Communicating with climate change deniers is not a walk in the park. Beliefs are tied to the neurological sense of self, and when you challenge that belief with facts, you challenge that sense of self.
Therefore, you need to understand the denier in front of you, and tailor your communication to circumvent neurological stubbornness. This post gives you concrete steps to do that.
Back in March 2017, I was asked to give a presentation about behavioral change, and why we have such a hard time changing our mind. This post is the laydown of that talk.
Why are there still climate deniers?
With the dire news of yet again surpassing a threshold of CO2 we’re pumping into the atmosphere, I want to talk a little bit about why there are still climate deniers out there, and how you should approach them.
With all the evidence of anthropogenic climate change, it seems mindboggling that anyone would refuse to believe in it. Some of those people are your neighbors, some are your family members, and some are presidents. You might find yourself thinking, why are people so stupid, the evidence is right there?
Turns to we’re not stupid, just human, and there are different reasons why some people don’t seem to get down with climate facts.
Let’s dig in.
Social bubbles and no-fact land
Two of the causes are social bubbles and the post-factual world.
I won’t go deep into this, but in short; you howl with the wolfs in your pack.
The same thing goes for posting on the internet. You only see posts from people, who are posting the same general themes and content as you.
Why? Because Facebook and other social platforms make a profit by keeping you online longer, and you will keep scrolling if the updates in your feed if it excites you. Hence, your feed has been tailored by algorithms to show you only things you will like, keeping you scrolling for hours on end.
This also means that you don’t see posts from people you disagree with. Your view of the world isn’t challenged on a regular basis. Instead, you are daily getting confirmation, in the form of likes and comments, that you are right, smart, funny and generally awesome. This has an effect on your sense of ‘being right’, as well as your ego.
The more posts you see from people who are similar to you, the more you feel like your worldview is the one true view.
If you have many climate deniers in your social circle, you will see a lot of climate denial posts. Even if you start out with a little skepticism in regards to climate science, the more climate skeptic links you click on, the more climate change denial you will see in your feed.
From equations to crystal healing in a week
You can test this out for yourself by only clinking on certain themes of links for about a week.
I accidentally proved this point recently, and it took me down the peculiar algorithm rabbit hole of Facebook.
A friend had lost a bet and, as his punishment, had to attend an event about the remote healing of horses — meaning how a stranger can make your sick horse feel better, from miles away, using the power of thought… Right.
I found it hilarious that he had lost the bet and clicked on the event to see just how outrageous it was. Schadenfroh much?
A week later, my Facebook feed informed me that the same friend was attending an event about angels, because he had lost another bet – and again, I clicked on the event to see what he had to endure this time.
Then, social media karma kicked in…
I started getting ads for crystal healing, angel events, aura readings and so on. I am now struggling with getting rid of these ads in my feed, as I really don’t have a need for chakra healing in my life. I’m pretty sure my solar plexus just need more coffee.
So yeah, You reap what you click, and this is the price I pay for succumbing to clicking on punishment-events on Facebook, instead of doing something productive.
If you want to dig deeper, here’s more on the subject of social bubbles.
Why fact when I can feel?
In recent years, there’s been a rise in the notion, that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.
I honestly think that’s a good thing, but…
Unfortunately, this sorta merged into: Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, and that opinion matters as much as facts. We see this in political debates where a scientist will comment on a situation, and an opposing argument will be laid out, by someone who just feels differently.
This is where I get frustrated because it does not.
“But Mona, sometimes it turns out that the science was wrong, so obviously the facts can’t be trusted”.
It’s a compelling argument, but it also amplifies the social bubble effect, where everything tends to be binary. Either you’re right and I’m wrong, or vice versa. The world becomes black and white where we move further and further away from having an adult debate …and then we default to our opinions.
It’s true that every now and then, facts are disputed because we learne more about the world — like the fact that led paint isn’t good for you — but doesn’t mean feelings and opinions have the same legitimacy as our current knowledge base.
Bringing emotions to a scientific debate is like bringing a rubber chicken to a gunfight — everybody ends up looking silly.
The world we live in now is very different from the world we knew just a few years back. The Post-factual world, as it has been named, allows opinions and emotions to have the same argumentative weight in public discussions.
This link touches on the post-factual world, where opinions get as much (or more) airtime than facts, because it sells.
So what happens when we get new information, telling us that we’re wrong?
If it turns out the facts are not in our favor, we say:
‘Oh, we learned a new thing. Let’s see how this changes our worldview’.
…Except we don’t. Because we are humans, and our complex neurological brain soup hasn’t caught up with our current social structures and clickbait laded lives.
And on top of all of this, climate change is a complex problem, without any quick-fix solutions. And this makes it even harder for deniers to trust in science.
At the root for both of these causes lie a bigger reason as to why there are still so many climate deniers out there.
Why you can’t change your mind: I am my opinion.
We’ve all had debates with people who where non-movable, and it makes Thanksgiving a night of hell. No matter how much evidence you present them with, they just become more and more stubborn. Why is that?
It’s long been recognized in the fields of sociology and psychology, that the more you identify with your opinion, or stance — meaning the more you feel it’s a part of your personality — the harder it is for you to change your mind about it.
This is especially true if it also relates to your social/family life, as a spiritual community for instance (think Scientology or other cults).
It turns out the reason for this isn’t just psychological, it’s biological.
These days there is a lot of brain research happening and it’s connections to our emotions, mood, mental disorders, and decision-making processes. And the results will blow your mind.
One study conducted by Jonas T. Kaplan, Sarah I. Gimbel & Sam Harris, is especially interesting for anyone working with behavioral change.
The team put people inside fMRI scanners and gave the participants information about different topics. Some of the information was designed to go against the current belief systems of the participant.
”In this study, we performed functional MRI to measure the brain activity of 40 individuals with strong political views as they encountered arguments against their beliefs … Inside the fMRI scanner, participants saw a series of statements they previously indicated strongly believing, followed by several challenging counterarguments.
After participants read all five counterarguments, the original statement was shown again and they reported their post-challenge belief strength. The difference between pre-scan and post-challenge ratings was used as a measure of belief change.”
So in short, they measured how the brain reacted to new information, that contradicted the existing worldview.
And the results are in: BRAAAAINS…
I’ll get into what this means below the picture, but enjoy the pretty brains.
Figure 1: Brain activation during challenges to political vs. non-political beliefs. From: Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence.
As you see there are two different color schemes on this image.
(If you can’t see that, you’re probably colorblind, and should buy a pair of the new, ultra-cool EnChroma color blindness glasses)
The colors are not for aesthetics. The blue and green’ish colors are the areas in the brain that light up when the participants are given the non-political information. The red and yellow’ish colors are the areas with the political information.
These two types of information make the Christmas lights in the brain illuminate different areas. Why??
The non-political info lights up the frontal lobe. That’s the part of the brain responsible for making rational choices.
The political information, on the other hand, light up in the areas of the brain associated with deep emotions and the sense of self.
Let’s recap: Your political convictions are, on a neurological level, associated with deep emotions and the sense of self.
This is really important because it means that there is a deep biological, neural link between you and your political opinion. You can’t talk reason to this part of the brain, meaning…
Your audience is emotional and neurologically attached to their belifssystem. When you tell them they are wrong, you are challenging the very foundation of their existence.
If you are working with climate communication, I would suggest that you get the above tattooed on your wrist, because it makes a world of a difference in your work.
No matter how many facts you pour onto someone, you will not change their mind – in fact, as a self-preservation method they might refute your facts and become even more stubborn in their belief. This is the backfire effect.
There is, sort to speak, a neurological stubbornness in all of us, which can make mind-changing a daunting task.
A shortcut to mind-changing
Changing your mind is hard.
Does this mean that your effort is in vain, or that it will only pay off in the far future? Luckily, no. The before mentioned study found that:
Post-challenge belief strength was reduced for both political and non-political statements, indicating that the counterevidence did, at least temporarily, affect reported belief strength.
However, the change was significantly greater for non-political beliefs. Follow-up questionnaires completed weeks later showed that reduced belief strength persisted for the non-political beliefs.
What this little gem also say is, your effort is not in vain. There is some change, even if temporary, and even if your receiver won’t admit to it — I have a coworker like that.
We see the gradual change all around us. Whether it’s the global community slowly accepting anthropogenic climate change, or your spouse admitting, after 5 freaking years, that you were right about ‘that thing’.
It’s easier to change your beliefs about non-political issues than political ones, as these are not as strongly tied up to your sense of self. This also means…
You can and should use non-political issues as an entrance to mind changing.
There are a number of small shortcuts you can use when conveying environmental information.
Okay, this post is already like 1 trillion words long, but don’t fret!
In the follow-up post, I’ll give you a hands-on example of how I personally circumvent the neurological resistance to information when I give talks. There will be spaceships!
If you have an audience that needs a good brain-tickle, don’t be afraid to reach out! Something Green does content writing for web pages, newsletters, Social Media and more.