Dan Dolderman: How to Present a Sustainable Arguement

Two years ago I had the pleasure of attending the Leading the Way Youth Transit Summit 2011. One of the game changing speeches came from Dan Dolderman a environmental psychologist from Toronto. Dan provided us with the tools to present our environmental arguments. In this excerpt I would like to outline some of Dolderman’s main points.

Floating Head
Image Credit: http://news.bbc.co.uk

Environmentalism comes with a lot of finger wagging and poses the risk of coming across as the annoying parent or as the teacher from Charlie Brown whom is only heard in mumbles. When we talk to people we tend to talk to them as floating heads. We speak to people as if though we are trying to sink information directly into their brain, as if their brain is some sort of computer that processes information. We assume that people are rational, and if we feed them with the information, the statistics, that the good behavior will follow.

If people were truly rational beings and were these utility calculators, then we wouldn’t have problems such as drug addiction, gambling, alcoholism, and even donations to aid organizations. I was wondering why Dan included donations in his list, upon further thought if humans were truly logical beings we would hold onto our money to further our own benefit. None of these conditions would exist if humans were purely logical computers. The same can be said about our imminent danger with climate change, the logical thing to do in the face of climate change danger poses is to stop it and ensure your own survival.

What are we actually trying to do when we are communicating, from a psychology perspective we are trying to get neurons to fire. So essentially we are speaking to their entire central nervous system, you are communicating to their entire body. It is not just about getting words across to the brain, it is about getting the experience across. Psychologists have found that what is going on with your body affects what is going on in your mind. When you feel cold you tend to feel sadder, and when you feel warm you tend to feel happier, Hot/Cold go hand in hand with intimacy and rejection. So when a patients would remember a time when they were rejected by some one, they would remember a colder room than those that were not. In experiments where people were purposefully not passed a ball, and a sense of rejection was created, the patients were craving for heat.

It has also been found that it only takes one word to change the entire meaning of your argument. Dan used the example of the republican voters in the states rejecting a “fuel tax” (27%) and accepting a “carbon offset” (65%). Everything else about the statement was kept the same, and this does not make any sense if we are strictly rational information processing utility calculators. This indicates that it is more of an emotional reaction to the word tax.

Rider on a Large Elephant
Image Credit: http://news.bbc.co.uk

So when we are communicating to people we are not really talking to this disembodied head, but rather a rider on a very large elephant. The rider is the rational, logical component of us and the elephant is the emotional component underneath us. At the end of the day if the rider wants to go this way and the elephant really wants to go the other way, the rider really has no choice.

When you present people with the imagery of the world ending due to climate change, the fires, the rising waters, you are actually being counter productive. When you wave danger in front of someone, you scare them, so when you scare the elephant the elephant does not ask what it can do about the danger. Instead the elephant wants to get away from the fear, fear has the primary effect of people not wanting to be scared anymore. They could solve this by saving the world, they could also do this by rejecting your message. When people are afraid they tend to seek security, they tend to be less open minded. The less open minded they are, the less risk there is that they might be wrong. In the face of fear people retreat to the familiar, the status quo. One of things that is familiar to people is their characteristic way of seeing the world, and stereotypes.

Image Credit: http://www.network54.com

Image Credit: http://wildmaw.com

Psychologists have found that it not necessarily the message that you are delivering, but the appearance of the person delivering the message that is important. People overwhelmingly agreed with the same message the came from the same person in a suit than one that looked like a hippie.

Dan also provides the a solution of the opportastrophe, present the catastrophe as an opportunity. This is a re-framing exercise instead of focusing on the catastrophe, instead focus on the opportunity of the situation. Ronald Reagan had the statement that the world would be able to get over its problems, if only aliens would attack the world. If aliens were to attack the world, the entire world would put aside their differences and come together to fight the common enemy. Aliens would be the common enemy and would unify humanity. Climate change is kind of like this, climate change is an enemy that is affecting all humans. You could reframe climate change as an opportunity for change.

Not only do you have to say that this is an opportunity to do something, you also have follow it up with something tangible such as “here’s how we are going to do it”. One of the ways that we can find solutions to climate change is the idea of six degrees of separation. With such social media networks such as Facebook, or linked-in it is relatively easier to find a connection between any two people in the world than it was in the past. With these connections you are bound to find someone that has a solution to the problem, on the other hand you can also change the opinion of groups of people if you can change the opinion of the right person through your networks.

When you are communicating to people there are only a few things that are important, what information do you need to get from the public, to the public, and what behaviour do you want to change. You have to obtain feedback from communities and find out the sort of things they are willing to do, and what behaviours they are willing to change. You can get the information from the public through focus groups, interviews, surveys or informal conversations. Some information you may want to find out is: what do they feel like they can achieve, what do they feel like is within their control, what do they feel would be easy, would be hard, as well as how they think others would perceive those actions. This last point is important, because it could be that people are too embarrassed to act due to the perceived notion of backlash from their peers. It just takes a little bit of fear to hold you back, the fear of being judged. When we beat our peers over the head with the information about climate change, it could be the fact that they are simply too embarrassed to do anything about it because they do not know what to do.

If we can someone’s foot in the door acting on sustainability, this is not negligible and we should not treat it as such. If you can get someone to start thinking about recycling, it could evolve so that they start thinking about their other unsustainable behaviours. It is also important to obtain feedback to your ideas, you may never know how and why people are reacting to your ideas until you ask them. There is two main purposes for asking the public, to obtain feedback, and to create some bias. If you can get someone’s foot in the door, they are just a little bit closer to saying that they are an active community member. You can obtain useful information such as personal motivators to getting involved (why/why not), or their willingness to get involved. You have to make sure that when you design a program that you do not build it from the outside and try to assimilate, but rather that you build it within using the feedback of the people and ensure that it won’t be rejected due to a sense of outsider intervention.

When you are trying to get information to the public you have to avoid the “curse of knowledge.” You have to remember that when you are explaining a concept to someone, they may not have the same experiences and knowledge which allows you to understand it seamlessly. For example if you were to clap the Happy birthday song, only 2-3% of people would recognize it. This is due to the fact that they do not know what you are thinking about, they do not have song in their head like you do. You have all of this extra information, so to someone other than yourself it only sounds like a clap, but they do not recognize the beat. You know the significance of the message however your listeners in the audience do not.

In order to get over the “curse of knowledge” keep your message simple, emotional, concrete, and tell stories. ” Our mission is to put a man on the moon.” To make your message simple, try to sum up your point in a sentence or two. Do not give people choices, people do not like making decisions. When you have two good alternatives to studying, people will choose to study since they do not want to decide. The more decisions you give people the less happy they are. Throughout history we had fables, legends, myths, urban legends, people like stories. Provide people with visual images as opposed to stats, instead of telling people how much CO2 they produced show them how big of a hole in their wall it would create. Everyone can respond to a visual, they can say they do not want that big of a hole in their wall and do something about it. When you are telling people about all the problems in Africa you can tell them directly, or you can tell a story about a little girl named Amy who is going through hardships in Africa. When people do this they can double the amount of money they make, tell the emotional story. You actually make less money when you introduce stats into your emotional story, your rider is thinking about the stats and your elephant thinking about the emotions. You are making your two parts fight, and it muddies things up.

Frame your point as a WIIFY (Whats in it for you). Personalize your message towards your audience, include you, your. Make your audience think about the message in terms of themselves. Humans are built to look out for their own self-interests, and everyone can understand something from their point of view. Make people care, not believe.


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