Commentary: Engaging Hearts and Minds to Solve Problems

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 09.21.2009


One issue that often confounds me is the seeming tendency for humankind to continue behaviors that most relevant information would suggest are self-destructive. Over-consumption of sugary products is an example, and the fields of psychology and sociology are full of discussions about self-destructive behavior. Increasingly science is suggesting that individuals are not as free, both physiologically and psychologically, to make good choices, as we would like to believe. Today, however, I don’t believe we incorporate this reality into the process of creating solutions for major environmental problems; doing so may be the key to improving our chances of making significant change.


Any possible change in behavior first requires recognition that current habits or choices are not serving an individual or society well (identifying the problem) and second, determination of what needs to be done differently in the future (identifying the solution). In recent years there has been considerable research into two areas, memory and understanding, that directly affect our ability to reach and change the minds of individuals.(1) This research suggests that considerable careful thinking may be required to effectively convey messages related to needs for change.


In looking at how people file information and access their memories, research has recently identified that the sleep process is critical to the sorting, categorization, and prioritization of memories within the brain. Basically, the brain performs a number of electronic scans of the entire brain during the sleep process each night and eliminates memories of lowest priority, e.g. the fly on your windscreen at lunch or the color of the socks of the guy on the elevator – both things that you noticed but gave little value too. Researchers have likened this to an electronic wave that passes across the brain multiple times throughout the night that nullifies low power pulses, analogous to a flattening of the curve on a frequency chart. The highest peaks remain and the lowest ones are cancelled out. Interestingly, research also indicates that a key way the mind prioritizes its filing system is through the emotional importance applied to a particular memory. Hence the reason traumas are so memorable.


Concurrently researchers have been looking at human cognition and found that people’s ability to understand something is linked to the emotions it engenders, or doesn’t. Until about 30 years ago the primary theme behind the process of affecting human behavior has been described as “rational enlightenment;” meaning that if you explained something clearly and honestly to people they would likely understand and make rational decisions as a result. More recently the field of cognitive linguistics has looked at the importance of wording used in the process of discussion and found that we attach a higher level of importance to words that are considered “value-based” and engage the human emotional reactions, particularly to the extent that there is a match with existing beliefs. So not only are we wired to react strongest to emotional issues but also to those tied to our core beliefs. It appears that this value-based filter over-rides the theory of rational enlightenment, meaning that behaviors based on emotional values are unlikely to be changed through rational arguments.


The field of cognitive linguistics has grown primarily due to the power it holds in affecting political discourse. The power of “values based wording” is demonstrated in the fact that a well thought out, rational argument can be completely offset by loaded terms such as “that’s socialism” or “higher taxes” among individuals or groups whose emotions are triggered by those words. This is often true in spite of the fact many such people may totally agree with the rational side of the argument.


There is also a word of caution when it comes to using values based wording. In the same manner that yelling "fire" in a crowded theatre is illegal, it is not helpful (in the long term) to create panic through doomsday predictions. I still rankle at the memory of a solicitation I received 20 years ago from a highly respected environmental group, and one which I was then a member of, whose solicitation started with the approximate phrase “scientists can now predict with some certainty that the world will come to an end…” It turned out their scientists were actually talking about millions of years in the future, but I’m sure their “act now and donate” plea was heard loud and clear by a group of receptive individuals. And most assuredly the message angered others (than myself). These tactics may generate the desired short-term response, but they entrench emotional attachments that prevent constructive behavior change over the longer term.


The impact of values based wording is an extremely important consideration in trying to educate people about environmental issues. Those of us that try to provide accurate, rational information must be aware of the need to address the emotional side as well. Finding wording that engages both the rational and emotional sides of the brain, and doing so in a manner that is perceived as fair and honest is more than an art, and perhaps impossible in at least some situations, but is critical to building long-lasting solutions.


Several key examples of long-held but not necessarily correct assumptions are:


1) Higher gas prices are bad.
2) High taxes are bad.
3) Government involvement is bad.


These three assumptions, that higher gas prices, higher taxes, and government involvement are “bad” are widely held examples of phrases that trigger emotional responses from a large number of Americans. In all likelihood that is true for a number of readers of this commentary as well.


However, the rational side of these issues tells us that:


1) There is no evidence that higher gas prices have a net negative affect on standard of living. In fact, ALL countries with higher standards of living than the U.S. have significantly higher fuel costs. Perhaps we need to get past the fear of higher gas prices if we are to have a valid national energy program.
2) There actually appears to be a direct correlation between high taxes and high standards of living, both between states within the U.S. and between countries in the developed world. (i.e. States and countries with high taxes, including the United States, tend to have the highest standards of living).
3) The free market system is valuable and important. However, it is extremely difficult to mitigate environmental mistakes of billions of individuals in a free-for-all marketplace. Time-to-implementation is the critical factor that free-market economics has done a poor job of accounting for, especially related to environmental impacts. Thus there are clearly historically new situations where a government role is critical.


Hopefully further research will provide the values-based wording for engaging in this discussion, indicate the skills needed to get past these values-based filters and increase the likelihood of progressive solutions to large-scale environmental concerns before wide-scale devastation occurs. We have to engage both our hearts and our minds to solve these critical and complex problems. And we shouldn’t wait until our pants are on fire to learn match safety.


Dr. Jeff Howe

September 2009


(1) e.g., R. Stickhold, J. Hobson, R. Fosse, and M. Fosse, 2001.  Sleep, Learning, and Dreams: Off-line Memory Reprocessing.  Science 2 November 2001. Vol. 294, no. 5544, pp. 1052-1057.