effects of climate change either by changing their production methods, by using financial means like insurance or forward markets, or by lobbying local policymakers to legislate changes. “It turned out that people were doing one of those three, but not all three together,” she recalls today. “And that’s where I came up with the idea of a single-action bias,” whereby people take one step then stop, when a portfolio of strategies would be a more optimal approach.

Another conclusion that dates from this experience is that “climate change is, in some sense, a perfect storm. All the things that make behavior difficult for us in other situations, like not eating right or not saving enough for our retirement, are there with climate change in the sense that action is costly right now, and the benefits of the action will come later. But at least with healthy eating and investing, the consequences come back to you, to your future self. With climate change, though, the perception is that the benefits will come back to future generations in far away places. So there’s this collective action component as well. And attribution is much harder too. It’s a tricky scientific issue.”

The Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University is clear where the solution lies. “No discipline has all the answers,” she reflects. “We need engineering answers, we need economic answers, but we also need individual and collective action. And I think the big advance over the last twenty years or so has been in behavioral economics, realizing that not all decisions that are made, even by political decision-makers, are rational.” This is so, she explains, because “political and economic agents are people like all of us, with their feelings and rules of conduct. And by not utilizing all of the ways in which humans process information and arrive at decisions, we are in many ways leaving essential tools just lying on the table.”

The most effective mobilizing factors in climate decision-making

In a 2006 paper titled “Experience-Based and Description-Based Perceptions of Long-Term Risk: Why Global Warming Does Not Scare Us,” published in Climatic Change, Professor Weber sums up her research on climate change perception and action in three fundamental insights.

The first is that climate change does not elicit as much fear as other more concrete extreme events, “hurricanes or forest fires” being the examples she chooses, and are therefore less likely to motivate action without further intervention. “Climate change,” she goes on, “is a statistical phenomenon, and we know that what people care about are concrete events. We care about stories. We care about things that happen to us personally.”

The second insight belongs to the realm of the emotions. The pessimistic narrative to the effect that the climate change tipping point has already passed is, she says, counter-productive. On the contrary, her research has found that what moves people to action is positive emotions. “Instead of feeling guilty because you’re part of the problem, you feel proud because you’re part of the solution. I think the key message to convey is that action is possible. It’s a difficult problem. It’s a wicked problem. But we know what needs to happen in terms of renewables, in terms of nuclear power, in terms of carbon capture… And we also know it’s not going to bankrupt us. It’s going to be very good for parts of the economy. And, on top of that, individual behavior in the private sector can make a difference. So telling people what are the most effective actions they can take, in their jobs and as citizens of their country, is I think a really important message that the media should be trying to transmit.”

The third insight uncovered by Weber’s research is the immediacy of experience. For her, the most effective means to make people aware is having personally witnessed or lived through something: “When you see it happening in your backyard, when you see hurricanes become so much more intensive and coming every two weeks rather than two per season. I think personal experience is a very powerful teacher.”

The first psychologist to serve on the IPCC

Until 2010, no expert from the field of psychology had been invited to serve on the IPCC. Weber was the first, out of a team of literally thousands of scientists: “There were more moral philosophers than psychologists on board. In part, it was because the economists thought they knew how people make decisions. And if you assume they make them rationally, you don’t need a psychologist for that.” In this respect, she sees herself as “a missionary for behavioral decision theory,” and this initial contribution was just the first of many. “Now, we have our first ever standalone chapter on demand-side solutions and social processes. So in one seven-year cycle, there have been huge advances.”


The awardee researcher was nominated by Susan T. Fiske, Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University (United States) and BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Laureate in the Humanities and Social Sciences, and Simon A. Levin, James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University (United States) and BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Laureate in Ecology and Conservation Biology.

Humanities and Social Sciences committee and evaluation support panel

The committee in this category was chaired by Simone Schnall, Professor of Experimental Social Psychology at the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom), with Brian Parkinson, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Oxford (United Kingdom), acting as secretary. Remaining members were Isabel Burdiel, Professor of Modern History at the University of Valencia (Spain); Bruno Cautrès, a Research Fellow of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) at CEVIPOF-Sciences Po (France); and Cees Midden, Professor Emeritus of Human-Technology Interaction at Eindhoven University of Technology (The Netherlands).

The evaluation support panel of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) was coordinated by Sebastian Rinken, Tenured Scientist at the Institute of Advanced Social Studies (IESA, CSIC), and formed by: Héctor Cebolla Boado, Scientific Researcher at the Institute of Economics, Geography and Demography (IEGD-CCHS, CSIC); Marta Fraile Maldonado, Tenured Scientist and Deputy Director at the Institute of Public Goods and Policies (IPP-CCHS, CSIC); and Ana López Sala, Scientific Researcher at the Institute of Economics, Geography and Demography (IEGD-CCHS, CSIC).

About the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards

The BBVA Foundation centers its activity on the promotion of world-class scientific research and cultural creation, and the recognition of talent.

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, funded with 400,000 euros in each of their eight categories, recognize and reward contributions of singular impact in physics and chemistry, mathematics, biology and biomedicine, technology, environmental sciences (climate change, ecology and conservation biology), economics, social sciences, the humanities and music, privileging those that significantly enlarge the stock of knowledge in a discipline, open up new fields, or build bridges between disciplinary areas. The goal of the awards, established in 2008, is to celebrate and promote the value of knowledge as a public good without frontiers, the best instrument to take on the great global challenges of our time and expand the worldviews of individuals for the benefit of all humanity. Their eight categories address the knowledge map of the 21st century, from basic knowledge to fields devoted to understanding and interrelating the natural environment by way of closely connected domains such as biology and medicine or economics, information technologies, social sciences and the humanities, and the universal art of music.

The BBVA Foundation is aided in the evaluation of nominees by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the country’s premier public research organization. CSIC has a preferential role in the appointment of members to the evaluation support panels made up of leading experts in the corresponding knowledge area, who are charged with undertaking an initial assessment of the candidates proposed by numerous institutions across the world, and drawing up a reasoned shortlist for the consideration of the award committees. CSIC is also responsible for designating each committee’s chair and participates in the selection of remaining members, thus helping to ensure objectivity in the recognition of scientific excellence.