After Phrenology

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Psychological Ecology

How to save the planet, one brain at a time

Why do civilizations collapse?  In a very important and impassioned article appearing yesterday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich argue that environmental stress is a primary factor.  When crops fail, or land is lost to floods or desertification, or water supplies are threatened by drought or pollution, or whole communities are destroyed by storms, the strain this places on the fundamental necessities of life ripples through the social fabric.  Yes, natural disasters like flood and famine can help weave tighter communities, but they can also tear them apart.

The Ehrlichs assemble evidence from ecology, epidemiology, population biology, climatology, and geophysics (among many other sources) that all point to the extraordinary pressure being currently placed on the environment.  Rising global temperatures, changing patterns of rainfall, and increasingly violent storms are only a few signs of the changes being wrought.   The article is a sobering read.  It is also largely old news.  We’ve known about global climate change (and the threats of population growth, pollution, and pandemic) for decades, but we’ve done essentially nothing about it. The real question raised by the article, then, is: why?

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Although it is certainly the case that the well-funded pseudo-scientific disinformation campaign being waged by the oil industry and others with financial interests in business as usual is one important factor, really what we've got here is fundamental failure to communicate. The Ehrlichs admit as much. As a psychologist and educator, I was especially pleased to see such a prominent acknowledgment that the clear presentation of scientific facts is not by itself enough to promote understanding or motivate any change in behavior. As any good teacher will tell you: that’s just not how people learn, nor how they think.  People don’t accept facts at face value—nor should they.  Rather, we always consider how new information relates to things we already believe: is it consistent, or does it conflict?  If the latter, which belief should be retained? We routinely understand new things in terms of things we already understand: the atom is like a little solar system, love is war, life is a journey.  Our thinking is fundamentally guided by such metaphors and narrative frames.  That’s just how it is, and probably how it should be. It works. If you want to reach people, if you want to communicate and convince, you have to understand this. Psychologists have been saying this for years—George Lakoff is among the more prominent advocates—so it’s nice to see that the message may be finally getting through.

 In the case of communication about climate change, here are a couple of things about our minds—why they change, and why they don’t—that we need to appreciate (see Feinberg & Willer 2011; 2012 for discussion).

1. Dire warnings of impending catastrophe are often ineffective or even counterproductive. Why? Certainly people have a tendency to ignore things that are too terrible to contemplate, or about which they can do nothing (more on this, below), but there is a simpler reason: the notion that the planet could undergo catastrophic changes that would cause arbitrary suffering contradicts the widespread and deeply held belief in a just and stable world.  Feinberg and Willer (2011) write:

“Information regarding the potentially severe and arbitrary effects of global warming . . . constitute a significant threat to belief in a just world, and discrediting or denying global warming’s existence could serve as a means of resolving the resulting threat.”

In fact, Feinberg and Willer found that a side effect of this conflict resolution strategy was to increase skepticism about global warming. People don’t just to fail to accept global warming, but actively disbelieve it, leading to a reduced commitment to mitigate their personal environmental impact. The increasingly alarming predictions being issued by climate scientists, then, may be having the paradoxical effect of increasing skepticism in the reality of the problem.

Obviously, that’s bad.  But interestingly, it’s easy to fix. When information about the effects of climate change are presented along with possible solutions, people are more willing to believe the science. The message to scientists and policy makers could hardly be clearer:  when conveying bad news, always give people something to do, to support, or to hope for.

2. All people think metaphorically, but different people prefer different metaphors. Everyone wants to be moral.  Most people think they are.  But what that means can be quite different for different people. Political liberals, for instance, tend to conceptualize morality in terms of care.  The moral person is a shepherd, a protector.  In contrast, political conservatives tend to conceptualize morality in terms of purity.  The moral person is clean, unblemished.

Now, what does this have to do with the environment? Quite clearly, in our polarized country, people deeply differ on whether increasing protections for the environment is the right—the moral—thing to do.  Liberals are stereotypically in favor of environmental regulation, and conservatives against. Naturally, this tracks differences in attitudes toward governmental regulation in general. But what Feinberg and Willer (2012) found was that this split also tracks differences in the driving metaphors behind morality. Because messages about the environment are overwhelmingly likely to be framed in terms of care and protection (note the attitude is even embedded in the title of the relevant government agency), political liberals are more likely to see environmental regulation as a moral matter, and are thus more likely to support it.  Interestingly, and crucially, they also found that reframing the messages around the metaphor of purity—keeping the environment pristine and unsullied—increased conservatives’ feelings of disgust toward pollution, and their willingness to support pro-environmental legislation.

Here again, both the general and specific upshots are quite clear: if you want to communicate with someone, take the time to consider how—within what metaphorical frame—they are likely to interpret your message. And whether a message about  the environment should be framed as a matter of care or a matter of purity will depend on where you are when you open your mouth.

Hopefully a more widespread understanding of these and other features of our minds can lead to better communication and a greater willingness to cooperate in tackling not just the challenge of climate change, but also the many other pressing matters currently before us.  For if the Ehrlichs are right, the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

Michael Anderson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Franklin & Marshall College.

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