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Pathfinders: Global Warning Fatigue

Professor Stephen Hawking, darling of the physics community, seems of late determined to tell us that we’re heading to hell in a handcart: ‘(Space travel) may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth’ (phys.org/news/2017-07). In recent years the professor has repeatedly offered Cassandra-like prophecies of impending global destruction, as if he’s auditioning for the part of Private Frazer in Dad’s Army: ‘We’re doomed, I tell ye, DOOMED’.

No doubt Prof Hawking assumes, as does every reasonable teacher, parent and political activist, that dire warnings are what make us act to change things. But what is the evidence for this assumption? If the people who elected Donald Trump are anything to go by, dire warnings may have precisely the opposite effect.

It is already known that confronting a world view with contradictory facts can perversely help reinforce it, a phenomenon known as the backfire effect [scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-convince-someone-when-facts-fail/]. It is possible that a diet of relentlessly negative news has a similar effect, so that instead of motivating change it is more likely to disable, depress and demotivate us into apathy and torpor.

There’s no question that bad news sells. Humans have a well-documented negativity bias which makes us take notice of bad news more than good, in the same way that we fear loss more than we covet gain. Explanations vary, though the simple logic of evolutionary survival may suffice. We devote less attention to earning dinner than we do to avoiding becoming dinner.

But our bad news bias is arguably being overloaded by a news media diet composed almost entirely of the stuff. It’s not just that there is a lot of bad news out there. News media, in hot competition for attention, preferentially select it. For example, one study looking at how news media treated various reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that the report detailing the threats received around three times the coverage of the report dealing with practical solutions. If this is supposed to encourage us, indications are that it doesn’t. A small study of news-reading habits across the US, UK and India identified ‘news fatigue’ among participants leading to a ‘hope gap’ which created a desire to ‘tune out’. As the study authors put it: ‘Perceived threat without efficacy of response is usually a recipe for disengagement or fatalism’ (solutionsjournalism.org/news-negativity-bias-research-says/).

Journalists themselves are not immune either, and those exposed in the newsroom to extreme images or footage of violence have been known to develop PTSD symptoms including anxiety, depression, physical distress and alcoholism (www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/19/violent-media-anxiety_n_6671732.html).

Perhaps it’s not surprising that some commentators advise us to stop following the news altogether, on the grounds that it doesn’t explain anything, its fragmentary nature inhibits concentration, it doesn’t help you make practical decisions, it grinds you down into a state of desensitised cynicism and passivity, and then it helps lock you into this worldview through your own confirmation bias. Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli is an exponent of this view, arguing that news is not information for the mind, it’s a toxic diet of sugary titbits that corrodes your ability to think straight (theguardian.com/media/2013/apr/12/news-is-bad-rolf-dobelli).

But what about bad news leavened with good? The order of presentation might be important. One interesting 2014 workplace study looked at how people react to receiving good news before bad, and vice versa. The researchers reported that participants who elected to hear bad news first, followed by good, tended to display less anxiety and better moods as a result, but proved to be less interested in doing anything about the bad news. Conversely, those who chose to get the good news first tended to be more motivated to take positive action to address the issues that had been identified (psychologytoday.com/blog/ulterior-motives/201406/why-hearing-good-news-or-bad-news-first-really-matters).

And there are different types of motivation at work. Research into workplace motivation since the 1950s has shown that while demotivating factors tend to be external and environmental – bad pay, stupid boss etc - correcting for these factors – even offering more money - does not by itself increase motivation. Instead, successful motivators tend to be intrinsic and to do with a need for interesting and challenging work with increased responsibility. Yet despite this managers continue to rely on the external ‘carrot and stick’ motivators (www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201311/carrot-and-stick-motiv...). This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who understands that employment is essentially an exploitative practice devoted to making a profit for the boss, in which such intrinsic motivators can rarely if ever be accommodated.

Today it’s possible, through techniques such as blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) imaging, to study the processes of memory formation and its motivational drivers directly in the brain. This is useful because self-reporting is notoriously unreliable. One conclusion is unequivocal: ‘you can’t be afraid, you can’t be anxious—because anxiety systems really clamp down on curiosity and produce stereotyped, rapid, simple responses that short circuit [...] curiosity’. The research has also turned up some surprises. Not only do people react very differently to the same reward stimuli – ‘some people responded like we were threatening them with an electric shock when we promised them money’ – there is also a wide variation in why and what people remember – ‘if we alter the motivational state of the brain, we see that emotion and motivation are not just filtering memory to say what’s remembered and what’s not. They also shape the structure, the form of the memories, to enhance behavioral responses (dana.org/Briefing_Papers/A_Study_of_Motivation/).

It's not that a bad or negative message never engenders positive change, indeed evidence that it can work was behind the move to place graphic and disturbing images on cigarette-packets (newscientist.com/article/dn20634-gruesome-pictures-can-get-the-us-to-quit-smoking/). But while a promotional strategy aimed at a specific behaviour is one thing, an unrelenting barrage of negativity may be something else entirely.

How should socialists respond? The case for socialism is really two cases, one negative and one positive. The negative case, which we tend to focus more attention on, is the case against capitalism and in particular why the system can never work in the majority interest no matter what anyone does. The positive case is for the post-capitalist society, where common ownership, universal democracy, voluntary participation, free access and production for use can create a steady-state and technologically advanced society which is capable of benefiting all its citizens. The negative case, or some bowdlerised version of it, is what people hear ad nauseam from every two-bit leftist demagogue and career politician. The positive case meanwhile is spat upon as ‘utopian’ by those who are too befuddled to think straight or too embittered to care. Socialists are free to choose either case. But there are grounds for thinking that it’s hope that really drives change, and not despair.

PJS