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Have you ever wondered why, despite understanding the global crisis climate change poses, we struggle to address it effectively? Today, we step into the realm of the human mind with political psychologist, Dr. Conor Seyle, to make sense of this conundrum. We illuminate the complexities of cognitive biases and our long-term thinking capacity and take you on a fascinating journey through the psychology of climate change.
Our conversation uncovers the psychological impact of social motives like justice, belonging, control, trust, and understanding. We discuss their influence on our cognitive biases. By spotlighting examples like the 2014 Ebola outbreak, we highlight the potential of behavioral change to transform crises and the pivotal role of public health recommendations in altering the course of disease spread.
As we wrap up our enlightening discourse, we unmask the potency of acknowledging our cognitive biases and appreciating our community values in crafting powerful change narratives. We stress the importance of individual experiences in decision-making and their ripple effect on the collective, advocating for a shift in our long-term thinking. Grab your headphones and prepare for a thought-provoking expedition into the human mind.
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That's What I Like About The West
Conor Seyel – Political Psychologist with Pax Sapiens
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 00:03
Something you might hear a lot when you’re talking with friends or relatives, or maybe you’re sitting around a holiday table having this discussion, or maybe it’s even something you think internally is if we have the resources, we have the tools, we have the knowledge, why can’t we just solve climate change? And, of course, there’s many different reasons why this is a complicated fix, but one of the most interesting ones that I found is the psychology behind it, how the human brain functions and how we think about problems, especially long-term, multi-generational ones. On this episode, we are talking to a political psychologist, Dr. Conor Seyel, about human behavior, why we think the way we do, why we react the way we do, and how it impacts climate change.
Conor Seyle – Political Psychologist Guest 00:57
We as communities, global communities or regional or local or whatever can decide to commit to generational projects. We’ve done it in the past, but you know we have to choose to do it. So that then gets back to this question of how, what can we do and how do biases play into that?
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 01:16
Welcome to Two Degrees Out West, a podcast where we celebrate everything that we love about the Western United States and we share the stories of those who are working to combat climate change in the West and ensure that it is beautiful and thriving for generations to come. I’m your host. Jessi Janusee, the multimedia storyteller here at Western Resource Advocates. Thanks for being here, and now let’s get started with Conor Seyel.
Dr. Conor Seyel is the Pax Sapiens Vice President of Operations.
Conor is a political psychologist by training. He has also worked on deliberative democracy initiatives, including the National Issues Forums and Americans Discuss Social Security, and is a trainer for the US Crisis Counseling, Assistance and Training Program. Conor is a chapter lead author for the 2022 UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction’s Global Assessment of Disaster Risk Report. Conor holds a PhD in social psychology from the University of Texas.
Well, welcome, thanks for being here. I’m excited to finally make this podcast happen. I feel like we’ve been talking about it for a minute, so it’s cool to finally meet you and talk about all these things.
Conor Seyle – Political Psychologist Guest 03:19
Yeah, likewise. You know, this is a really interesting field because increasingly, across a lot of different issue areas, people are realizing that it’s not technical issues where human society is hung up, it’s on the social part. Ashish Jha, who was the White House COVID coordinator, said once, “we got the medical science right, we failed on the social science.” And I think we’re seeing that across a lot of different issues where we know what needs to be done and we’re, just as a global society, not doing it. And the question is why not? And often the answer is a psychological process rather than a political process or a technical process, I would argue.
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 03:58
Yeah, I was reading the BBC article that cites you and talking about the 150 cognitive biases, and I was just like, oh my gosh, this makes so much sense. Right, just the way the human brain works. It creates a lot of problems. So often you see different activists being like oh, why can’t we just feed everyone? Right, like we have the resources, why can’t we just end global hunger? It’s not a matter of do we have the things in place? Can we actually do it? It’s these cognitive dissonances that are preventing us from just solving the problems, which can feel incredibly frustrating.
Conor Seyle – Political Psychologist Guest 04:34
Yeah, and I feel like there’s both an optimistic interpretation of that and a pessimistic one. Because why can’t we feed everyone? Why can’t we stop global hunger? We have the resources for it. The answer is we could, if we, as a global society chose to. And that’s the optimistic answer, it is that well, we can. We just have to decide to do it. The pessimistic answer is OK, well, why haven’t we been? And that turns out to be much more complex than just saying oh well, you know, those jerks in Washington needs to change their minds. There’s reasons, there’s institutional reasons, there’s psychological reasons, but I do think that if we understand those, we can come up with systems that do a better job of fixing them.
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 05:16
Yeah, absolutely. That’s kind of what we’re going to talk about today, right? Can you give us some background on how you got into political psychology and the work that you’re doing with Pax Sapiens?
Conor Seyle – Political Psychologist Guest 05:27
My background is I have always been interested in social impact and I have always been very lacking in confidence. I have never felt like I knew the answer. Yates, in his vision of the end of the world, says the best lack all conviction, and I don’t want to claim that I’m the best, but it certainly resonated with me. It’s like I never knew, ok, what’s the right way to solve any of these social problems that I see around me. So, I’ve always been interested in the question of evidence-based practice for social impact. If I don’t know the answer, then the question is how do we figure out what the answer is? And so across my career, that’s really been what’s driving me. I’ve had the chance to work with a couple of different organizations on different issues, from peace building to disaster response, to democracy promotion, and across all of those issue areas my question has basically been well, what do we know? What do we know about the structure of these problems? What do we know about what works? And that basic approach was filtered through my experience being interested in psychology, getting an undergraduate degree in psychology, going to work for some NGOs and feeling like we were dealing with psychological problems and trying to kind of figure things out from first principles, OK, well, how do we set up this agenda, how do we set up this conversation to achieve the outcome we want? And I kept feeling like I know there’s research on this, I know there’s answers to these questions, we don’t have to figure it out from scratch. So, I went back to graduate school with the intent of just developing a research focus on what I eventually learned was called political psychology – the question of how does psychology influence political behavior. I love political psychology as a discipline. It’s young and it’s very amorphous. About half the people that identify as political psychologists are trained in political science programs but interested in individual level behavior. The other half are trained in psychology programs but interested in political problems, and the result is that it’s a really multidisciplinary field. It’s just I don’t know, It’s an exciting place to be.
At Pax, I feel like I’ve been able to really extend that, because the core mission of Pax Sapiens as a foundation, is how do we prevent predictable catastrophes and why don’t we as a human society prevent these issues that everybody can see coming? And that turns out to be a really interesting question and it’s a complex question because obviously we should be preventing all of these predictable issues that we see coming. Everybody knew that something like COVID-19 was going to happen. There was a Blockbuster Hollywood movie about it. There was a famous tabletop game about it.
Every national security conversation includes what about the next pandemic? Hey, and it’s probably going to be a coronavirus pandemic and it’s probably going to come from Asia somewhere, but we still walked face first into the woodchipper on that. Everybody can see the issues that are coming from climate change, but getting the global solutions in place are not happening at the speed they need to be. So Pax is really focused on this question of how do we set up systems to better prevent that, and that turns out to be, at core, I would argue, largely a political, psychological question. So, I’m really glad to be working at a foundation that takes that question seriously and lets us apply some good research to it. I’m looking forward to talking more about it, but that’s basically my story. That’s how I got here.
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 08:53
Yeah, I just think a lot about how this generation is saying to boomers why haven’t you done more? We have this feeling the generations before us should have done something to prevent these things, or COVID or whatever. It’s like okay, we have the evidence, we know things are coming. Why aren’t we creating that change? And I feel like there’s a lot of shaming and blaming, but what we’re going to talk about and what you’ve been saying is these cognitive biases that we all share, that kind of play into this and make us realize that it’s not just about who’s not doing something about this. It’s like why are our brains like this and what can we do to change the way that we think so that we can do better in the future? I’d love to just delve deeper into these theories and the biases and if you can outline a few of those and talk about how they affect the decisions that we make, that would be awesome.
Conor Seyle – Political Psychologist Guest 09:51
Sure, yeah, absolutely. So, when we talk about a bias, we are essentially talking about a reliable pattern of decision making. In this case, it’s something that basically tends to reoccur over time, a tendency in a certain direction. Whenever we talk about human decisions, humans are complex, it’s never determinative, it’s never as simple as oh, this is always going to happen. But we do have biases. The way that our brains are developed means that some patterns tend to co-occur. Some decisions are easier than others, and so when you look at the conversation around this, there’s often a tendency to try to map out okay, you know how many of these biases are there, which of these are there? What are they? And that reflects the way that research has carried out in psychology.
There’s a running joke in social psychology that a good psychologist treats a theory like a toothbrush. No self-respecting person would use somebody else’s. The pressures within the field, not the pressures to find truth, but the kind of academic incentives that are needed in order to be published as a good psychologist tend to encourage people to kind of stake out their individual domain and to say, hey look, I’ve discovered this specific aspect and, as a result, I feel like a lot of the conversation, especially in academic research tends to be about getting increasingly more narrow. Are there 150 cognitive biases or are there 160? Which are they? What I prefer to do in talking about this is to take a step back and ask where do these come from? What’s the kind of underlying mechanism that generates these outcomes? Because if we can understand that, I think we can cut through some of the debate. And this also addresses one of the other things that’s happening in psychology, the field is in the middle of what’s called the replication crisis, which is, it turns out, that not everything that has been studied when we go back and try to replicate it is as well founded as we thought. So there’s a certain amount of debate about which of the current findings that are out there are going to survive the next 10 years of scrutiny or not, and so I’m putting all of this out there, because the way that I prefer to think about it, the way that I encourage you all listening to this to think about it, is to try to understand what is it about our brains that generates these biases.
And to answer that, you have to start with the fact that we are evolved animals. Our minds, our cognitive systems are the result of processes that are instantiated in our brains at the neural level, and both of those elements the processes and the actual like the neurons themselves are the result of millions of years of evolution. When you look at it from that perspective, the biases suddenly become a lot more interpretable, because basically what’s happening is we are evolved with a predisposition towards processes which are evolutionarily valuable, and there are two key aspects of that, and it basically comes down to attention. How do we distribute our attention in the world? And then what do we specifically need as social animals, as animals whose evolutionary niche is to interact in a social group? And these are two separate sources of biases. To talk briefly about that, one source of bias really at heart is about the question of attention. How do we distribute our attention when we’re making decisions? Attention is a really valuable resource.
About a week ago, I was biking to work and the podcast I was listening to ended, and so I pulled my phone out of my pocket without really thinking about it and started thumbing around to find the next episode, and I wasn’t paying attention where I was going, and I veered off the bike path and I realized what was happening and I overcorrected and spilled my bike and got a good dose of road rash because I made a bad decision about how to distribute my attention in that moment. If you think about this in the context of our evolutionary ancestors, maybe it was a saber-toothed tiger, it wasn’t laying down a bicycle. It was you missed a predator that was about to attack you, or you missed some food that you really needed to get in order to survive. So, when you think about it that way, you can appreciate attention is a life or death resource and anything like that is going to be subject to intense evolutionary pressures. What we find, and there’s pretty solid research on this that goes from the behavioral to the cognitive to the neurological level, is that humans are evolved to be very careful in how we allocate our attentional resources.
The vast majority of decisions we make on a day-to-day basis, our brain is first assessing is this something which is critical? Is this life or death? Is it something that I have to really pay attention to? And if the answer is no, then it says, okay, I’m not going to pay attention to this. I am going to make a decision as quickly as I can, using any one of a dozen, well, or X number of biases that let me make a decision that’s kind of good enough, as quickly as I can.
And when we’re operating in this mode, which is called, type one decision making, we tend to make decisions on the basis of proxies, what’s easy for me to remember, what can I think of quickly, what’s kind of in my face, what’s in my immediate environment. We don’t really sit down and weigh out what are the pluses and minuses of this decision. The idea is okay, I’m going to make this decision as quickly as possible and it’s going to be good enough. And the reality is that works really well. I mean, if I had to go through life and every single decision I made I had to sit down and think through okay, you know how much do I have to think about this? What are the pluses, what are the minuses? You know I’d never decide what you’d like for lunch, like you’d spend your day doing that.
So this is a really valuable approach, but what it means is we have a tendency to over apply it, the type two thinking, the kind of effortful, deep, rational thinking that people think of when you say decision making.
That’s pretty rare. We are much more inclined to do that A when we decide to, when we, as kind of conscious entities, decide oh I’m going to take this seriously, I’m going to think about it. Or when things are crises, when they seem like they really are life or death, when they seem like they’re immediate or imminent or kind of really major or significant problems, then we get the much more traditional reason discussion. So right at the gate, when we talk about biases and decision making, you’ve got this issue of attention. Are we making a decision that’s basically designed to get us to the next decision as quickly as possible, or are we really considering it? And for almost all of us, almost all the time, the answer is the first one, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Like I said, it’s a necessary part of getting through the day, but it generates predictable biases in how we make decisions.
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 16:23
I mean, I think that makes a lot of sense. Humans on the day-to-day level are like I’m just trying to survive, right. As much as we feel like we’re, these incredibly evolved beings at the root of it, we’re still, we still got our basic needs and our basic drives and, like you were saying right, we’re used to just the fight or flight and basic basic level survival things. And I think a lot of us want to believe that we are beyond that, but the reality is like we’re just still little, you know animals trying to make it through the world for this iteration, right?
Conor Seyle – Political Psychologist Guest 17:00
Yeah and the end of the thing is you know we put a lot on ourselves, there’s a lot of shoulds in the world and you know type one reasoning is incredibly useful. It’s really valuable. At heart it lets us do things like interact with the world. One of the classic examples is chairs. It’s kind of a silly example but it’s a good one, because if you imagine all the different kinds of chairs you have interacted with in your life like art deco and designed and stools and milking stools and arm chairs and all of that they don’t actually share that many similarities. Like if you actually had to look at that and reason out from first principles is this something that you know is meant for me to put my rear end on? You’d make a lot of mistakes Because we are able to just interact with the world through very quick, heuristic based decisions.
We can create social categories and we can look at something and say, yeah, that’s probably a chair. That’s a silly example, but it kind of underscores the fact that we’re making these decisions all the time in our interactions with the world and the ability to do this rapidly without devoting our attention to it, is what lets us get through the day, like, the fact that I made a poor allocation of resources in pulling my phone out of my pocket doesn’t change the fact that I was able to bike for five miles. You know interacting with my environment very rapidly because of this type one decision making. It’s just that sometimes it generates bad decisions.
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 18:19
Being in society and in community also really affects the way we make decisions and the way we think about the world. And I was thinking about the I think it’s called the bystander effect, because I am absolutely guilty of that. There’s so many moments where I’m like someone else will take care of this. I just can’t, you know, and I’ll take care of other things and maybe a different person will take care of that thing, right? So, yeah, I’d love to hear a little bit more about those biases.
Conor Seyle – Political Psychologist Guest 18:47
Yeah, again, adopting this evolutionary framing, if we are social animals, which we inherently are. There’s this myth in post-apocalyptic fiction of the lone, macho individual striding through this collapsed world. But apocalypses are not rare in human history. It’s not a fiction. We live in a post-apocalyptic environment. In North America, American/European American history is built on indigenous apocalypse that happened after the initial arrival and then during colonization. That’s just one example of this playing out all over history. What we know from those is that it’s the societies that survive, it’s the people that stick together, it’s the communities that thrive because we are social animals. The essence of our evolutionary success is that. What’s interesting about that is that, if you look at it from a genetics, evolutionary standpoint, there are some things that social animals have to have in order for that social strategy, in order to be evolutionarily valuable, because at the end of the day, it is about classic evolution. What strategies allow our genes to propagate? You have to see some things for social groups to be able to do that.
There has to be what one researcher called a certain sense of social regularity, something that looks like justice is necessary at the genetic level in order for a group to actually be valuable to the individuals that are in it. You can’t have systems where one entity gets all the resources. What this means is everywhere you look, you see analogs of some things like this, some core social elements that show up in social animals. Justice is one of them.
If you take two chimpanzees and you train them to expect a food reward for some behavior, and then you give one chimpanzee a very high value food, you give them a grape instead of a cucumber and you give the other one a cucumber, they’ll resist. They’ll actually stop working. They’ll push back against that, because something like this kind of social regularity needs to be there. What that means is that we can identify very specific social motives, things that we want from our social environment. To what extent are these hard coded, evolutionarily, in the way that I’m describing it, versus to what extent are they arising from our experiences?
Conscious entities interacting with each other that’s a debate you can get into that. At minimum, you can identify humans or social animals, and that means very specific things. There’s things we want from our social environment. We want to feel that we belong to groups. It’s very, very disconcerting for people to feel like they are being excluded. We want to have a predictable model of the world around us. We want to say well, we know more or less what is going to happen in the world. We want to have agency in the world, we want to be able to control our social environment, we want to feel good about ourselves and we want to trust people and feel like they are trustworthy. This is one way of understanding social motives. In psychology there’s a debate. I like this model, the bucket: belonging, understanding, controlling, enhancing and trusting, framing just because it’s a good way of thinking about it. Basically, there are these things that we want from our social environment. When it comes to biases what that means is it’s much easier for us to believe arguments that meet these social motives and it’s much easier for us to make decisions that align with them.
Upton Sinclair ran for governor of California, the journalist who wrote The Jungle. He ran on a socialist platform in, I think, the 30s, the early 20th century. One way or another he lost. When he was asked to describe why he lost, he said it’s very difficult to make a man believe something his salary depends on not being true. That’s one framing of that. When you think about not in terms of salary, but in terms of these social things. There’s very real truth to that. What that means is when you think about biases, especially in the modern environment, people are going to trend towards an understanding of the world and decisions in line with that that reassure them that they are part of a social group, that their understanding of the world is accurate and valid, that they’re good people and that the world is basically predictable.
Unfortunately, in many of the problems we face, those biases are directly in contradiction with the kind of recognitions we need to have that. No, actually, climate change is a really significant problem that requires changing our behavior. Sometimes these biases are bound up in other things. In the US, political polarization has gotten strong enough that if you look at responses to COVID, you see reactions to that not being really a kind of a dispassionate analysis of the technical recommendations being made by public health folks, but instead very rapidly being turned into, well, what’s my tribe’s approach? Is my tribe’s approach to say, yes, my part of America is all about masking and so I’m going to mask? Or is my tribe saying, no, we’re all about not masking, so I’m not going to? It becomes a part of this kind of social environment and these social motives we have about connecting with other people rather than an actual engagement with the problem or the issue itself. And so I would argue, almost all of the questions that come down to why can’t we prevent these issues that we see coming up, come down to a combination of these two sets of issues, human tendencies, in terms of how do we make decisions and how do we think about our short-term decisions in our day-to-day lives, and these social motives and how do we interact with the world around us and our social environment, and what does that mean for our understanding of the world and our place in it.
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 24:19
Yeah, the polarization of America. It’s so tough. I’ve watched a lot of my friends during COVID just start blocking people that they thought they were friends that had different beliefs than them, and I felt really strongly, I was like I’m not going to do that. That is not the way that we’re going to get better. Like by ignoring each other and shutting off things that don’t align with you, you are not growing as a person and those people aren’t growing either. Like then we’re all in our own echo chamber. That’s not how we’re going to get through things as a society. It’s so rough.
Conor Seyle – Political Psychologist Guest 24:52
I agree with you 100%. But at the same time, those echo chambers are comforting. This is the fundamental issue when we talk about bias is that it’s deeply satisfying to be reassured that you are a part of a group and that your understanding of the world is correct. So, it’s something that we have to counteract. It’s something we have to consciously, as a society, choose to confront, because our tendency as humans is going to be to move towards that. It meets some fairly deeply held needs that we have to some extent. That’s the problem. We’ve made it easy to meet these needs in ways which is dangerous for society as it holds. It’s like sugar. Sugar is a wonderful product for us evolutionarily. It’s a nice amount of calories in a small package, and there’s nothing wrong with the fact that we like sugar. In an ancient environment, it’s great to seek out fruits and things with high sugar content. We just created a society that makes it so easy to meet that need that we do it too much in ways that become unhelpful for us as individuals.
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 25:52
Yeah, the lack of control in some ways. I mean, you know we’re driven in that direction and then a positive feedback loop, like you’re saying, even though it’s maybe not the best step for us evolutionarily. So climate change too. You know we’re talking a lot about COVID.
Covid reacts, but also this idea of climate change and then getting in these groups right, like just like you’re saying about the mask here or not masking, like a lot of or at least I’m hoping we are moving into a space where everybody is like on board with the idea of climate change and seeing that it’s happening, but definitely there’s still some ways in which it’s like politically polarized. How can we work through our problems with short term only, you know, very reactionary and then just wanting to be in our tribes and like being correct and feeling like we’re good and all of that, but then we have these huge problems that we need to be solving that go, like many generations, beyond our own ability to even think about them. And what can we do? You know it feels really like disheartening, right, and like just something that we’re not able to solve. But through your work there is ways, right.
Conor Seyle – Political Psychologist Guest 27:06
Yeah, no, there are ways in better than that. There’s examples. Pax Sapiens is a foundation started by our founder, Marcel Arsenault, and one of the examples that he always goes to is cathedrals. In the Middle Ages, a cathedral was a community project. It was something that a town or a city would commit to. That was a generational project. The people that decided to build a cathedral would not live to see it. In some cases, their grandkids wouldn’t live to see it and in some cases, the architectural knowledge to actually build something of that size was missing. Communities would embark on it, basically trusting that they would figure it out when they needed to, and it’s a good metaphor for some of these long-term issues. We as communities global communities or regional or local or whatever can decide to commit to generational projects. We’ve done it in the past, but we have to choose to do it.
So that then gets back to this question of how, what can we do and how do biases play into that? And I think there’s two answers to that. One is we can think about biases and how do we work with them, how do we understand them when we talk about what can we do to change groups of people’s behavior? But the other question is institutions. Humans build institutions. We build governments and societies and universities and these other things to do the things that we’re not good at as individuals.
My kids are in school and they’re learning 2,000 years of human knowledge that we’ve been able to develop over time, institutionalize and pass down. Human societies create these institutions to do long-term things, and so we can look at our institutions. We can look at our governments and the social institutions around us and just put pressure on them to choose to prioritize this. When we talk about governments, especially in the US, that becomes a question of politics. It becomes a question of advocacy and levers and shaping and all the traditional political stuff. But at heart, the idea is, what we’re doing is instantiating these goals, these long-term processes, in institutions.
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 29:13
Putting the pressure on the government or on the institutions, right, and I do think, okay now, climate change is something that everybody talks about when there’s an election and there’s debates. It is a thing that matters to people, right, so it’s like right at the forefront, so we do see it happening. We are forcing people to talk about it and for it to be recognized and for us to hear solutions or thoughts about on the highest level of our society. So, in that way, we see it happening in real time. But, yeah, I’d love some thoughts about the individual level and also, I love the reference to the cathedrals because, yeah, I think that is something we need to be thinking about, these projects that maybe your grandkids or your great grandkids don’t even see. But you’re doing it anyway.
Conor Seyle – Political Psychologist Guest 30:00
Think about individual biases. I think we see a couple of patterns when I look at this kind of crisis prevention and mitigation approach. The combination of those two things that I talked about earlier the type one and type two thinking in social motives means that a couple of things happen. One is when people first hear about something, if it’s not immediate, if it’s not in their face, they tend to not put a lot of thought into it and they tend to parse it in terms of their existing kind of understanding of the world and social environment. Sometimes that means you can get behavior change that’s in line with what’s needed because it lands cleanly and it’s attached to stuff that they care about, and sometimes it means you don’t. One example of this you can see is with Ebola in West Africa.
In some of the regions of West Africa the burial traditions were traditions that facilitated the spread of Ebola because they involved very close contact with the body of somebody who had died. I want to pause on that for a moment because I want people to hear that in terms of what it would mean for us, many communities have got different burial traditions. The community I come from doesn’t involve close contact with the corpse, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all about this is what respect for my dead loved family member means. When I talk about this, don’t hear it in terms of, oh, this was some weird foreign practice, that was bad public health practice. What I want you to think about is in terms of what it would mean for you to treat your family member with respect when they died. In the case of West Africa, that respect meant things which did contribute to the spread of Ebola. Early on in the outbreaks that happened in 2014-ish, you had public health workers coming in and they were saying, hey, this disease is spreading. It’s going to be a problem. I need you to stop the traditional practices that you’re using. What people heard was I want you to treat your dead with disrespect in the service of preventing something that I’m not really sure I’ve ever heard of and maybe you’re lying to me about. If you think about it that way, you can imagine that. Imagine somebody from the government coming to you and saying whatever respectful treatment of the dead means to you personally, saying, hey, I want you to spit in the face of your deceased person. Whatever disrespect is, you start to appreciate why that’s a pretty big ask, whether or not it is a technically correct public health recommendation.
There was a lot of non-compliance. You saw a lot of people just refusing to comply with the public health guidance about how to prevent the spread of Ebola. As a result, you saw the spread of Ebola continuing to increase. There was a long period there in the 2014 outbreaks where it was increasing exponentially. It was really on track to be an absolute wildfire pandemic of a kind that would be even more devastating than it was. It was devastating. What happened was when it reached a point where people had the direct experience, where this was truly a crisis, when enough people they knew had passed or had been infected that it was impossible to ignore. Then you saw a very rapid change in behavior. Very, very quickly people started adopting the public health recommendations. Partly, that was facilitated by the public health folks getting better about working with local communities and coming up with better ways of approaching it, but a large part of it was just this human tendency of ignoring a problem until it was a crisis and then, once it was inescapable, they changed behavior and the outbreak was contained very rapidly.
That pattern, I think, illustrates two things. One is we have to appreciate that recommendations are not interpreted as scientific recommendations, even if that’s where they come from. They’re interpreted as things with connections to our values and our communities and what we see as our tribes, and when things line up with that, it’s easy to get people to go along with it. When things challenge that, it’s difficult, but then separately in terms of attention. People will pay attention to issues, people will think them through, they will reason them out and make a reasoned decision about what the best way to do is, but sometimes it has to get pretty bad before it’s a large group of people are approaching it in that way. The optimistic takeaway there is that we can see behavior change, even very profound behavior change happen very rapidly when things are inescapable. The pessimistic question there is when it comes to climate change or these other long lead problems will we have reached a tipping point that is irreversible before we see that and that is unfortunately an empirical question that we as a global society will get to discover.
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 34:29
Absolutely. Look around at all the flooding in Hong Kong, the flooding in. I was just in Vegas and it was flooding and wildfires and El Nino. We see it all happening. And at what point, like you’re saying, are enough of us impacted, enough of our societies, our tribes? And then when is it critical enough for us to be like, wow, okay, we got to do something about this. But it is a plus that once it hits that level, we can create rapid change. But yeah, will we be past the point of no return? It is, it’s tough to think about, but I’m trying to be less of a climate doomer. I do read a lot of apocalyptic sci-fi, I’m not going to lie to you, and I watch a lot of it, but I feel like I want to start shifting that, I’m getting into like a solar punk reality in my brain.
Conor Seyle – Political Psychologist Guest 35:20
So Well, that’s the thing I mean. We have made these, we’ve done it, individual communities, entire societies we have committed to these long-term projects and we’ve achieved them. There’s reasons for optimism here and, you know, not a small part of that is that we have to believe that it’s possible. Or else, you know, what are we? What are we doing here? The good news is it is. I’m very confident it is. I can point to even dire examples. We’ve seen large-scale behavior change happen very rapidly. So you know, there’s always room for empirically founded, evidence-supported hope.
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 36:02
I love that evidence-supported hope. Yes, it’s my new mantra. Yeah, I’m just thinking about, you know, being reactionary versus being proactive, and that’s a thing I personally bring up a lot in just my organizational work that I do on a community level. You know, in my not-work life and I think, yeah, it’s going back to all of the biases and the way that we are doing what’s right in front of us and and your work that you’re talking about with pandemics and US-China relations. It’s like it’s so hard not to just constantly spend all of your time reacting to the problems in front of you and and so difficult to like to lay out those systems for future problems. But then when you do it and then when you get to that point and those systems are in place, wow, everything is so much better. You just have to be thoughtful.
Conor Seyle – Political Psychologist Guest 36:56
But that’s the thing is that it’s not something we do. Naturally we want to be in the moment and I mean, hey, there’s a lot of value in that. Mindfulness is very good, but as far as kind of like moment-to-moment decision-making, it doesn’t address the systemic issues. There’s lots of different ways to approach that. I draw a distinction between appreciating these biases and then because you think you need to figure out how to work with them in each individual specific moment. But our organizational approach is okay, so let’s make it so that humans don’t have to. Let’s make it so that the institutions that we’ve created to do the stuff that we’re bad at, that they focus on these issues and kind of smooth out the disruption that’s caused by biases. But yeah, as people we’re not good at it. It’s not where it’s baked into how we approach the world.
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 37:36
Yeah, I wonder about different ways that we could be doing that better in terms of climate change and protecting the planet, and how much we are working towards a clean energy future right, fundamentally changing the systems of how we produce energy to be clean and not pollute in those ways is kind of working the way that you’re talking about. So, yeah, just thinking about ways that it is happening and where we could focus more of our energy.
Conor Seyle – Political Psychologist Guest 38:04
You have to be cautious with the techno optimism, the idea that, oh, science will fix it. But that’s part of that cathedral story too. Is that the communities that committed to it? Sometimes they said look, I know that there’s a solvable problem here and I don’t know the answer to it, but we are going to commit to this approach in the hope and the confidence that we will solve that when we get there.
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 38:26
Because there is this idea of the carbon footprint and there’s very much like this pressure on the individual to get an EV and put solar on your house and become zero waste and be more thoughtful about your consumption. You have to be doing better and of course, it’s great when we all are working towards the shared goal right, where we are all trying to do better. But there is some extent where it’s recognized that we’re humans and this is the way we think and it’s okay and everything that you’re doing is helpful but don’t make yourself feel bad about you know, not being perfect, just like you were saying, like appreciating the cognitive biases is also important and we need to just recognize and look at them and that’s good too.
Conor Seyle – Political Psychologist Guest 39:12
There’s a lesson there about messaging and behavior change, and there’s a lesson there about how we think as individuals. There’s this really interesting case that happened in Australia that sticks out to me because it shows the way these social motives play out. After the devastating wildfires of a couple of years ago, the Australian government started looking into what do we do to mitigate wildfire risk, and one of the recommendations is you clear brush around buildings. Australia is also an environment where the local ecosystem is threatened by invasive species, including invasive plant species, and to a lot of people they said okay, what you’re telling me to do is do additional harm to the ancient Australian ecosystem that my building is a part of. And this recommendation squarely hit these people’s understandings of themselves as protectors of the environment and their values as environmentalists, and it became an issue. It became a point of tension and something where a technical recommendation didn’t get executed cleanly.
That shows these decisions we make, they’re part of our understanding of ourself and our understanding in the world, and when we, as advocates for behavioral change, don’t appreciate how the messages land, there can be unexpected pushback. Now, the positive version of that is that you come up with a version of the message that highlights those values, that says, hey, here’s how you are acting, in line with the way that you want to be in order to do this, and that’s a really strong behavioral change message. But then, yeah, you got to be careful that you’re not telling people hey, you’re a bad person if you don’t do it, because what matters is social behavior at the aggregate, and we all have to give ourselves a little bit of grace for where we fit in and our individual needs and experiences.
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 40:57
Yeah, you’re just making me think about my own, I live in Northern Nevada, where there’s always a chance of wildfire, and there’s been wildfires that I could see from my house before and I should always have defensible space, like you’re saying. And still there’s so many moments where I’m like just let the plants go, they’re fine, it’s still green enough, and then you just think that that’s a choice that you’re making on an individual level and it’ll be fine. But then you’re like how many hippie nature moms are there out there not doing the thing that I know I should do?
Conor Seyle – Political Psychologist Guest 41:29
Well, and getting back to the way that we make decisions, that’s a good illustration of type one thinking, the pattern you described there of okay, I’ve heard this recommendation. When I decide on a Sunday morning how do I spend my Sunday, you’re probably not cautiously going through and making a risk reduction, maximization, allocation of your time. You’re making it on the basis of, hey, the farmer’s market is open and a bunch of other things, and that’s how we tend to make decisions. I think that when we as advocates or risk reduction experts or whatever, don’t account for that in our recommendations, then the outcome’s on us, it’s not on the people we’re talking to, saying, hey, look, I gave the best possible technical recommendation and it had no actual bearing on how people live their lives or how they make decisions. Well, you shouldn’t be too surprised when you don’t get behavioral changes in outcome, because right now, I feel like where this field is is that we can point to the things that haven’t worked.
It’s a bit more of a challenge to point to places where things have worked as far as bias, informed communications, and so what I would say is to anybody who’s listening to this there’s not a best practice, there’s not like oh, here’s a manual, go out and read it.
I’d encourage you to think about this and decide how to apply it. And, if you come up with a really good example, get on X, get on Blue Sky, get on whatever your social media of choice is, and share that knowledge, because this is something where we can identify the problem and we know the outlines of the solution, but actually turning it into OK. Here’s a replicable model that’ll work repeatedly. Other than those broad guidelines of pay attention to what your community values, pay attention to who you’re talking to, think about how your messages are landing and realizing that people are not making deep reason decisions about everything they do that day. Other than those kinds of guidelines, we don’t have great models that I am aware of, so go forth, invent them and be the normal entrepreneur that the world needs right now.
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 43:27
As you’re saying about going out there and talking, for my beautiful, crazy lawn, it did take three of my friends being like hey, wow, it’s wildfire season, it’s getting pretty crazy out here. And just to your point about tribe right, it took the third friend for me to be like yo, you’re right, I need to just take care of that. So when we think about these little messages, these little ways we interact with each other, we feel maybe it’s not that big of a thing, but just by saying to your friend, this little helpful, just nudging your tribe is actually really valuable and important to help with that cognitive bias.
Conor Seyle – Political Psychologist Guest 44:02
The recommendations that come from inside your circle always land better. Now the flip side of that is that we as humans we hate, generally speaking, we’re not good at that. It’s an idea of deviancy credits that you can in your social circle. You have so many opportunities to point out, hey, I disagree with what you’re doing, and after that you start to get like more concerned that you’re going to get excluded. So it’s a hard thing to do but it helps. It really does help because at the end of the day, these kinds of social norms, these patterns of behavior, they come from our social environments as much as our internal reason. Decisions and anything you can do to nudge your environment along is a positive concept and that’s a good contribution.
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 44:41
How can we shift our thinking to be more long term, to combat these biases and ensure a healthier world for all?
Conor Seyle – Political Psychologist Guest 44:52
Yeah, I mean that’s one of the core questions, because it’s just not something humans are good at. And to some extent my answer would be that we shouldn’t try, to the extent that we’re trying to condense everybody, to consciously think long-term on our day-to-day lives. We’re fighting millennia of evolution. It’s just not what our systems are very good at. And so if that’s the case, then the question becomes how do we get people to behave in a way as if we were thinking about the long-term? And that, I think, is an achievable question. But that becomes also very fact-dependent, because the answers to that are going to be one thing when it comes to environmentalism versus another when it comes to pandemic prevention or whatever. So to some extent it loops back again to figuring out okay, well, what does that look like? What behavior do we think people should engage in? What does it mean to behave as if we had a long-term view? And if we think about the cathedral example, the sad reality is maybe the answer to that is a mixture of idealism and little petty politics stuff. If a small town in France built the cathedral partially because they wanted to lift it up for their religion and partially because they wanted to poke the next town down the road in the eye. Well, the outcome was the same.
So I think the question becomes how do we create systems where people are rewarded for behavior which lines up with the long-term. Rewarded socially, rewarded politically, rewarded financially? It kind of doesn’t matter. What matters is the incentives that people have. Some of that social, some of it is the kind of work that WRA is doing, where we just remind people that this stuff is important, where we create the norms and the expectations that behavior includes things like not littering. It’s a small example, but if you go back to America 50 years ago, it looked very, very different than it looks nowadays because we consciously decided as a community we were going to reward the idea of not littering. Social norm change is possible. It’s a conscious decision by people who say, hey, this is valuable, we should all value it.
The other answer again gets back to institutions. A lot of our lives are shaped by the incentives around us. Whether it’s a positive incentive or a negative incentive, I think depends on the specific question. But electric vehicle tax credits go a long way towards getting people to buy electric vehicles. To me, that question is embedded in all of these conversations around biases. The answer is, I would say don’t try to change what people think, change what they do, and do that by changing the social and institutional structures around them to align with the behavior that we think is important.
Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller Host 47:57
Thanks so much, Conor, for joining us on the show and teaching us all about political psychology. That was such a fascinating discussion. Before we get into my favorite little section what I like about the West we have to do some shoutouts to our amazing sponsors.
We’d like to take a minute to thank our stellar 2023 sponsors, including our Impact sponsor, First Bank, the largest locally-owned banking organization in Colorado. We’d also like to thank our premier sponsors, Solup and Vision Ridge Partners, our signature sponsors, Denver Water, Kind Design, SCARPA North America, the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project and TorchClean Energy, and our supporting sponsors BSW Wealth Partners, Javelina, Meridian Public Affairs and Utah Clean Energy. Thanks so much, sponsors. We really appreciate you and your support for not only two degrees out West, but all of Western Research Advocates. If you’d like to become a sponsor, we are opening up our 2024 sponsorship pretty soon, so go to our website. There’s a link in our show notes and we would love to have your support. Alright, it’s time for What I Like About the West.
On this episode, we’re going to do something a little bit different. I’m going to read a poem for What I Like About the West, just shaking things up a bit, but also, if you have not listened before, or maybe you just need a reminder. This is the part of the show where we just feature someone talking about what they like about the West, and anybody can get involved. All you have to do is send us a 40 second to minute clip of yourself talking. You can record it right on your phone and send it into us the link is in the show notes and then you can get featured on our podcast. We would really love to share your voice and ideas, so send that over to us.
This is an excerpt from a poem called Seasonal Lines from Ursula K Le Guin. Down from the high hill of fall, a road goes through dark to cold, past a ring of great grey shouldered stones that keep the secret of the moment when the unseen sun stops and turns. I love the intersection of science and sci-fi and poetry and nature. It’s really my favorite. And Ursula K Le Guin is from the West Coast, lives up in the Pacific Northwest, so not fully Wild West, but you know we’ll take it.
Alright, everybody. Thank you so much for tuning into this episode. It’s always so great to spend this time with all of you coming up. Next we have a few different things and you’ll just see when they get here. But we are doing a lot of things around sponsorships and donors and sharing the stories of the people that work with us, kind of as an end of year gratitude celebration story time. So definitely tune in for that, because we have so many amazing partners that we work with and I hope you’re having a beautiful fall equinox. As we step into this new season I hope you have many bountiful moments, Alright, see you next time.