Wednesday, December 22, 2010

To Be Believable You Need to Provide Solutions, Not Just Deliver More Bad News

I am concerned with a connection between too much bad news and our willingness to take that news on board and be able to process it intelligently.

According to Scientific American,'s excellent "60 Second Mind" podcast, a recent Gallup poll “found that 48 percent of Americans believe that global warming concerns are exaggerated. Back in 1997 31 percent of Americans thought the concerns were overrated.” The Scientific American asked the question--why the increase?

The magazine writers believe that it could have something to do with the framing of the issue. “ Researchers surveyed students, measuring their skepticism about global warming and their belief in the justness of the world. Participants were asked how much they agree with the following statements: “I believe that…people get what they deserve,” and “I am confident that justice always prevails...Then half the participants read news articles that ended with dire warnings about the consequences of global warming; the other half read more positive pieces focused on possible solutions to the problem. Those who received more positive messaging trusted the science. On the other hand those subjects who read the “doomsday” messaging were skeptical of global warming, and for those who think the world is generally a fair place had even stronger doubts about global warming after reading the negative messaging.”

The study (to be published in the January issue of Psychological Science) is intriguing in that it points to something I believe that occurs in US elections—it is not just that the more optimistic candidate wins, it is that the politician who talks about unpleasant issues such as the deficit, shared sacrifice, need for more taxes etc also loses. Our present inability to balance our budget—to go on believing in some kind of magical solution (nursed by the drill baby drill wing of the Republican/Tea party), has lead us to more pain down the road. How do we apply this educationally? I believe that when we have conversations about large issues that seem full of doom,  the media, teachers and for that matter politicians all need to be able to point to positive solutions and frame long term solutions as being within reach and worth short term sacrifice. Otherwise we breed what we clearly have too much of today, skepticism, cynicism and learned helplessness.

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