The Irrational-ness of Irrationality
Insights into understanding the human psyche, and how it relates to behaviour change, can sometimes be made from what at first glance appears to be an unrelated incident.
Raffaele Bendandi, who died in 1979, had correctly predicted earthquakes during his lifetime based on planetary alignments.
The level of panic was such that Rome’s city hall had to open a toll-free number to handle calls and calm people down.
How is it that this prediction became so real for many people that they would call the police for advice, or shut their businesses and flee the city?
A devastating 2009 earthquake that killed over 300 people in L’Aquila, barely 100 kilometres from Rome, may have been a factor. An event that was both recent, and which occurred close by, could well have made Romans feel that there was a real likelihood of the earthquake occurring – and Mr Bendandi clearly had some authority, based on his track record of previous successful predictions.
Was peoples’ reaction because the prediction was attached to a specific date and a specific place? Possibly.
Yet the anticipated date of 11 May was never actually cited by Bendandi in any of his documents, according to the president of the Bendandi Foundation.
Also, there is a long list of predictions that have been made about specific dates and places that never eventuated – and yet people continue to respond in similar ways to both existing and new predictions.
Students of psychology and social change will have a good opportunity to document and case study this very issue over the next twelve months. The New Year is almost upon us, a year synonymous with the date 21 December, 2012 and the Mayan calendar – and although there is a great deal of ambiguity and misunderstanding around the meaning of that date, it’s a safe prediction to make that there will be an increasing level of anxiety and concern about it up until the dawn of 22 December, 2012.
Now consider all of this in relation to climate change – or any other phenomenon that threatens human wellbeing and survival.
Sustainability communicators everywhere have been discouraged from using ‘doomsday’ approaches and apocalyptic messages (also known as ‘climate p*rn’) as methods of motivating people with respect to climate change because they engender fear and despair in people – ie. they don’t work. The gradual, non-specific, long-emergency, boiling-frog nature of climate change and other large-scale trends are also cited as barriers to action.
Yet when it comes to prophecies and predictions, ‘doomsday and apocalypse’ seems to be effective in terms of convincing people and motivating them to respond, and time scales somehow become irrelevant – the Mayan Long Count is over 5,000 solar years!
What the hell is going on?!
Why is it that people can, and will, whip themselves into a frenzy over what 21 December 2012 might bring in relation to doomsday theories, yet we cannot seem to muster the same urgent response to masses of data interpreted by thousands of people who have expertise in their area, warning us of impending catastrophe from messing about with the chemical balance of the atmosphere?
Is it that myth, prediction and prophecy are so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that we more readily respond to these than we will our best science? Prophecy is a story, and a story is common trait across cultures and time, its in our cultural DNA. For millennia, knowledge has been transmitted through story and myth, not data and reason. Science is new to us, only a few hundred years old by comparison. And we know that human beings do not operate on the basis of our rational brain alone.
Does the answer to addressing climate change, loss of biodiversity, and other sustainability challenges lie in creating a (faux) prophecy of some sort?!
But seriously – have we been going the wrong way about this? Can we somehow harness this phenomenon?
So change agents, activists – do not despair if your approaches don’t always hit the mark. It seems that even irrationality itself is irrational.
What other explanations might there be for fear/doom/apocalypse being a ‘turn off’ in relation to climate change, and a ‘turn on’ in relation to prophecy and predictions?
Have you encountered any similar paradoxes in your work?