Last June we were basking in a heatwave in London and Ruairi took the opportunity to write about how hard it is to get the population to take the threat of the anthropomorphic impact on climate change seriously. He wondered whether it would need an impact on something we take for granted, such as our coffee habit, for the reality to hit home.
This week, I am writing as the “Beast from the East” is blowing a blizzard outside my window and Walruses in the Arctic Circle are sunbathing while the polar vortex moves south. In the news, there is a story about how hot cross buns have been impacted by climate change as droughts in California are pushing up the global price of raisins, while there are heart-breaking pictures of polar bears starving on ever decreasing islands of ice.
Notwithstanding the emotional stories around climate change, a proportion of the global population still does not believe that scientists know what they are talking about when it comes to the environment (47% globally and 40% in GB – in 2017: Ipsos MORI). Large numbers of people are entrenched in their view that it’s not happening at all or even if it is, nothing can be done about it.
Ignoring uncomfortable facts is also the default position for many in the US after yet another mass shooting. As with climate change, the facts are undisputed by experts: as the human impact on climate change is real, so the evidence on guns is too.
“After controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths.”
Study after study shows that it is incredibly difficult to shift people who hold entrenched views – once people decide their position on an issue, whether it is climate change, gun control, vaccination, it is hard to change their viewpoint.
As cognitive scientists Mercier and Sperber discuss in their book ‘The Enigma of Reason’: “Reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational”, referring to a phenomenon called “myside bias”. They continue, “Humans….aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.”
Giving people facts that prove their position wrong has been shown not to work. In ‘Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us’, Jack Gorman, a psychiatrist, and Sara Gorman, a public-health specialist say: “Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it.” The Gormans go on to say that appealing to emotions may work better, but for them this is unappealing as it is “So is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science.”
Appealing to emotions is also a broad brush approach that may have unintended consequences: witness the negative response to the Remainer ‘Project Fear’ campaign during the referendum in 2016.
The favourite approach of behavioural scientists – the nudge – isn’t appropriate in this case either. Nudge works best when it is pushing at an open door – when someone is “Fail[ing] to act on well-informed preferences and thus fail[ing] to achieve their preferred ends.” Nudge isn’t about changing people’s underlying views.
Sloman and Fernbach, also cognitive scientists, suggest a potential solution. In their book, ‘The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone’, they cite examples of how people become less entrenched in their views when they are asked to explain in as much detail as possible the impacts of implementing them.
The authors found that “Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.”
Writing in the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert states that “Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, [our emphasis] we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This….may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”
In other words, to change people’s minds we need to ratchet up the level of the discussion and spend time talking through and discussing the impact of ideas and changes, as opposed to just posturing and going for the emotional jugular.