Is Neuro-Conservation the New Hope for Environmental Messages?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | April 24th, 2012 | 13 Comments
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living

Letourneau Creek

Big wads of plastic in the ocean that stretch for miles and disintegrating polar ice caps are the kind of news stories that tend to make us feel hopeless regarding conservation efforts. Why bother to change our light bulbs to compact fluorescents if our planet’s imminent demise is a speeding train that can’t be stopped?

The reason we have these feelings is probably the work of environmentalists themselves. They’re sending the wrong messages, if you ascribe to the new field of neuro-conservation.

Instead of focusing the spotlight on results of scientific studies that prove our planet is rapidly warming, or on statistics about alarming species extinction rates, they should be talking about how an ocean view will make us feel happy or standing among trees will arouse our feelings of peacefulness.

After all, selling us emotions is what marketing professionals have been doing for decades. They know that we don’t just buy a car; we buy how that car makes us feel — wealthier, greener or more in control. Using the tenets of neuro-conservation may just be the boost that environmentalists need to gain support for their causes in a world that’s overrun with more scientific data than we know what to do with — or pay attention to.

Hooked on a feeling

Instead of showing piles of junk in our oceans, the message should depict stress-free people enjoying a clean beach. ©Alek Komarnitsky

When it comes to purchasing a product, selecting a service provider or supporting a political candidate, people make decisions based on emotions. Coca-Cola uses happiness to sell beverages and Travelers Insurance uses love (and cute dogs) to sell insurance. But conservationists tend to present economics, facts and figures. And it’s not working.

Take, for instance, the issue of global warming. A recent survey conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication asked U.S. adults ages eighteen and older about the causes, impacts and potential solutions related to global warming and how our climate system works. Just 8 percent had enough knowledge to earn a grade of A or B on the set of questions. And while 63 percent believe that global warming is real and happening, 49 percent incorrectly think that the space program contributes to it, 47 percent erroneously say that fossil fuels are the fossilized remains of dinosaurs, and 42 percent are convinced that since scientists can’t predict the weather more than a few days in advance, they can’t possibly foretell the climate of the future.

This, after environmentalists have been calling the public’s attention to the dangers of climate change — with reams of statistics and reports — for decades. Neuro-conservationists believe environmentalists need to sell emotions, much as product marketers do.

Forest

After concentration-demanding situations, people recover faster in natural, green settings — such as forests — than in urban settings. ©John T. Andrews

If stress causes disease, for example, and disease reduces well-being, a reduction of stress will increase wellness. And if sitting on the beach and looking at the ocean reduces stress (which we know it does), then sitting on the beach should be regarded as a public health tool — and a less expensive one than prescription drugs. It follows, then, that instead of showing piles of junk in our oceans or dead fish, the environmentalists’ message should depict happy and stress-free people enjoying a clean beach. That, in turn, will lead to a more integrated, enlightened public policy and conversation about the environment, and access to coasts would be considered as city planning is carried out.

An article published in ScienceDaily, titled “The Healing Effects of Forests,” reported on a study conducted in Finland that found that after stressful or concentration-demanding situations, people recover faster and better in natural, green settings — such as forests — than in urban settings. Feelings of depression, anger and aggressiveness were lessened, and there was an increase in a feeling of overall happiness. Even ADHD symptoms in children were reduced.

Given the psychological research that confirms that direct contact with nature leads to increased mental health and psychological development, some people, such as Richard Louv, author of the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, have stated that “land conservation can now be viewed as a public health strategy.”

Collapsing compassion

The eco-community, however, is not taking advantage of such emotional selling points. Dr. Kelly McGonigal, author of the book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, notes that pictures are more powerful than words, but cautions that environmentalists who show the horrific scope of a problem with a devastating photo often end up alienating the very people they wish to inspire. It’s what Dr. McGonigal refers to as a “compassion collapse,” in which people wind up feeling powerless and then disengage from the issue.

After all, the idea that the ocean provides psychological benefits seems well known by marketers and realtors; otherwise, why would we spend our vacations by the sea or pay a higher premium for a home with an ocean view? But if we love the ocean so much, why then are so many of us now disconnected from it, and why do so many of our actions damage it?

Applying neuro-conservation methods to conservation messages offers great hope for motivating people to care about and act upon environmental issues. Positive emotions trump fear any day, and feel-good promises top lengthy and rational statistics and arguments. Why not harness those emotional rushes for the good of the planet?

What do you think? Do environmentalists need to change their media messages? Because I think a commercial starring Brad Pitt staring out to sea with a smile on his face is in order…

Happy trails,

Candy

Feature photo: Direct contact with nature leads to increased mental health. Land conservation should be viewed as a public health strategy. ©John T. Andrews


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Comments

  1. Every ad I see involving the beach also involves beer. I am not complaining. Just would like to have it switched up every once in a while.

    Travis | April 24th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  2. This is how I approach Be Green in Business seminars. Business owners are overwhelmed and confused everything they’re told to do and don’t know where to start. I give them simple first steps, some images of the damage so they know what’s going on and some images of the beauty so they know what we need to protect.

    I think you made a solid point and I really enjoyed reading it!

    Chuck Peavey | April 25th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  3. Great article Candice. I have been trying to do this for years by creating films that increase awareness and appreciation for nature rather than focus on the devastation. But people need to also be aware of environmental issues. I feel that if you are going present a problem you should also provide a solution. And the more direct people can participate in the solution the better – think globally, act locally.

    Jim Karnik | April 25th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  4. I enjoyed reading this Candice! Well written. You have put into words what we try to do here in South Africa! @Jim Karnik – I agree present the problem & solution act and get action from others!

    Jennie | April 26th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  5. I agree also. I think people who see conservation efforts as hopeless or negative are less likely to have that “What can I do to help” attitude. Also the negativity induces feelings of guilt which in turn often turns people off from environmentalists regardless of their efforts. It kind of makes us the bad guys… But negativity sells and the media, generally speaking, is far more interested in focusing on the bad instead of the multitude of environmental improvements over the years… It’s so important to encourage conservation and not intimidate people away form it.

    JennyValentine | April 26th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  6. When it comes to conservation, environmentalism or preservation, a balanced approach is essential. I agree, Candice, that when it comes to influencing the masses, an emotional or sensory approach has the greatest appeal, but one must deal with another reality, which is the force of economic and scientific persuasion on the business and legislative communities whose power to affect change is far greater than that of individuals and the majority of the electorate.

    The college professor who once argued with me that we should refrain from visiting wilderness areas because any human impact could bring about irreparable change represented an extreme point of view and a solution that was as potentially harmful as it was protective. How could a public ignorant of wilderness ever provide the advocacy necessary to assure its survival?

    When talking about balance, I am always conscious of the fact that when Congress created Yellowstone National Park in 1872, it was able do so only after convincing a majority of Senators and Representatives that the area to be set aside and preserved in its natural state had no resources of significant economic value. While much is made of the influence of the breathtaking representations by Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson who accompanied the Hayden Expedition of 1871 and 72, the politicians were less swayed by the emotional appeal of Yellowstone’s natural wonders than they were by the more pragmatic and economic considerations.

    It follows that there is a need for two approaches; one that will persuade politicians and the corporate community and another that appeals to the senses of “ordinary” people who are more concerned with their own and their families’ well being, however that is defined, emotionally, spiritually or physically.

    And while the marketing folks and lobbyists are building their campaigns, let’s not forget the importance of educating each new generation with all the facts. Otherwise, tomorrow’s task will only become more difficult than today’s.

    David Halpern | April 26th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  7. its very nice……………..

    ADRIAN ABDON | October 25th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  8. I agree also. I think people who see conservation efforts as hopeless or negative are less likely to have that “What can I do to help” attitude. Also the negativity induces feelings of guilt which in turn often turns people off from environmentalists regardless of their efforts. It kind of makes us the bad guys… But negativity sells and the media, generally speaking, is far more interested in focusing on the bad instead of the multitude of environmental improvements over the years… It’s so important to encourage conservation and not intimidate people away form it.

    ADRIAN ABDON | October 25th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  9. When it comes to conservation, environmentalism or preservation, a balanced approach is essential. I agree, Candice, that when it comes to influencing the masses, an emotional or sensory approach has the greatest appeal, but one must deal with another reality, which is the force of economic and scientific persuasion on the business and legislative communities whose power to affect change is far greater than that of individuals and the majority of the electorate.

    The college professor who once argued with me that we should refrain from visiting wilderness areas because any human impact could bring about irreparable change represented an extreme point of view and a solution that was as potentially harmful as it was protective. How could a public ignorant of wilderness ever provide the advocacy necessary to assure its survival?

    When talking about balance, I am always conscious of the fact that when Congress created Yellowstone National Park in 1872, it was able do so only after convincing a majority of Senators and Representatives that the area to be set aside and preserved in its natural state had no resources of significant economic value. While much is made of the influence of the breathtaking representations by Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson who accompanied the Hayden Expedition of 1871 and 72, the politicians were less swayed by the emotional appeal of Yellowstone’s natural wonders than they were by the more pragmatic and economic considerations.

    It follows that there is a need for two approaches; one that will persuade politicians and the corporate community and another that appeals to the senses of “ordinary” people who are more concerned with their own and their families’ well being, however that is defined, emotionally, spiritually or physically.

    And while the marketing folks and lobbyists are building their campaigns, let’s not forget the importance of educating each new generation with all the facts. Otherwise, tomorrow’s task will only become more difficult than today’s.

    ADRIAN ABDON | October 25th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  10. I enjoyed reading this Candice! Well written. You have put into words what we try to do here in South Africa! @Jim Karnik – I agree present the problem & solution act and get action from others!

    ADRIAN ABDON | October 25th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  11. Great article Candice. I have been trying to do this for years by creating films that increase awareness and appreciation for nature rather than focus on the devastation. But people need to also be aware of environmental issues. I feel that if you are going present a problem you should also provide a solution. And the more direct people can participate in the solution the better – think globally, act locally.

    ADRIAN ABDON | October 25th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  12. [...] Albert Einstein famously said that “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought” and multi disciplinary approaches to problem solving essentially go against a reductionist mindset, following a more ‘holistic’ approach to solving problems that otherwise escape solution. In ‘Blue Mind’, Wallace J. Nichols,attempts to bring together the seemingly disparate disciplines of marine biology, oceanography, cognitive science and various art forms to tread new ground in a field he has christened ‘neuroconservation’. [...]

  13. THANK YOU !!! I am a marine science student (switched over from neuroscience) and am working on a new way with science and conservation communication. My friend with similar interests told me about this article and it makes my heart happy and you have put it so well.

    Candace | May 28th, 2014 | Comment Permalink

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