Affect, availability and climate change

This is a reaction to readings in ENR 8150 Advanced Environment, Risk, and Decision Making.  The readings were Ch. 10 and 11, pp. 107-130, in Plous, S., The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making (McGraw Hill, 1993), and Keller, C, Siegrist, M, Gutscher, H., The role of the affect and availability heuristics in risk communication (Risk Analysis, 2006, 26(3), pp. 631-639).

Continuing with the theme of trying to apply these readings to climate change communication … surveys repeatedly show that most people perceive the risk of climate change as much lower than scientists say it is.  Plous had some good explanations for this in his discussion of the availability heuristic.

One element was imagination: conditions that are easy to imagine were rated as riskier than conditions that are hard to imagine.  Climate change falls into the hard to imagine camp for several reasons.

First, it is unprecedented, so it’s not something that has happened to many people.  Not many people have told stories of living through climate change, unless you count stories of living through major floods or storms, and those aren’t so much directly caused by climate change as made worse by climate change.  There is debate about this.  What we haven’t seen yet is large scale migration of populations due to water sources drying up, for example.  Once we have more stories of people having to cope with climate change, maybe it will become more concrete.  However, of course then it will be too late to do much about it.

Second is how scientists talk about climate change.  Usually it is in abstract terms like “desertification,” “acidification,” or my favorite, “dustbowlification.”  I mean, who comes up with these words??  They also tend to use a lot of probabilities.  The IPCC reports constantly refer to 95% certainty, high confidence, etc. for the findings they are presenting and predictions they are making.  Although this is important to how statistically significant the findings are, this kind of language doesn’t make much sense to the average reader.  It doesn’t stick.

Related to imagination is vividness.  The more concrete and vivid a scenario is, the more people will see it as a high risk.  Yet scientists write in such a way as to wipe out practically any vestige of vividness.  Take this conclusion from a study on impacts of ocean acidification on marine life: “Sufficient information exists to state with certainty that deleterious impacts on some marine species are unavoidable, and that substantial alteration of marine ecosystems is likely over the next century.”  Wouldn’t it be a lot more vivid to say that if ocean pH levels continue to fall at the current rate, the shelled plankton that make up the base of the food web for all life on earth are likely to dissolve by 2100?  This kind of vividness is the strategy used by lawyers to win trials, yet it would be practically sacrilege for a scientist to do the same.

Keller’s study illustrates and develops several of Plous’s concepts, and shows why the availability heuristic works: because it attaches to affect.  Affect as we’ve seen before is what grabs people because it is processed first through the autonomic system and influences cognition.  Affect, not cognition, is what brings about action, and the Keller paper explores several ways to do this.

One lesson from Keller’s findings is that frequencies trump probabilities, unless they are very low. For example, people rated the 100-year flood motif as lower risk than a 33% probability in 40 years — yet discussion of extreme weather events almost always frames them as 100-year floods now occurring more often.  Perhaps it would be better to frame them in terms of a strong likelihood in 40 years, which is a number in most adults’ living memory.

Past experience was also found to have a significant effect on perceptions of risk from flooding.  However, as mentioned previously, very few people have directly experienced climate change in a way that’s as tangible as a flood, so this won’t really work there.  What could work, based on Keller’s research, is photos and vivid graphics.  The graphics would have to be much more vivid than the simply pie charts that Keller’s experiment presented, as those actually decreased risk perception.  Good photos could also work.

Here are some examples that I think do a pretty good job:

  • NASA posted two videos this week showing what we can expect over the next century for drought in the Western United States and Mexico under a business as usual vs moderate emissions scenario.  The moderate scenario is bad enough, but business as usual emissions would pretty much wipe out all life in these regions.
  • A recent story on new satellite measurements of ocean acidification included a global map that showed acidification pretty vividly.  Satellite measurements are new and allow us to see whole swaths of the ocean rather than taking readings at a few specific points.
  • Last summer, several news outlets ran some incredible before and after photos of how lakes in California have been affected by drought.  I don’t see how anyone could look at these and dismiss the possibility of climate change.

Brain, emotions, and repetition

This is a reaction to readings in ENR 8150 Advanced Environment, Risk, and Decision Making.  The readings were Forgas, J.P. Ch. 1 (Introduction) and Zajonc, R.B. Ch. 2 (Feeling and Thinking) pp. 1- 58 in Feeling and thinking: The role of affect in social cognition, ed. by Joseph P. Forgas. (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Brain structures

These chapters both made the case that cognition (memory, learning, recognition) is a separate process from affect (emotions, attitudes, preferences).  I get that, but they certainly do seem to work together and influence each other a lot.  Zajonc argues that the physical structures of the brain show they are separate processes, since emotions originate in the amygdala while cognition originates in the hippocampus.

Zajonc points out that the amygdala is closer than the hippocampus to the thalamus, which is the organ that relays sensations, thoughts and feelings to the appropriate place in the neocortex for processing and response.  That is true, but it also looks like the amygdala and hippocampus are literally right next to each other in the brain.  Who’s to say there aren’t connections between these two structures that cause cogniton and emotions to influence each other before either one reaches the thalamus?

I have also long been intrigued by the similarities and differences between the brains of humans and other animals.  Mammals all have a similar limbic system to humans, which means they likely feel similar emotions.  This system was developed during evolution and has gone through many species to us.  Where we differ is in the much larger frontal lobes where we do a lot of thinking, analyzing, and planning.

So my question is, is activity in the frontal lobes different from cognition?  Are the frontal lobes where the thalamus sends cognitive information from the hippocampus, whereas emotional information goes somewhere else?  And if so, why is emotion so much more powerful in the sense that it can move you to act, whereas simple cognitive information cannot?  It would seem that if the frontal lobes are so much bigger in people, they would be more powerful than the tiny amygdala.  Yet again and again we see emotions are more powerful.

Note: This site was helpful in trying to understand the functions of the different parts of the brain that Zajonc discussed.

Emotion and action

Continuing with the emotion and action idea … Emotions are what precipitates action, which is why campaigns to get people to DO something — sign a petition, vote for a candidate, write a letter to their senator, recycle, turn out the lights, pass legislation to address climate change — must have an emotional hook.  Here is a great campaign that has helped to curtail consumption of shark fin soup in China.

On another thread I posted a link to a story about the most powerful political ads of all time.  Ads like Johnson’s “Daisy Girl” or Reagan’s “Morning in America” are pretty much purely based on emotion.  This is something the most effective designers of political ads understand.  Are they manipulative?  Yes.  Do they work?  Absolutely yes.  Is it ethical?  In my opinion, it depends.

If the cognitive substance that the ad is conveying through emotion is true, then yes it is ethical.  “This is your brain on drugs” is iconic — and a pretty good representation of what actually happens to the brains of drug addicts.  However, the “Swift Boat” ad that derailed the candidacy of John Kerry was not ethical because only one of the 13 men in the ad who claimed to have served with Kerry actually did, and by all accounts Kerry’s service in Vietnam was exemplary, the opposite of what the ad conveyed.

So what does this mean for environmental issues today?  In short, the lesson seems to be, climate science needs an effective ad agency.  Complex material can be communicated through emotion, imagery, and storylines, and there is nothing wrong with doing so, as long as you do not misrepresent the subject you are communicating.

Some scientists seem to find this conclusion — and this type of communication in general — to be appalling.  Last week I followed a protacted Twitter discussion between Richard Betts, a senior climate scientist in Britain, with Dana Nuccitelli, a blogger for The Guardian and one of the science communicators behind the Skeptical Science website. Betts took exception to this headline, arguing that it was sensationalist.  He went on to say most science journalism was sensationalist, then compared Nuccitelli’s column to the work of David Rose, a columnist at the Daily Mail who often attacks climate science (here for example), and questioned the motives of Nuccitelli in writing it.  Of course Nuccitelli was pretty offended by all this, and several people jumped into the debate on both sides.

My point is, if climate science is going to use the scientific information we are learning about in this class, it will have to deal with attitudes of people like Betts, who seem to think using any reference to emotion is sensationalist and manipulative.  Sometimes scientists can be their own worst enemies!

On the other side of the scale, however, is a climate scientist like Katharine Hayhoe, who gets it.  She has long called for communicating climate science not through technical details but through values and emotion.  Here is her 30-second “elevator pitch” for how to communicate climate science.  She may not know about all the research we are reading about in this class that backs up her approach, but she is demonstrating it.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

I wasn’t sure what to make of many of the Zajonc experiments showing that simple repetition makes people like something more, even if that item is competely unrelated to anything else in their lives.  What this made me think of was the idea, often attributed to the Nazis, that if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.

Then add in the subconscious priming with smiley faces and frowns, and talk about manipulation!  I am pretty sure such manipulation (for example, inserting a few frames of a smiley face or frowny face just before or in the middle of an ad or TV show) is illegal.  But that wouldn’t stop a lot of political advertisers, and it would be practically impossible to track or enforce in the internet age.

Perhaps Zajonc’s findings apply mainly to things people have not had previous exposure to or don’t know much about.  If they had already been exposed to something long enough to form an opinion, then maybe this type of repetition and priming wouldn’t have an effect.

Regarding climate change, that’s where the fossil fuel interests and free market fundamentalists beat scientists to the punch.  By funding a series of front group campaigns to paint concern about climate change as alarmist and climate change itself as a hoax — all of this before most people have had any exposure to what climate science is or how the climate even works — they have already “primed” much of public opinion.  Just look at the comments to any news story about climate change to see that.

Communicating something as complex as climate change is already challenging because the science is complex, and because some scientists think so much with their hippocampus that they don’t understand the importance of the amygdala.  But now we’ve also got to deal with a public primed against climate science.  It will take a special talent — maybe the “emotional giant” that Zajonc doesn’t think exists — to figure out how to overcome all this.