What Makes People Care?

The following article by Environment North board member Scott Harris was first published in the Chronicle Journal in October, 2019.  

What makes people engage with an issue, and adjust their behaviour?
About 250 years ago, slave trader John Newton had an epiphany when he narrowly escaped death, and subsequently championed the abolition of slavery. In 1787, he joined with others to found “The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade”. Their campaign included stories on the horrors of slavery, images publicizing their message and a boycott against sugar. The British Parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, in 1807.
An emotional connection seems key. Many people advocate for a cause after a loved one is stricken with a life-threatening disease. Having a child can refocus one’s attention and change priorities in a hurry. And there’s nothing like coping with the aftermath more frequent “100-year floods” or devastating wildfires to get one thinking about climate change.
The article “The Science of What Makes People Care” in the latest issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review offers insight into effective communication that can inspire people to change.
Tapping into emotions is the key to five principles they offer, quoting poet-laureate Maya Angelou, “People forget what you said, or what you did, but not how you made them feel”.
As an educator, I found that no significant learning takes place without emotional engagement. Those “aha” moments are critical to the learning process.
The first principle is to join the community you wish to engage with. People seek information that makes them feel good about themselves, so step into their world by listening, and avoid preaching. For example, rather than being the climate change expert telling people they must reduce consumption of meat and dairy products to help reduce greenhouse emissions, the documentary Game Changers showcases elite athletes who thrive on plant-based diets.
The second principle is to use concrete, positive images. The authors cite Martin Luther King’s liberal use of positive imagery, such as a picture of black boys and girls holding hands with white boys and girls.
The third principle is to invoke emotion with intention. The Thunder Bay Environmental Film Network showcased films designed to raise awareness of global threats, but the best attended films by far were those that celebrated the stunning array of natural wonders that we are currently able to enjoy. The Thunder Bay Field Naturalists take this approach, sponsoring events that get folks out into the natural environment, going so far as to purchase and protect tracts of wilderness so that future generations can enjoy them.
Principle four is to create meaningful calls to action. In the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, the goal was to end racial segregation. The specific call to action was “Don’t ride the bus!” and people responded by walking, riding a bike or car-pooling. A school classroom challenge to reduce waste and increase recycling is manageable and measurable, and a source of pride. Such projects can also be extrapolated to show children how their actions help solve larger problems, such as plastics in lakes and oceans.
Principle five: tell better stories. Good photojournalists excel at this art. When the faceless picture of Aylan Kurdi’s tiny body washed up on a beach in Turkey, donations for refugees poured in, as we imagined a child we loved in his place. And who can forget Gordon Downie’s exposé, in music and art, of Charlie Wenjack, the Cree boy who froze to death while running away from a residential school.
The article concludes that “people fail to act not because they don’t have enough information, but because they either don’t care, or don’t know what to do.”
The above five suggestions, based on scientific research, can help guide us to more effective campaigns for change, by first listening to discover what people think, and then finding those triggers that will engage them in ways that connect to what they care about.
Given the urgency of issues facing mankind, it seems like a better bet than waiting for an epiphany (or a disaster) to strike. Scott Harris is a board member of Environment North and a retired principal.