May 14, 2019 by Jean
On Sunday, as I drove to and from the first Farmers’ Market of the season, I was listening to one of my favorite Public Radio programs, Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain. This week’s episode was about how we know what we know, how our emotions influence the likelihood that we will change our beliefs, and when and how we act on those beliefs.
Some of the information in this episode was familiar to me – especially that almost all of the factual information that we “know” is not known through our own experience or the evidence of our own senses, but has been learned from others. In other words, most of what we understand to be true is a result of social agreement. (In an example used in the program, think about how you know that the earth revolves around the sun.) This means that the facts we know to be true are only as reliable as the sources we learn those facts from.
Human beings also have a tendency toward something called “confirmation bias,” which means that we are more attuned to hearing and seeing evidence that confirms what we believe to be true than evidence that challenges what we believe to be true, and we are more comfortable interacting with those who share our beliefs than those who challenge them. Confirmation bias helps to explain the pernicious effects of social media in dumbing down our culture. The algorithms used by social media platforms like Facebook magnify confirmation bias by showing us more posts like those we have already looked at and “liked” (most likely those that confirm our existing beliefs) and “protecting” us from posts that would challenge those beliefs. Add to that the norms of social media that encourage the use of exaggerated claims and hyperbolic language and thus erode civil discourse, and you end up with the familiar silos in which we only see and hear that which is pleasant and comfortable because it confirms what we already believe.
One of my favorite parts of this week’s Hidden Brain program looked at the role of emotions, especially fear and hope, in shaping what we believe, how likely we are to change our beliefs, and the likelihood that we will act on our beliefs. The available research suggests that fear is a good motivator for preventing risky behaviors (getting us not to do something) but not for motivating action; hope is a much better motivator for initiating action. One study found that the usual fear-based campaign focused on the risks and consequences of hospital-acquired infections was not successful in getting medical personnel to sanitize their hands when entering and leaving patients’ rooms; only 10% did so. But when digital read-outs were added above each sanitizing station showing the percent of personnel who were sanitizing their hands, the feedback of seeing the numbers go up and the hope-based motivation that your action could make a real difference increased hand sanitizing rates from 10% to 90%.
In part because I’ve recently been reading Mark Hertsgaard’s Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt 2011) and in part because it is the issue most often on my mind, I found myself applying these insights about emotion and motivation to climate change. Most attempts to get people to take action to reduce their carbon footprints are fear-based – and those attempts have been spectacularly unsuccessful; greenhouse gas emissions in the United States increased last year. Not only are doom-and-gloom scenarios poor motivators for action, they are countered by fears that motivate inaction – fear that taking action will make the individual’s life too uncomfortable, will cost too much, or will send our carbon-based economy into a tailspin. I realize now why I had such a strong response to the book Drawdown when I read it earlier this year (see Winter Reading). Unlike most climate change literature, Drawdown provides a hopeful message; it gives us a list of doable changes we can make (waste less food? I can do that!) and provides data to show that these would have a real impact, not just in reducing our carbon emissions but in actually reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by 2050.
In Hot, Mark Hertsgaard argues that we need a “Green Apollo” program, an environmental equivalent of Kennedy’s 1960 proposal to put a man on the moon within ten years, that combines committed leadership to a bold vision with ambitious goals and the resources to harness innovation and technology to achieve those goals. I agree with Hertsgaard, but I’m also wondering how we can apply the insights of the hand sanitizing study to climate change. What would be the equivalent of a digital readout that would provide us with immediate feedback that our small actions are making a real difference each time we make a planet-affirming choice? I think it has been easier to achieve this with the problem of species extinction than with the problem of greenhouse gasses. Gardeners who plant pollinator-friendly gardens get the positive feedback of seeing pollinators in their gardens. Many states, including my own, have developed programs where local governments and conservation organizations combine with community volunteers to help threatened amphibians cross busy roads safely during their spring migration. The volunteers see the amphibians crossing and know they would have been killed by cars without protection; they get immediate feedback that their actions are making a difference. How can we adopt similarly effective programs to motivate local action for drawing down greenhouse gasses?
As I consider the candidates for next year’s presidential election in the United States, I am going to be looking for someone who could lead a “Green Apollo” initiative – someone with a bold message about climate change, a hopeful vision, ambitious but achievable goals, a can-do attitude, a willingness to commit real resources, and clear policies about how we can get from here to there. But I am also looking for ways that states and local communities can empower citizens with programs that move us from the paralysis of fear to the hope that comes from achieving measurable goals.
Those who would like to listen to the episode of Hidden Brain that inspired this post can find it here.