Taking big risks - Notes on dissociation - Why Aren't We Saving the Planet?: A Psychologist's Perspective - Geoffrey Beattie

Why Aren't We Saving the Planet?: A Psychologist's Perspective - Geoffrey Beattie (2010)

Part III. Notes on dissociation

Chapter 13. Taking big risks

So there are green fakers out there, sometimes with odd discrepant body language, who say one thing but believe something different. And in these individuals you can sometimes see their iconic gestural representations go one way as their speech goes another. We need to produce a fundamental change in attitude towards the environment in these people if we are going to change their behaviour towards low-carbon-footprint products (on the assumption that their underlying implicit attitudes are a better predictor of many of the relevant forms of behaviour, including supermarket shopping with all its inherent pressures, than their explicit attitudes). Merely providing carbon footprint information to such individuals (including myself, let’s not forget) will currently not necessarily do very much.

But we know that (in principle) this kind of attitude- behaviour change can be done: just look at the change in seatbelt use or the way that people now install smoke alarms as a result of specific explicit attitude change programmes (through public-service advertising: see Lannon 2008, for a description of some important and significant campaigns in this domain). Indeed, some great persuasive messages (well beyond the scope of public-service adverts) have emerged in the past few years with exactly that agenda within the context of sustainability and the environment. Some of these are more than just persuasive messages: they are actually great emotional films, things like An Inconvenient Truth, but with the specific, motivated aim of changing how we all feel and act with regard to the environment. But have films like this actually got it right? Do they have any real, demonstrable effect? How should you make people more aware of the risks involved in their own behaviour in terms of global warming? How easy is it to change how people feel inside about core issues like the future of the planet? Indeed, how can you change implicit attitudes at all? I’ll start by telling you (from my own experience) how not to.

My whole life people have tried to stop me from taking risks. The first attempt that really made a lasting impression on me and succeeded in changing my behaviour, but not necessarily in the way intended, was a campaign about drugs. I was a teenager at the time growing up in the damp, grey streets of the Belfast of the Troubles. Life was disjointed and fractured. As a teenager my social life was restricted to the streets around me, endless hours of hanging about ‘the corner’, which was in reality the front of a chip shop with a warm air vent blowing out rancid air that stank of chip fat on cold winter nights. It was a dangerous and unpredictable place: even the chip shop itself was dangerous, both inside and out. The press called my streets ‘murder triangle’. But, of course, I realised even then that there was a life somewhere out there better than this, but it was too far away to glimpse or touch. The world of the NME, the News of the World with stories about the sordid goings-on of rock stars, images of jeans tucked into green boots, Biba, fast cars. ‘Fast cars and girls are easily come by’ or ‘easy to come by’, I can’t remember which the pop song said, but not here they weren’t. The swings in our local park were chained up on a Sunday lest we enjoy ourselves on the Lord’s Day.

It was a Friday in my local youth club when he came to talk to us. We were all boys, I remember that - it was a funny sort of youth club - and we were asked to pull our chairs out into neat rows in front of the speaker. My fingers reeked of coke and crisps. This was an attempt to get at young minds before they were fully formed, before they had been fixed in a pattern; designed to change our behaviour, designed to fit into the evening’s youth club activities, designed to warn us of the menace of drugs between table tennis and quarter size snooker, before the dangerous walk home through the streets filled sometimes equally with drunks and terrorists. There was an introduction, then a slide show with images of pills and plants, a glossary of terms, some of which I had heard before, many of which I had not: amphetamine, speed, pep pills, black bombers, dexies, black beauties, black-and-white minstrels, LSD, purple haze, yellow sunshine, blue heaven, sugar cubes, marijuana, dope (‘They call it shit here in Belfast,’ my friend Colin said helpfully, ‘I’ve never seen it, but I do know that. If you want some, all you have to say is “Can I score some shit?” ’), grass, cocaine, coke, Californian Cornflakes. Shit was never mentioned: it was all much more exotic than that.

But to this day I can remember the slides, with shiny red and black pills, white powder as pure as the snow we never saw in our damp streets, exotic plants. From the opening slide I was captivated. It was as if the drugs were jumping off the slides, almost three-dimensional in their appearance. I don’t think I blinked once in case I missed something. Things were being revealed to me, to us all: we were all drug virgins, and pop culture virgins. I had a series of agonising shocks of recognition and clarity. ‘My friend Jack eats sugar cubes’ was no longer a song about a fat teenager with a sugar addiction like fat Albert down the street; ‘Purple Haze is in my brain’ wasn’t a song about pollution and traffic jams and the way that street lights can play odd tricks with your vision when the shipyard was closing and the streets were packed. I was hooked: hooked on the glamour and the glitz, hooked on the terms, with their implicit connotations of something better - ‘black beauties’, ‘yellow sunshine’, ‘Californian Cornflakes’ - hooked on finding the way out from a world where the swings never moved on a Sunday. And when the slides showed close-ups of black bombers, I realised that my rusted bathroom cabinet with the shaky mottled glass door, pinned to the wall in our kitchen (because we didn’t have a bathroom or an inside toilet) was full of drugs, full of black bombers, used by my mother as slimming aids.

That night my friends and I took drugs for the first time, and gabbled away outside the chip shop for hours, hardly noticing the smell of chip fat. It probably wasn’t that much fun, but we all felt different, separate from everyone else, empowered in a curious sort of way. ‘We’re on the drugs,’ we said to anyone who would listen. And it felt great, dangerous and exciting. It was something that set me apart from the crowd, even though I took a maximum of one tablet at a time, no more or no less than my mother herself, and therefore presumably no more risky. But, of course, it was the context of the taking that gave these small pills their emotional power. For me they were laden with positive emotional connotations, for my mother they were laden with different connotations, connotations of ‘putting on the weight’, ‘and can’t get the weight off’, ‘piling on the pounds, no matter what diet I’m on’: connotations of powerlessness and desperation and necessary medical intervention.

This, of course, is just an anecdote, a single case study about the disaffected youth of Belfast one rainy Friday night a long time ago, but it reminds me of the challenge that any attempt to change behaviour faces. Get it wrong and you can, on occasion, get it badly wrong. You can actually make things worse than if you hadn’t bothered. The speaker that night with his slides and his spiel did not have a clear understanding of my friends and me, or of our social situation. When you communicate you need a clear model of the audience, their mental state, their needs and aspirations. He had no such model. You have to be able to read other minds. He couldn’t. You also need the right approach. He went for a cognitive, rational approach and explained patiently to us that drugs were dangerous. But this meant very little to us. Going for a pint of milk was dangerous where we lived. Telling us that drugs affected the biochemistry of the brain cut no ice either: a night outside the chip shop with the drive-by shootings and then the backfiring cars messed up the biochemistry of your brain. We all knew that. We all had friends who had cracked up after hours spent hanging about the corner doing nothing. None of them needed drugs to help them along. And the presenter underestimated the great emotional pull drugs had for us corner boys: the emotional connotations, London, Biba, long blonde hair in the wind, the Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, fashion, rebellion, life in your own hands, not the hands of others; living dangerously because you wanted to, not because others wanted you to; empowerment, sex, especially sex.

But climate change isn’t like drugs, I hear you say. Where’s the glamour in global warming? What’s so attractive about the submergence of the San Francisco Bay by the Pacific Ocean, or the disappearance of the area around Shanghai which is home to forty million people into the sea due to global warming? Well maybe I’m odd, but I grew up on disaster movies. I can see the human challenge in catastrophe. These films showed me what that challenge was. I can see the glamour in the whole thing. I understand the individual against the elements, the primitive process of survival played out against the most pitiless of backdrops. I close my eyes and I can visualise The Poseidon Adventure, where a luxury liner capsises and the passengers trapped in the bowels of the ship have to find their way to safety, with Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine and Shelley Winters. I can see Shelley Winters now in my mind’s eye, and that panic written on her face in that billowing white dress (I hope that this is the right visual image; I may be transporting images of Shelley Winters from another film into this film: the mind can after all be a very constructive device). I run through The Towering Inferno in my mind, where the world’s tallest building is destroyed by fire, with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. Who wouldn’t want to be tested like this in the presence of Faye Dunaway?

This might all seem a little perverse but there is a point here, namely that one shouldn’t always assume that every individual has the same emotional response to any situation as everyone else, or even the same logical or rational response. When it comes to doing something about climate change we need to think carefully about the psychology underpinning the whole process and reflect that what works for some individuals might not work for everyone. It may be that some people do not understand the logic behind the scientific arguments for climate change (and are too embarrassed to confess this). It may be that some people feel little emotionally about climate change (and are too concerned to confess this). It may be that some people get a slight buzz out of the impending disaster (and are definitely far too sensible to confess this) and what they are relishing is that they, and they alone, will be tested like Gene Hackman, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman and they are waiting with anticipation, and with genuine visceral excitement, for things to deteriorate to give them the right sort of filmic backdrop for their heroic recycling and climate-sensitive actions.

Those great advocates of doing something immediately about climate change do recognise that both rational thought and emotion are core to the persuasion process (although they clearly either haven’t met or paid much attention to people like me who might generate some emotional response, but the wrong one, to some of the core messages).

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) is probably the best-known and most lauded single communicational message about climate change ever made, obtaining both the Nobel Peace Prize for its author and an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It is in many ways an extraordinary accomplishment: not much more than a lecture with some graphics thrown in, but very engaging and very powerful at a number of levels. It does clearly make you pause to think, and it has produced a strong emotional effect in audiences worldwide.

There are many powerful scenes and arguments. The shots from space of the small blue planet, ‘our only home’, at the beginning and end of the film (I call this section the history of the human race) grab our attention, with both a cognitive and an emotional hook, and feel highly motivating. This particular vista on our earth makes us stop to wonder, to see things differently. The point Gore makes is that the entire history of the human race is contained in this little blue dot, the only home that we will ever have. He presents us with other powerful images and metaphors to understand the nature and the extent of the problem we face. He illustrates the rise in population growth using the time span of his own life to show how the population has changed (clip - baby boomers). He tries to manipulate our emotional response with an animation of a polar bear trying to climb onto a floating raft of ice (clip - drowning polar bear) that is not thick enough to hold its weight. The message is very concrete and very emotional.

The effects of global warming are illustrated in a scene showing how in the future some of the great coastlines of the world would look if the ice on Greenland were to break up and melt, or even half of the ice on Greenland and half of Western Antarctica, which some scientists see as highly plausible (clip - rising sea levels). Al Gore also attempts to explain some of the major paradoxes of global warming, such as the fact that it not only creates more flooding (with an increase in the frequency and intensity of hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons across the globe) but also creates more drought. The images here (clip - paradox) are of Lake Chad on the edge of the Sahara Desert.

He is keen to show that this whole thing is a global issue, involving every industrialised and every developing nation. We see film of China’s industrial progress (clip - China). China has huge coal resources to exploit but it is still using old technologies in coal-burning power stations to meet its rapid economic expansion. The message here is that we all must cooperate to do something about this global problem, including the US and China, the two biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, a film like this cannot be all doom and gloom, and Al Gore does try to present an argument and a powerful set of emotional images (images that derive their emotional impact from the implicit message that harm can be undone, that time can be reversed, that we can indeed travel backwards in time ‘to pre-1970 levels of emissions’) that are essentially empowering for the audience. The argument is basically that every little helps, that we can all do something, that because aspects of consumerism were the root cause of the problem they can be a major part of the solution, and that if we just use more efficient electrical appliances, more fuel-efficient cars, etc., we can do something significant about climate change.

I found a number of these sections of the film (seven in all) to be among the most powerful and provocative (they form the basis for a new study in Chapter 14 and will be described in more detail), in terms of either producing the most compelling arguments or producing the most significant effects on my individual emotional response. In addition, these were some of the segments of the film that had the most enduring effects on what I remembered.

What is interesting about these clips is that they all have particular combinations of rational and emotional force in which sometimes there is more push on one dimension and sometimes more on the other. Furthermore, some of the clips are essentially empowering and enabling, explaining that anything any of us does will make a difference to the whole global issue, but some could potentially have the opposite effect. It might just have been me but the clip about the industrial rise of China and its proliferation of power stations left me, I think, temporarily down. Other clips seemed to lift my spirits.

Of course, most people recognise that emotion is crucial to persuasion, which is why so much of political and economic persuasion, and indeed advertising in general, is aimed at the human emotional system. But how do emotions actually connect to rational thought? And what effect do some of the core parts of Gore’s seminal film have on mood state and aspects of thinking? Can we try to be more systematic about the effects of certain parts of this film on how we feel and think, so that we can learn a little more about how a particular mental focus affects us all?

The Gore film is all about showing us what will happen to the world if we do not do something, with interweaving emotional and rational scientific arguments. It is about getting us all to recognise the risks involved in continuing with our current lifestyles. But getting people to recognise the riskiness of their own behaviour can often be a difficult process. We know more generally from endless studies that people are bad at estimating risk. People rely on inferences based on what they remember hearing or observing about the risk in question. In other words, they make a judgement, and this judgement is affected by a number of distinct biases. One type of bias is called the ‘availability heuristic’, which is that people judge an event as likely or frequent if instances of it are easy to imagine or recall.

One experimental demonstration of the relationship between imageability and risk was carried out by Lichtenstein, Slovic, Fischhoff, Layman and Combs in 1978: they gave subjects the annual death toll of motor vehicle accidents and asked them to estimate the frequencies of forty other causes of death. They found that highly imaginable (and plausible) accidents were judged to cause as many deaths as diseases, whereas diseases actually take about fifteen times as many lives.

You could argue that the availability heuristic makes some sense because frequently occurring events are easier to imagine or recall than infrequent events, but the problem is, of course, that availability is also related to factors unrelated to mere frequency of occurrence. For example, according to some researchers the release of the film Jaws meant that people suddenly thought that shark attack was a much more common occurrence than it actually is, on the basis of the graphic depictions of the shark (and its large cavernous mouth) in the film. Therefore, it seems that if you want to emphasise the risks associated with any behaviour you need to make any negative images associated with it as memorable as possible. So the problem in changing behaviour is how to manipulate the availability heuristic so that people will no longer underestimate the risks associated with behaviours that give rise to diseases such as cancer, stroke, asthma or diabetes (hard to form clear images of, hidden, and therefore ‘unlikely’ to happen).

One way of doing this is to psychologically manipulate the memorability of images. We now know that the most memorable and enduring of all human memories are ‘flash-bulb memories’, which are hardwired memories designed for human survival and shaped by evolution. These are the kinds of enduring and stable memories that we have if we’ve ever been in a near-fatal car accident or any other major trauma (see Beattie 2004; Lee and Beattie 1998, 2000): emotional memories, where every single aspect of the scene is encoded apparently for all time by the joint action of two of the most primitive parts of the human brain - the reticular formation and the limbic system. If you have once driven too quickly and you have a near-fatal crash you will have a flashbulb memory of the event - a clear, rich, powerful and enduring image - and you will perhaps (for the first time) realise how dangerous fast driving actually is.

But what really affects whether we have a detailed memory of an event? Like many people I have for a long time been fascinated and depressed by the vagaries of human memory: long before I became a psychologist. Like anyone who has lost a parent early in life I have always longed for vivid memories of my loved one as I wished to relive our days together. I was close to my father and I loved his company, but my memories of those days are weak and disjointed. His voice has no tone or pitch in my memory, and he has no distinctive pattern of movement (how did he walk?), no facial tics that I can recall and his smile is the smile of photographs (that slightly forced smile that shy people do) which I have somehow managed to project back onto his everyday behaviour. But the night he died, and the moment I heard, I can recall with an aching vividness.

My memory of that fateful night is just such a ‘flashbulb memory’. This phenomenon was first investigated by two psychologists from Harvard called Roger Brown and James Kulik over thirty years ago. They argued that these memories are hardwired in the human brain because they have a high selection value in evolutionary terms. These memories are triggered by events characterised by a high level of surprise (eliciting a response from the reticular formation) and a high level of ‘consequentiality’ (eliciting a response from the limbic system). When you have this joint action from two of the most primitive parts of the human brain, this indelible memory is laid down. According to Brown and Kulik the innate basis for this type of memory works as follows.

To survive and leave progeny, the individual human had to keep his expectations of significant events up to date and close to reality. A marked departure from the ordinary in a consequential domain would leave him unprepared to respond adequately and endanger his survival. The ‘Now print!’ mechanism must have evolved because of the selection value of permanently retaining biologically crucial, but unexpected events.

The extraordinary thing about flashbulb memories, however, is that it is not necessarily the details of the event itself (or the message) that are recorded for all time, but the circumstances in which you hear the news (you remember who told you, the time, the place, the ongoing activity, etc.). Brown and Kulik argue that for evolutionary survival it is the circumstances that are the crucial thing. You must remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when these surprising and consequential events occurred because, as Brown and Kulik say, ‘Nothing is always to be feared or always to be welcomed. It depends. In part, on place.’ (1977:98)

The big psychological question is: can we produce flash-bulb memories for events that are not life-threatening and that do not affect personal survival? The answer would appear to be ‘yes’ because many of us have flashbulb memories for major cultural events such as where we were and who we were with the day we learned of Diana Princess of Wales’s death, ten years or more after the event. So flash-bulb memories can be elicited by events that are not life-threatening for the individual.

Recently, I wanted to explore how vivid different types of memories are. Are these flashbulb memories more vivid than our happiest personal memories which we reminisce about endlessly? Do we have flashbulb memories about highly surprising and consequential events that do not involve us personally, for example 9/11 or the death of Princess Diana (Brown and Kulik’s research would suggest that the answer to this is a very clear ‘yes’)? My new study was commissioned to mark the launch of UKTV’s new history channel ‘Yesterday’. I sampled a large number of participants, ranging in age from 18 to 84, using a questionnaire with 32 items: eight asking for information about positive historical memories (e.g. Charles and Diana’s wedding), eight investigating negative historical events (e.g. 9/11), eight investigating positive personal events (e.g. your own wedding day) and eight investigating negative personal events (e.g. the death of a loved one), all randomly ordered on the questionnaire.

The results revealed that surprising negative events, as predicted, produced some of the most vivid memories, but interestingly 9/11 produced more vivid memories than even the death of a loved one. 80% of the participants recalled who told them about 9/11, 84% recalled what time it was when they heard, 92% recalled where they were, and 71% recalled their ongoing activity. This represents an extraordinary level of recall nearly eight years after the event. Even more extraordinary was that 71% of our participants (who were old enough) recalled where they were forty-six years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Flashbulb memories tell us something very interesting about how the human brain stores vivid, indelible images and we now know a lot more about the neural mechanisms involved in this process. It also tells us something interesting about ourselves. Why do I, who expressed very little interest in Princess Diana when she was alive, have a flashbulb memory of the moment when I heard about her death? Why did my brain respond to this event as ‘consequential’ in the way that it did?

Could we ever aim to elicit flashbulb memories carefully and deliberately in order to change behaviour? Could we create flashbulb memories for certain key events involving risky behaviour, so that we affect the availability heuristic and lead people to reappraise the risks associated with their behaviour? For example, could we manipulate the nature of the images that we present to an audience (in public-service advertising or in film) beyond mere shock value to something more meaningful, more personal, more emotional, and more consequential for that individual? This would be a considerable challenge but one that could pay dividends with respect to effecting change in risky behaviour. How can we generate flashbulb memories regarding the effects of smoking on coronary heart disease, for example? How can we generate flashbulb memories for climate change? Did Al Gore, using presumably little more than his own psychological intuition, manage to produce flashbulb memories for what the world will be like if we do not change our behaviour immediately? In other words, has he managed to convince us of the risks associated with global warming, and has he somehow managed to produce indelible images of the effects of climate change?

These are some of the questions that I wanted to answer. I wanted to measure people’s responses to the crucial clips in the Gore film in a more systematic way. I wanted to determine how each of these clips affected people emotionally in terms of mood state and also how each of the clips affected rational thinking. I wanted to start to think about the relationship between emotion and thinking in this highly charged area.

More generally, if you want people to think about changing their behaviour, what should you do? Should you frighten them, depress them or elevate their spirits? Should you show them cuddly polar bears trying to clamber onto a raft of ice or the power stations of China belching dark, polluting smoke into the atmosphere? I wanted to begin to understand some of this. This was one set of motivations. The second was to see how good a psychologist Al Gore actually was. He was clearly trying to change our behaviour with his film, by appealing to both our thinking and emotional systems. He wanted to make us aware of the huge risks involved if we did not start to change our behaviour immediately. He wanted to stimulate some of the most primitive parts of the human brain in evolutionary terms to lay down indelible traces. But had he pulled it off?

And what about any other films that have attempted to provide us with shocking detail about the consequences of climate change? I made a point of getting The Day After Tomorrow from the local video shop to see how much more likely I thought that an impending climate-change disaster was in my lifetime after watching some graphic scenes of climate-change hell. The Day After Tomorrow was the 2004 climate-change disaster movie straight from Hollywood, the opening of which is based loosely on what happened to a group of scientists researching depth of ice on a huge floating ice shelf in Antarctica, called Larsen B. In February 2002 the ice shelf shattered violently, but luckily the Hollywood hero Jack Hall, played by Dennis Quaid, escaped in the nick of time to save (in no particular order) his son trapped in a library in New York (swallowed up by a tsunami generated by climate change that has drowned the city, despite the fact that tidal waves like this cannot be caused by rising temperatures; see Walker and King 2008:72), his relationship with his son (he was always late picking him up as child because of his busy job as a leading scientist), his relationship with his long-suffering research assistants (loyal to the end, literally in the case of one of them), his relationship with his estranged wife (who cures cancer in children for a living), and the whole of what remains of America itself (although Los Angeles is completely lost, with too much expressed emotion in the film to a series of twisters that have somehow managed to form over land in the film, in contrast to forming over water, which is what science teaches us). As Walker and King comment caustically, ‘many of the movie’s subsequent events managed to be both exciting and scientifically ludicrous’ (2008:72). The film produces many apparently powerful visual images - the tsunami hitting New York, for example; the Statue of Liberty barely visible out of the flood water; the big freeze - but probably none that affect our estimation of the likelihood of any of this happening.

So what was different from Jaws and that huge cavernous reddened mouth that seems to come to mind every time I’m swimming out of my depth in the sea? Perhaps it is the fact that we all feel that some of The Day After Tomorrow is implausible and therefore we reject the whole thing. Perhaps it is the scale of the trauma and the human tragedy; perhaps we, as human beings, shut down in situations like this both emotionally and cognitively, and deal with them that way. Perhaps it’s just not a very good film. If Los Angeles were to be devastated in the way depicted, then I would normally expect to see a little bit more desperation and helplessness written on the faces of the survivors. Perhaps the film doesn’t make us connect with the emotional journey of Jack Hall on his ludicrous physical journey, mainly by foot on snow shoes, through miles and miles back to New York to save his son. So in the case of a film like this we have vivid (but presumably temporary) images that appear not to connect to any perception of risk. The Day After Tomorrow certainly produced many surprising images, but perhaps our brains did not see them as consequential in the slightest, because the film was not sufficiently emotionally involving and perhaps even because some of the film was clearly ludicrous (although this would imply that rational thought could influence the formation of these kinds of memories, which remains to be seen).