As responsible citizens who keep up on current events, we are all familiar with problems that need our attention and action. Whether each of us is a liberal or conservative, mainstream or following topics few others seem to care about, we can all list ways in which the world has been going downhill, or seems to be resting on the brink of a precipice.
Here’s the trick. We can certainly all go out and cast a ballot, or even sit in a protest, to reject something, whether it’s a tax or a policy or a vision for the future that we don’t want. But if the changes we need to make to avoid or reverse a really big crisis are going to require a sustained effort, maybe even upending our whole lifestyle, then we’ve got a real problem. It’s not that people won’t accept big changes for the common good – they will. The problem is that people don’t want to organize their lives around avoiding disaster.
As my research has shown, when people’s beliefs about the world are oriented positively, with aspirations towards progress or towards restoring some desirable aspect of the past, they are relatively willing to make lifestyle choices that match these beliefs, such as career choices, spending, leisure time, social connections, and media exposure. When people’s beliefs about the world are oriented towards threats or loss, however, such as a looming catastrophe, their lifestyle choices don’t reflect these beliefs (although their voting decisions may).
It’s the same kind of behavior pattern that shows up in health contexts, which researchers refer to as “gain framing” and “loss framing.” Loss-framed messages (those that focus on things that might go wrong) are generally more effective at getting people to take simple actions, like undergoing screening to detect a disease, but gain-framed messages (focusing on the benefits of prevention) are better at getting people to make ongoing changes in their lifestyles.
How, though? Let’s take the case of global warming. Suppose we believe that climate change has already begun and that it’s going to get increasingly worse, with impacts on natural ecosystems and vulnerable human communities worldwide. Suppose we believe, too, that most individuals, especially in the more prosperous countries, need to start making different choices. How can we possibly put a positive spin on this?
The key is that whenever lifestyle choices are involved, we need to make it possible that “building” and “creating” and “growing” – positively framed activities – can be the ones that will address the problem. People want to build, create, and grow. We can build a more energy-efficient economy. We can create better technologies. We can grow new, more sensitive connections between ourselves and the natural world. We can also heal, repair, and renew, although these more nurturing activities may not be as inspiring to those who like action, and action-oriented people’s energies are important and worth encouraging. In other words, let’s talk about global warming as a creative challenge, not a looming crisis.
Another way to get people thinking positively – while still acting constructively – in the context of global warming has been suggested by my friend and former fellow student Ezra Markowitz, now a researcher in a Princeton think tank. Global climate change tends to make us feel guilty, since our past habits may well have caused or contributed to the problem, and of course the “looming catastrophe” frame can create a lot of anxiety on behalf of our own future and the world we’re leaving to our children and grandchildren. Ezra’s research suggests that people would be better motivated through positive emotions, like hope, pride, and gratitude. Hope and pride, in particular, would fit well with an orientation towards building and creativity.
Finally, in this context as in every other, all-or-nothing thinking creates problems of its own. Let’s bear in mind that at least for now, it’s not “too late” – “too late” conveniently excuses us for both laziness and irresponsibility. As science blogger Kat Friedrich writes, let’s “salvage the situation as best we can.” After all, ethical living is a matter of process; results are never guaranteed, but doing our reasonable best might actually help.