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August 3, 2021

More Catastrophe, less Climate Change: Why our Brains don’t understand abstract Terminology.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.

Climate has been around long before humans have existed. The term climate originates from the Greek, which was defined as a slope. It implied a zoned space of the earth between two lines of latitude.

Later it would evolve to refer to a region where atmospheric conditions emerged.

Most of us take atmospheric conditions for granted. We put on a raincoat when there’s a rainy day, and we wear shorts when it’s sunny and hot. We don’t really think through these processes; they are automatic for most of us.

This lack of awareness about the environment around us has a residual after-effect in why apathy plays a large contributor to our daily decisions about how active we are in the world around us.

We need a much more mindful approach toward our place on the third rock from the sun. We need it, and it needs us.

But, there are multiple contributors to what drives people to find no purpose in caring for the earth or for others to be extremists in caring for it a little too much.

There is also the commonplace phenomenon that seems to happen across society when a social issue emerges into the cultural consciousness: polarization. In this context, polarization is also the same as politicization.

We have to understand that some issues should be no-brainers, but because we have overidentified with our own political and personal value systems, many do not know how to separate themselves from what they have been told to accept as truth.

One could easily claim that this paragraph alone is polarizing. However, what is being explained here is the nature of a sociological concept referred to as the social conflict theory.

This theory explains, in short, that we are socially more inclined to create the oppressed and the oppressor so we can have something to argue about. Some groups will be much more driven toward this approach than others.

If this theory did not exist, then some of these groups that seem dedicated to politicize every pop-culture issue that pops up would also cease to exist.

Another element that drives some not to care about climate change and environmental catastrophe is psychological distance. Psychological distance states that if ideas are not near us or related to us, we have a hard time connecting to them. A related concept to psychological distance is referred to as scope neglect.

In short, we aren’t able to comprehend large numbers. We relate to stories.

We relate to tragedy on a much more personal level, not a statistical one. Psychological distance is also a polemic strategy built into its ideological infrastructure—which is related to social conflict theory and known as temporal distancing.

Without getting too scientific, it’s about how we are all naturally wired to try and look at time differently based on when things happen in our lives. We will not have the same feelings for someone we have met online than we would if we met them in person.

This is also the same with events: we feel more connected to events in the present moments, but not in the future moments. Psychological distancing can refer to the temporal distancing of events in time.

For example, events in the distant future are treated differently compared to events in the near future. Psychological distancing describes our ability to separate ourselves from people we dislike.

So, where climate change is failing is that it is using the wrong terminology. Rather than calling it to change, they should call it a crisis—making it about the present moment. Otherwise, no one will really care. We need more catastrophic language, not less.

It’s been an open secret that global warming and climate change might not be the best phrases to get the public engaged.

Most people, after all, think that warm weather sounds pretty nice. And climate change naturally lends itself to confusion; after all, deniers say, hasn’t the climate always been changing? Well, it has, but nowhere near this dramatically.

If you want to get people to care, try climate crisis, suggests new research from an advertising consulting agency in New York. That phrase got a 60 percent greater emotional response from listeners than our old pal climate change.

But, there is another psychological condition at play in this connective web of cognitive cocktails that explains why we all have a hard time playing our part in reducing our corporate and individual carbon footprints.

In psychology, we refer to it as scope neglect. When we read the newspaper about how 200,000 ducks are covered in oil, our brains don’t get it. When we hear of how a small village made their livelihood selling the eggs of those ducks, which kept their social ecosystem intact, we connect to the story immediately.

But why is that? It’s called scope neglect. We are made for narratives. We are made for a story. We are not made for statistics.

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Also known as scope insensitivity, this refers to a cognitive bias that makes people incapable of properly understanding the size of problems. This can cause their response to problems to be disproportionate to the size of the problems.

People cannot cognitively grasp large numbers. What this means is that whatever the issue, we need to humanize the analytics. The brain is not made for abstraction.

In fact, it has been shown to make people disconnect emotionally. We need more humans in our stories and fewer statistics to truly see the change we need as a species.

As much as the cognitive sciences would love us to think our brains are computers, they are most definitely not. Research has proven again and again that our brain is an uncoordinated mess looking for patterns.

Our Paleolithic ancestors depended upon the land for direct survival. We’ve lost that.

A lot of our connecting with the earth and its resources have become mediated by processes, contracts, and transactional behaviors. Our cave-dwelling forebears literally lived off the land that someone else is now living on for us.

The ongoing socialization process and domestication have separated us from each other and the earth we still rely on. This disconnection is costing us a lot.

That is something that politicization cannot hide. The cost of distancing ourselves from the climate around us is that we will end up running out of resources to keep us alive.

We don’t need polemic thinking. This is not an us versus them issue; we are looking for a we’re all in this together solution.


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