The Battle for Attention


“Climate change widespread, rapid, and intensifying” (IPCC)
“Climate change: IPCC report is code red for humanity” (BBC)
“The U.N.’s Terrifying Climate Report” (The New Yorker)

Did you feel uneasy when seeing the above headlines recently? How about this: “World’s scientists say disastrous climate change is here” (Politico). Terrifying, disastrous, code red. Are you surprised? No? Me neither. We have known for quite some time that this is the direction we are heading in. But are we living in a bubble? Looking around in the developed world, how many people agree with the report? How many people even know of the report or the IPCC for that matter? “Many”, “a lot”, “almost everyone” you might say but I’d argue that you have fallen victim to biases here, considering information that is readily available and might not be the most representative. Yes, you and your immediate friends will most likely agree but what about your cousin’s best friend? The one that spends all day on social media looking at dance videos?

Let’s start with a little thought experiment. Identify 10 people with two degrees of separation. The ones you don’t really know but know of sufficiently to answer the following question: “Do they know of the IPCC findings and if they do, do they care?” For how many people would you say the answer to both is yes? Actually, it doesn’t matter what number it is unless the answer is 10 and frankly, I doubt many of you got a perfect score. Yet, at the same time these people matter. A lot! Their actions will have an impact on the well-being of your children, your grandchildren, and all the generations that follow. Looking over at my beautiful baby daughter while writing this, I can’t help to shiver a little when I write this. Yes, your cousin’s best friends matter, their actions matter.

This creates a huge obstacle, of course. Solving climate change is a monumental challenge. Actually, it is the most monumental challenge the human race has ever faced. A moonshot so important yet difficult we need to approach the mission from a point of full inclusivity. As such, how do we create mass awareness and turn this awareness into behavior change? If most people either don’t know about or don’t believe in climate change, then how can we achieve the required collectivism?

Here’s the thing. The term moonshot derives itself from the fact that we made it to the moon, meaning we can do it. And we, the media and entertainment sector, can contribute to achieving this mission by applying behavioral science, which is one of our most important tools.

So, how can we become better at communicating and inspiring action? Looking at myself, I am clearly failing. If I post in the wonderful echo-chamber called LinkedIn about climate change and the need for action, these are the two most likely outcomes:
I reach a lot of people that already agree with me.
For those that don’t agree, the material, or my communication about it, does not generate sufficient attention to absorb it.
It is always painful to realize that you are failing at something, but that pain is amplified when it is something that truly matters. Still, I do believe that by approaching this problem scientifically we have a chance of addressing it.

Now, you might say, “Oh no this sounds sciencey, bye.” But if you are in the media and entertainment industry, please bear with me a little.

This article is about you becoming the hero, the ones that contribute to saving our planet. Sounds a little more interesting? Good, let’s move on.

Let’s take a scientific report as an example. Something basic: animal agriculture’s impact on climate change. You send it to your cousin’s best friends. Mission accomplished, they will read it, take the recommendations to their heart and the world will become a better place. No? So, what could have gone wrong?
They didn’t open it.
They opened it but immediately disregarded it.
They started reading it but didn’t finish it.
They finished it but didn’t feel sufficient emotional stimulation to consider the recommendations.
They felt sufficient emotional stimulation, but the number of recommendations felt overwhelming.
They acted on the recommendations but didn’t continue to do so.
Let’s start by addressing problems number one and two in one go as they are interrelated. We need to get someone’s attention but avoid alienating a large, and important, part of the audience through sensationalized openings.

Getting someone’s attention is easy. Who hasn’t heard the expression “if it bleeds it leads”? There is a psychological cause for this: negativity bias. In Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion, Paul Rozin hypothesized that humans give greater weight to negative entities. It is only natural then that we are served headlines that satisfy this need.

This is of course problematic, especially in the context of the news industry, as this negativity bias comes with a heavy dose of sensationalism and political polarization – a very toxic cocktail. In 2014, the Pew Research Center released an interesting study: Political Polarization in the American Public. Here, we could see how Republicans and Democrats are more ideologically divided than at any point during the previous two decades. Moreover, in 2020, Pew released U.S. Media Polarization and the 2020 Election: A Nation Divided, where it showed that each side deeply distrusts the other side’s trusted news sources.

Why would this be such a big problem you ask? If something is factual it must resonate with the audience, right?! Right? Unfortunately: No.

The brain is beautiful, the most amazing outcome of evolution, holding 3 million miles of neural connections — enough to stretch to the moon and back 12 times. So many miles, yet so little volume. Yes, the brain takes up only 2% of our body weight while accounting for 20% of our energy use. Maybe we should just think a little bit more to get in shape? Either way, the outcome of all of this is that the brain has an autopilot function that preserves energy. Most decisions can be explained by this autopilot. One such autopilot response is rooted in tribalism.

In Language, Cognition, and Human Nature, Steven Pinker explains, “People are embraced or condemned according to their beliefs, so one function of the mind may be to hold beliefs that bring the belief-holder the greatest number of allies, protectors, or disciples, rather than beliefs that are most likely to be true.” Put simply: The brain is optimized to minimize friction, disagreement with your in-group creates friction, ergo the brain might believe in something that is factually false for the sake of social acceptance. So, if a group believes in something that is factually false and the group’s view is becoming increasingly skewed on the back of sensationalized media then reaching each member with facts is becoming increasingly hard. Don’t believe this is true? The underlying concept, “Cognitive Dissonance”, is well-studied and I recommend Leon Festinger and colleagues’ When Prophecy Fails. Here, the authors describe in beautiful detail their most famous experiment: Embedding themselves in a cult led by Dorothy Martin who believed that spacemen would come in flying saucers to save believers from a flood. Needless to say, no flying saucers or floods arrived but instead of giving up, the believers doubled down. If we can’t convince cult members that no spacemen will arrive against clear evidence, how can we convince climate change deniers that climate change is in fact real and manmade? This is not a trivial quest. As we will see later, it’s often not a belief that drives action but rather the reverse. However, our brain’s filter may prevent such action by filtering the information that may trigger such action.

In summary, your cousin’s best friend may not open the article because it is published by an institution that is generally not aligned with her worldview. Next, even if she reads the article, she disregards the facts as they don’t align with her belief system or even the belief system of her in-group.

Two questions arise from the above. Can we change the news industry? Are there other forms of media that might offer a better entry point into peoples’ minds? I honestly believe the answer is yes to both.

Regarding the first point. So far, climate change deniers in political offices have gotten away with their claims due to humans falling prey to temporal discounting: the lessened ability to perceive the real impact of an event the farther away in the future it is. Can they continue to hide in the shadow of the future? ProPublica is showing how the US will transform due to climate change. We will face lower crop yields, increased human death rates, and overall, severe economic consequences from climate change. This will happen not only in our lifetime but more importantly during a time where current politicians might still be in office. As a matter of fact, it is already happening today, look at Fair Bluff North Carolina. At some point, voters will surely come to realize that past narratives were false, causing a backlash. As George W. Bush put it “Fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.” Jokes aside, say what you will about politicians, many, if not most, are intelligent and calculated and can be steered to a new narrative if the right frameworks are applied. The news media will follow.

Regarding the second point. I am confident there are other media and entertainment touchpoints that offer an interesting entry into peoples’ minds. Pre-Covid the global box office stood at over US$40 billion and while it is steadily falling, Netflix alone has grown to 200 million subscribers. Moreover, over half a billion people visited major theme parks in 2018 according to the Themed Entertainment Association. Note the emphasis on major i.e. this doesn’t yet include emerging formats such as Meow Wolf, a creative powerhouse that attracts over 500,000 visitors in its Santa Fe location and is expanding into major hubs such as Las Vegas and Denver. Also, witness the rise of the Van Gogh experiences, a touring format that is visiting all but three of the 35 major metropolitan areas of the United States. The main point I am trying to make: These industries are huge, and they provides the benefit of uninterrupted attention for a longer period of time. All within a nice, non-political, candy wrap of family-friendly fun. This is precisely the reason why we are focusing on this industry with our Impactainment concepts. Luckily, while generating impact in the entertainment vertical is the low-hanging fruit, the same frameworks apply to the aforementioned uphill battle of political influence.

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