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Behavior Change
Why You Can’t Fight Fear with Facts

The field of environmental sustainability is fraught with emotional issues: climate change, water shortages, population growth, food purity, animal extinction … the list goes on and on.

These complex issues are intricately entwined with national economics, social mores, political and religious beliefs and fear.

Clients are always asking us to develop “education” campaigns to change attitudes or behaviors, thinking (logically) that if people only understood the facts, they’d change their behavior.

However, we know this just isn’t true – particularly in regards to emotional, fear-evoking issues. We like to think that we’re completely rational in our decision making – that we analyze issues and make decisions based on a logical, linear, cognitive process. The fact is emotions are an important part of efficient decision making.

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Damasio (1994) showed that emotions play a vital role in decision making by studying people with traumatic brain injuries that impaired their ability to experience emotions. These subjects "had difficulty making decisions and tended to make suboptimal decisions."[1]

There is also a wealth of findings on this topic in the field of economic psychology. Research by Loewenstein (2000) argues that the emotions and feelings experienced at the time of making a decision "often propel behavior in directions that are different from that dictated by a weighing of the long-term costs and benefits of disparate actions."[2]

Fortunately (and unfortunately) we also tend to believe what we read. We occasionally re-evaluate and change our beliefs later, but we’re wired to resist re-evaluation because it’s time-consuming and embarrassing to be proven wrong.[3]

This is often unfortunate because we live in an age of pseudo-science that can go viral through social media at the drop of a hat. And fighting bad science and fear with facts (basically telling a person why they’re wrong) is rarely effective – it just triggers defensive mechanisms.

So what do you do? Here are three ideas:

  1. Offer another perspective in an emotionally-engaging way. For example, a person who is "dug-in" about GMO's could be powerfully impacted by seeing people, formerly on the brink of starvation, being fed by drought-resistant crops.
  2. Connect to the "opposing" value system. You don't have to believe in climate change to act in a way that contributes to the solution. For example, buying locally reduces CO2 shipping emissions, but it also means supporting the local economy.
  3. Bring attention to bad behavior in a lighthearted way. People often need to be awakened to their bad habits, but it's best not to do that in a judgmental, finger-pointing way. Gentle humor is less likely to trigger defensive mechanisms.

Sometimes the most effective messages "sneak around" walls, rather than trying to break through them.

[1] Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam.
[2] Loewenstein, G. (2000). Emotions in economic theory and economic behavior. American Economic Review 65: 426.
[3] Gilbert, D. (1993). You Can't Not Believe Everything You Read. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. August 1993 Vol. 65, No. 2, 221-233.


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