How we learn, trust and doubt

It might just be me, but I keep seeing relationships between the increasingly broad range of areas that I write about here. As per my bio: “I’m interested in how and why things work, what makes us act the way we do, and in finding the most responsible ways to design systems that benefit people.” 

Right now in particular then, ‘fake news’ and ‘education’ are feeling increasingly connected. Both involve our desire to learn, while also revealing the difficulties and pitfalls in our ability to do so. Both share issues concerning source, proof, truth, authority and trust

To this end, my re-reading of Ben Goldacre books earlier this year ties in to. Bad Science for example is as much about our relationship with trust and learning as it is about science. Further more, I think Ben himself is the perfect example of one of the most important ingredients of successful learning: The compassionate delivery of the information. 

What I mean by this is that while I utterly adore the man and his passion and his work, I am also aware of how difficult some people find it to read and respect his writings, when the ‘I told you so’ tone is so strong.   

In this sense I have long seen Ben as suffering from a sort of Cassandra Complex – the psychological phenomenon in which an individual’s accurate prediction of a crisis is ignored or dismissed – but rather than like Apollo’s curse on Cassandra ensuring that nobody would believe her accurate predictions, Ben’s sometimes abrasive delivery lacks so much compassion that it becomes hard for people to take in, or even begin to trust, let alone believe. His curse is the utter conviction of seemingly obvious scientific truth, without the compassion to communicate it considerately.

The same issue is discussed in a David McRaney interview with Per Espen Stoknes, who calls climate change “the largest science communication failure in history”. Read or listen to the whole interview if you can, as McRaney helps explore the “psychology based strategy for science communicators who find themselves confronted with climate change deniers” which Stoknes has developed. Here are some stand out points (and a sort of abridged version of the interview):

Stoknes: …I call this issue the psychological climate paradox… that since 1989… 26 years now… the amount of scientific facts and the certainty of the science has been growing… we have had like 5 IPCC reports, and more than 30,000 new climate science articles published… which all underline the seriousness of the problem. But if you look at the polls, the weird thing happens is that since 1989, people’s concern for climate change has actually declined. This psychological climate paradox is particularly prevalent in wealthy democracies… What I’ve done is to really condense the… articles that have been published within psychology and sociology and social anthropology – into a set of psychological barriers that create this paradox… psychological barriers inside us… mechanisms that come into play when there is… an uncomfortable science message that’s coming our way.

It’s not a matter of intelligence or capability, but actual psychological barriers in ourselves that prevent us from learning. 

McRaney: …when we have something that seems like it’s been a solution in the past… like a habitual solution… that we can use it so often that it becomes part of the problem. And we end up doubling down our efforts when facing difficult problems, instead of trying to go about moving to a different course.

Stoknes: Yeah, it’s kind of quite common… if you have a problem, you try harder – the way you had tried to solve it. So gradually what you do is – by pushing harder and harder, you’re just reinforcing the problem because you’re doing something that also contributes to the problem. This has been the case, in terms of climate science communications. Because there has been this conviction that if only we could get the facts out to people, then they would kind of come to their minds and senses and recognize that this is important or this is serious. However, having tried that, and seen that didn’t have the intended effect – what has the climate science communicators done? Well, they doubled their efforts, and put a little bit of doom and apocalypse into it… But, for them, as rational messengers, rational scientists… by sticking so hard to your science, that you tend to forget that you’re actually trying to reach out to people. And it gets the opposite effect of what you intended, which is that people distance themselves from it and are turned off.

By sticking so hard to the scientific facts, which might be counter to existing beliefs, and prove confusing for some to understand, people are actually pushed away from the message. 

McRaney: …I remember.. a clip from HBO’s The Newsroom. Where they had the climate scientists saying that we’re all doomed and everything… I would speculate that sort of thing is really sort of a dog whistle effect… all the people who are already on your side… the ones who watch that kind of stuff, and read that kind of stuff… say, “Look at this.” And they share it around on their social networks. But among the people who are opposed to this, or deny it… or feel… that this is not a message they accept. That just bounces of off them, and becomes evidence for how crazy the other side is. 

Stoknes: Exactly. In a way, when the scientist is pushing facts at people, it’s… repeating the same experiment over and over, and seeing that it has the same outcome. But not being willing to change how you do it, so the principle then is we should do something else, we should try something else than just pushing the facts. The reason it doesn’t work is that those who are – as you mentioned – ready to take it in, they have already heard. 

The irony that Stoknes highlights here is pretty immense. That scientist – practitioners of the scientific method (which seeks to replicate controlled experiments in order to verify results) – is ignoring the vast evidence proving that their continuing communication techniques don’t work. 

Sort of like, Hypothesis: If we tell the facts, then people will understand the science, and realise that they are wrong, and that the scientific method proves best. Method: Share scientifically proven facts. Results: People still don’t believe the science and tend never to change their minds. Conclusion: Repeat the method….

This is the recurring issue that drove Stoknes to recognise and define the psychological barriers: His ‘5 D’s of climate change’, the 5 psychological mechanisms that uphold the psychological paradox of the climate. “The more facts we get, the less concerned we go.”

[1] Distancing. Stoknes: …when we hear about climate change, it’s typically positioned in the year 2100, or 2200… “It’s happening far in the future, and it’s happening far away from me.” …[to] people I don’t really know. They’re socially distant from me… and this social distance, so to speak, creates a lowering of concern, particularly if it’s said like “1 million people were displaced by the storm.” But we know that people don’t really relate well to statistics… 1 person is a tragedy, but 1 million is statistics. 

[2] Doom. Stoknes: The framing… of climate messages has been that “If we continue as today, we’ll all end up in a burning planet”… And this doom and apocalypse framing sets up a state of mind where we all feel somewhat guilty… And what is quite well known to psychology, is that if people feel fear and guilt then they’re not really motivated to get engaged. Rather, they quickly learn what we call avoidance behaviour… We heard it so many different times before… “The end is nigh.”… we tend to get pacified by it. We do not get active and want to do something with it… we quickly learn how to filter it out. 

[3] Dissonance. Stoknes: …what we do conflicts with what we know, then this generates a type of uncomfortable feeling inside of us. That psychology is called the dissonance… with smoking… “I know that I smoke and I also know that smoking leads to cancer”. This generates some uncomfortableness, unease. Something that’s not quite right in terms of my self-image. Because I like to see myself as a good person… Then quite a few creative strategies are typically employed to kind of get rid of this dissonance… coming up with good justifications, so we don’t have to really bother too much about this dissonance… If I smoke… I can modify by saying, “I really don’t smoke that much. Actually my friend smoked even more than me. So I’ll probably be fine.” I can also change the perceived importance… “She smokes 40 a day but she’s fit as a fiddle. And… my uncle… died of cancer, but he never smoked.”… by telling myself this, I can reduce the felt dissonance… if I then really start to question or doubt the evidence, well it makes my dissonance go away… 

[4] Denial. Stoknes: …the emotional need for denial… [is a defence to]… the feeling of being accused and guilty. 

[5] iDentity. Stoknes: Because if my sense of self, and my lifestyle, my professional self… are threatened by news or facts or some messenger, then I inevitably encounter resistance to take that in. I prefer to shoot back at the other to protect myself or my self-esteem… When you hear some expert talking, then we typically want to know… what’s his identity? Is he in my tribe… or is he is from somewhere else? And studies have been done that show if the expert holds the same values… [then we] tend to trust that expert more, even if it’s a fake expert. So this identity protection… this last barrier wants us to kind of cherry pick or select what kind of experts we are willing to listen to when that issue has been politicised. And that’s what happened with the climate issue. Since it’s become an identity issue… we start to screen the values of the expert, before we make up our minds. And this is the way that identity protective cognition actually works. I prefer to give more weight to maybe one expert who has the same values as me, than a thousand who seem to have opposing values.

Not only do I think that these mechanisms hinder the effectiveness of Ben Goldacre’s writings, but also that anyone can identify the behaviours in themselves, with regards to some matter or another. Smokers, drinkers, crap food eaters, all distance themselves from pretty clear facts and recoil to the doomsayer prophecies and their own cognitive dissonance, with ill-placed anecdotal doubt. 

And that’s not to let the non-smoking, teetotal, healthy eating, climate change activists off the hook. To an equal extent I think these psychological barriers extend further, from our susceptibility to fake news, to our reluctance to learn new things or accept new or unusual methods of education. 

So what can we do? Well, quite a bit according to Stoknes. From making things feel more personal and social, as well as more relevant and urgent. To framing things differently so that they don’t cause negative feelings. To reducing the dissonance by making it easier for people to take visible and consistent actions. To trying to avoid stirring the guilt that triggers the denial and defensiveness. All seemingly obvious when you think about it. And, like a much smarter conclusion to my hypothesis above. 

He goes further into these solutions, this time with 5 S’s: Social, Simple, Supportive, Stories, and Signals. I encourage again that you listen to the interview or read the transcript to learn more. The basic idea though is about being compassionate toward the audience. Motivational rather than accusatory. And more psychologically smart, leveraging cognitive and logical fallacies toward a more positive and social result. 

So why does all this interest me as an designer? Why am I so deep down the rabbit hole of pop-psychology and sociology at the moment? Writing about learning and truth? I think because that’s exactly what design is about: Having intention toward the goal of achieving an unconscious effect on an audience. 

By better understanding the mechanism that have cause and effect on people, you better understand the opportunities to design effective systems for them. Effective in what sense though is up to the designer of course. Effective in helping them, or yourself. Here we move quickly into the philosophy of design though which is a pop-post for another time.