Brain Waves

Why Psychology Matters

Psychology plays an important role, along with mass media in shaping public perceptions. It is my hope that a more accurate public understanding will lead to effective mitigation strategies and a paradigm shift to a more biocentric society.

When it comes to plastic pollution and climate change, many feel the problem has progressed far beyond human correction and that there’s nothing we can do to fix it. This leads individuals to a lack of personal engagement with the subject. After all, many do not see the rationale of personal action in the absence of collective action. Individuals tend to focus their attention on issues which they believe will affect them in the near term.

Ultimately, we’re dealing with several commons issues. As each individual continues to make seemingly harmless decisions such as driving to work or accepting a take-out container, collective emissions & plastic pollution continue to accumulate in the atmosphere and ocean. The public feels a lack of immediacy because each person is only a very small contributor to a worldwide concern.

Further amplifying the issue, an individuals’ perceived risk is lowered in the absence of collective action. Public risk perceptions play the same if not a more important role in political action because they determine an individuals’ behavioural intentions.

Global change is difficult to understand for three reasons:

  1. There is no experiential base
  2. Global change occurs on an enormous scale with time delays which make comprehension difficult
  3. Issues are extremely abstract. They cannot be experienced by our senses. Therefore, people do not feel they are impacted in a direct or significant way.

Cognitive Explanations

It is impossible for the human brain to store and process the multitude of data presented every day. Cognitive science argues that individuals have mental models – or cognitive schemata – which they use to make sense of the world around them. These pre-existing mental scripts are used to help comprehend new information by relating it to what is already known, and proceed to direct resulting thoughts, decisions, and actions. New information is interpreted in terms of existing viewpoints and only pieces which reinforce existing opinions are accepted. Through this process, information is rarely stored exactly as presented.

If confused about a situation, people will tend to avoid it. We feel the most comfortable in subject areas where we have strongly developed mental maps which provide cognitive consistency. These maps develop when tightly interconnected neurons – called prototypes – are connected to other prototypes and relationships are formed. As an individual gains experience with a topic, neurons become more tightly connected and the corresponding prototype is easier to activate. If relationships are difficult to form, we experience a state of dissonance and become selective in acceptance of new information in order to resolve this uncomfortable feeling.

Mental models heavily shape perceptions of global issues. These perceptions are extremely important as they shape whether the general public feels any sense of urgency in supporting mitigation strategies.

If we are to address the unprecedented impact of our global footprint, we must craft solutions that take into consideration our cognitive defaults.

There are two phases of information processing: perception and knowledge integration. Essentially, perception is the activation of prototypes and integration is the connection of this new information to pre-existing  knowledge. The attention of an audience can either be voluntary or involuntary. Voluntary attention requires mental work in order to focus on the task at hand. Involuntary attention differs in that it is based on interest and requires little mental work to stay focused. Communication of global issues must appeal to the involuntary attention of the audience by making it interesting and important to them. Messages which appeal to the concerns and interests of the audience are more easily understood and committed to memory. In addition, the audience must be convinced within the first minute that it is worth their time to pay attention.

Strategies for Action

Without a well-defined culprit, collective global issues are difficult concepts to communicate. Where the message needs to start is that we’re all culprits. Every individual choice – this or that – can either add to the issue or be a step toward positive change.

Understanding your audiences’ perceptions is integral to the success of any communications campaign. Scientists and social scientists must work together in a way that ensures the message is crafted for easy understanding by the target audience. Technical reports and peer reviewed journals can become overwhelming and deter the public from engagement.

It is imperative that the messenger be viewed as credible and legitimate by the audience. In addition, the communication channel must be chosen wisely to ensure the message reaches the audience effectively. Further, the messengers’ tone must be one of empowerment and speak to the individual’s sense of self-efficacy. If mitigation strategies are constructed in a way that reverberates with the individual’s values and beliefs, they will be more likely to support those strategies. Much of the communication on climate change and plastic pollution has been ineffective thus far because it has not been constructed to fit the way people process information. Stories are becoming more widely accepted as a means to communicate complex issues because they are compatible with the way people naturally process information.

Environmentalists have tended to use facts and fear to mobilize action. However, feelings of fear by the public have the possibility of producing denial or helplessness in response to the overwhelming problem. Therefore, positive motivations should be used in communicating issues of a global scale. A possible strategy is to frame action as a requirement for security, religious, and economic reasons in order to connect with the values of the audience and influence action. Further, communication from “experts” can be ineffective because it is not likely to connect with the publics’ cognitive values.

Paramount to all other concerns, we must answer the question whether people are willing to alter their lifestyles to address global challenges. The public believes that mitigation will lead to a drop in the status quo and this is expected to result in extreme discomfort. Individuals are unlikely to support mitigation strategies if they require a lifestyle change.

The New Environmental Paradigm (NEP) is a scale which assesses the value a person places on nature and humans’ relationship to it. More research is needed in this area. Researchers must also determine whether a more informed public is a more active public and thereby willing to support mitigation strategies regardless of possible lifestyle changes.

Have thoughts about how we can communicate more effectively?


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