How to prevent cognitive biases from making us numb about the ecological issues?
After having answered the question “How cognitive biases make us feel numb about the ecological issues?” and presented the five main mechanisms responsible for our collective inertia towards ecology issues in a previous article based on Per Espen Stoknes’s work, here you will find a part of the solution to undermine these most common non-eco-friendly biases.
In fact biases such as distance and identity factors, doom feeling, denial or cognitive dissonance are mainly a question of subjective representations, which means that a flip could still be expected. In that sense, the main point is to change and better exploit upcoming narratives but also abandon the linear binary thinking that is leading us straight towards disaster. It is highly unlikely that current polarisation between colapsology and geoengineering, will bring common solutions. In fact globalisation trends impose nowadays a more complex systemic reflection. This reflection should be continually evolving but also imaginative, in order to constantly reconsider our old certainties. For instance, who knew that over the past 30 years, we have gone from a world where people suffered from malnutrition to a world where people suffer from diseases caused by a too fatty and too rich diet, which brought us to the point where obesity is killing triple the number of people who die from malnutrition?
Step 1 : Choose carrefully the most effective narratives
Some activists consider that the emergency factor is not emphasized enough in current storytelling surrounding ecology issues. They claim that we have to forget about the notion of sustainable development in order to establish a state of climate emergency comparable to a state of war. In fact, that would mean a lot for our modern affluent society, for example meat or air travel rationing, obligation of car-sharing etc. West countries set it up before against Hitler why do not consider global warming as a comparable enemy?
However as we have already seen in another article scary climate change communication overuse leads to doom feeling which could just make things worse and strengthen the inertia, as fear induces inaction. Per Espen Stoknes defines a brain-friendly climate communication as a communication that sets out evidence based solutions and reframe climate as being really about human good in order to get more support from sceptic people. The main point is to raise positive images instead of negative one’s, in order to override all defense barriers that limit our awareness and our actions towards climate issue.
Step 2 : Underline the benefits of a more sustainable development
Indeed in psychology the thrill of gain induces action, that is why a good argument could be that sustainable development is about more safety and more jobs. For instance, circular economy based on re-use and recycling is not just an answer to resource shortage but also a vast source of local employment. According to the European Environmental Bureau forecasts, the adoption of the Circular Economy Package is going to create by 2030, 867 000 new jobs in the EU. Moreover the Observatory of the Paris region has estimated that the recycling of 10 000 tons of waste requires 31 full-time employees whereas for the same amount of waste, incineration requires only 3 and landfilling only one.
In term of healthcare when you consider the figures of deaths caused by air pollution there is no doubt that reduce CO2 emissions could only benefit to mankind, at short and long term. According a study published in the European Heart Journal air pollution caused 8.8 million premature deaths worldwide in 2015, inching ahead of deaths from smoking.
Step 3 : Break down the distance excuse
In the long run, the distance poor argument should be fought by introducing more social (or collective) representations. The message is simple “Open your eyes, disasters are already home! There is no time or geographic protection against climate change, so join the movement!” The figures are clear. According to the last warnings of the French Ministry of Ecology, six out of ten French people are already threatened by climate change.
In this framework, we should not forget about peer to peer dynamic and not underestimate the power of mimetism, which allow very often the introduction of new social norms. It is easily noticeable that social behaviour is contagious in the neighbourhood. It works not only with individuals but also with cities, regions or even neighbour countries. People or groups of people just need a successful example to believe in. There is no doubt that, the spread of composters or individual solar panels in some areas are closely related to social collective dynamics. Another example : remember that not so long ago, being a vegetarian meant being marginal and now this way of life is more accepted than ever and branded as eco-friendly.
Step 4 : Use the power of nudges and simplicity
Dissonance, denial or doom feeling should be fought by the possibility of taking simple measurable actions and the introduction of so called nudges which are taking advantage of the human psychology. That is to say, people need a better architecture of choice where the eco-friendly choice is the default one and should seem no-brainer. A simple example, it is proven that using small plates in all-you-can-eat buffets is a tool to avoid wasting food.
Besides, people always need positive signals and motivating feedbacks when they choose right. Gamification is a good mean to make things more attractive. The neuroscientist Tali Sharot highlights three positive drivers for action: social motivation through comparison, short-term rewards, and monitoring progress. Basically, the same incentives used in sports apps, which are very popular and offer to win rewards or compare performance in a simple and fun way. Why not use that for energy, water consumption or carbon print ? The search engine Ecosia is a good example of this strategy. It uses a display to count all the trees that individuals allow to plant by using its services and gains popularity with this principle.
The guiding prinicples for nudges is to use immediate reward in accordance to what is good for the future in order to bridge the temporal gap (called distance factor) and motivate change. Moreover highlighting progress instead of decline isfundamental, as according neuroscientists it always works better to drive changes. The last main point is to find a way to give people the sense of control, which is another powerful motivator that fits perfectly to our brain’s functioning.
In fact many nudges may be found to use human tendencies to seek progress and truth, for the good of the planet. The only thing is to be creative and be aware of the psychological biases that sometimes are specific to different social groups as it is shown on this graph. Thus there will never be “one solution that fits everything”.
Step 5: Allow people to look ahead and find a place in the ecological transition in accordance with their identity
The identity factor represents often a big obstacle, but it can be better oriented with a relevant storytelling. We need more but also better stories, which bring all kind of people to envision a role in the ecological transition. Who never felt infected by the enthusiasm of a neo-urban-cyclist who saves time during commutes to and from work/school and discovers new facets of its own town? It seems crucial to make new ways of life “sexy” to everyone.
For professional communicators, work is still in progress and should rely on prescribers of any age, any countries and any social background. Controversies surrounding characters such as Greta Thumberg show to the world that is not an easy role to play. But green lobbying campaigns are launched and are even reaching the celebrity world, so we can suppose that ecological activism is becoming more and more a mainstream trend, for the better or worse…
Individual action is not the panacea as some studies remind us, but we always have to keep in mind that in liberal societies, engaging people remains a crucial step as a strong bottom-up movement of ideas is necessary to obtain rapid changes on institutional world levels. Small actions by citizens are important because changing the paradigm, changing the culture, means changing one’s actions. Often, action precedes reflection, thus these actions can pave the way for larger one’s.
Humanity is now clearly going through a mourning process, as it has to say goodbye to an excessively consumerist society. The five phases of mourning are well-known: denial, anger, negotiation, depression and, finally, acceptance. Today we are all at different stages; the denial of the climato-sceptics, the anger of the young demonstrators, the negotiation of successive COPs, the ambient depression in creatives works and finally the acceptance of citizens who take concrete action. Once people go through mourning process, new priorities and new capacities are found as hope is being reborn and allows us to roll up our sleeves and do a better job.