Acting on Climate Change: Emotion versus Reason

“Deforestation is bad!”

“Overfishing will destroy us!”

“Protecting our planet’s atmosphere is the right way to go!”

While all these statements relate to serious matters, how often do we see them as accompanied by appeals to our emotions? A recent article notes how in the past researchers have focused on the role of emotions in social activism. From chaining yourself to a tree to going naked in protest of fur fashion, emotion appears to play a great part in the life of a social activist.

However, a recent study (caution: paywall) conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago suggests that this may not be entirely the case. In it, participants were evaluated on their justice sensitivity, a measure of how they react to experiences of unjust and unfair situations. This was followed by measuring their brain activity in an fMRI when they viewed and evaluated situations which were either morally good or bad. The study found that evaluating morally good actions was associated with greater activity in a region of the brain associated with important aspects of decision-making, particularly those related to selecting actions based on the expected value of their rewards. This same region has also been shown to be active when people imagine helping others, indicating that such activity could relate to processing the possible reward of good versus bad actions.

So how does this relate to social and environmental activism? It is possible that the activation in the brain region outlined above could be due to the logical decision that a good, moral action will lead to greater reward in the long term than a bad action will. Perhaps it is this decision-making process that activists who are more sensitive to social injustices are driven by. If this is the case, an appeal to logic rather than an appeal to emotion may be more beneficial in rallying people around a cause. The article mentioned earlier, for example, points out that data about sea level and temperature rises were more beneficial in gaining public support for efforts to combat global warming than pictures sad polar bears floating on icebergs. A change in activists’ and organizations’ approaches to the public may be called for, as having people understand the long-term consequences of global climate change, and thus the potential rewards of acting on it,  could do far more than ominous language and images.

Author: Bernie Esteves, EDN Intern