Magazine article The Futurist

How Attitudes Shape Our Future: Our Feelings and Attitudes about the Future and Its Risks Can Lead to Either Triumph or Disaster. Using Global Warming as a Case Study, a Psychologist Explains Why

Magazine article The Futurist

How Attitudes Shape Our Future: Our Feelings and Attitudes about the Future and Its Risks Can Lead to Either Triumph or Disaster. Using Global Warming as a Case Study, a Psychologist Explains Why

Article excerpt

Our attitude toward the future could spell the difference between succumbing to disaster or triumphing over the odds. Attitude has critical implications for survival and is influenced by a complex web of personal factors. Optimists live longer than pessimists and tend to recover from illness faster. Your worldview can determine whether you interpret a situation as a threat or an opportunity, or even if you perceive it at all. These complex mental states determine how we act to shape our individual and collective destinies.


Attitude has several psychological components. A cognitive attitude is a consciously held opinion or belief, such as "I believe that human-made global warming is happening." The evaluative component is whether you consider a particular thing positive or negative, as in "human-made global warming is a serious threat." The affective component concerns the emotional tone or feeling: "Global warming scares me." Each of these aspects is important in defining the conative component, or disposition for action: "We should therefore reduce carbon-dioxide emissions immediately."

Many futurists and scientists act as if they have reached an attitude about something entirely rationally, but the component approach makes it plain that our beliefs are shaped by a dance of emotion and reason. Take the first statement: "I believe that human-made global warming is happening." There is a body of empirical evidence that supports this opinion. Graphs from tree ring, ice ring, and coral sample data show a significant rise in temperature from 1850; computer simulations predict rising sea levels, retreating glaciers, and thinning ice caps. At first glance, the leap to a rational belief in global warming seems obvious.

But as Thomas Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), each person and each common group of humans views the world through a conceptual framework or paradigm that knits the individual facts together into a coherent picture of the world. Indeed, facts are not separate from this world picture. Skeptics of global warming organize the above facts rather differently. For example, they point out that between 1940 and 1970 global temperatures went down even though carbon dioxide went up, that computer simulations are unreliable, and that correlation is not causation.

Of course, individual and collective paradigms are largely preformed before new facts are encountered, and they will predispose us toward certain propositions. A committed member of Greenpeace will likely accept the idea of human-made global warming more readily than an executive in the petrochemicals industry. But predispositions are often far subtler than this. Different kinds of training will change how a person organizes and interprets data. A layperson's global warming will differ from that of a climatologist's (or an oceanographer's or an economist's), regardless of his or her political opinions.

Differences in disposition become problematic in any debate where the stakes are potentially high. A common fault is to highlight the affective, or emotional, component of an opponent's disposition while forgetting your own. In one book, human global warming was labeled apocalyptic and a "panic theory," while in other publications, those who deny global warming have been called biased or even evil.

But preformed disposition goes beyond personal interest for or against an idea: Emotional dispositions affect how we see the world, especially when the evidence for a threat or promise has an element of ambiguity.

In fact, emotional disposition is our basic mechanism for triggering action. A part of the brain, the amygdala, constantly scans the environment and emotionally evaluates whether incoming stimuli represent threat, food, mates, etc. Abstract events also trigger emotion: How often do we find the news depressing or the score of our favorite sports team elating?

Future prospects are also laden with emotion. Imagined utopias are the result of hope and optimism and dystopias are often the product of fear. In a sense, even factual projections about the future--such as simulations of the results of global warming or projections of our technological capacity in 2050--are utopian or dystopian in that they can trigger strong emotions.

The emotional component of attitude has excesses. James Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia (Basic Books, 2006) and James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) are both informed by fear of the future consequences of reliance on fossil fuels. Lovelock's emphasis is on fear and action--however inadequate he sees it--whereas Kunstler veers toward despair. Kunstler minimizes or even dismisses as impracticable suggested alternatives to fossil fuel. Lovelock believes that it is too late to stop global warming, but makes a number of suggestions for radical action to mitigate its consequences and save as much of civilization as possible.

Both envision potential catastrophic futures with the impoverished remnants of the human race eking out a subsistence existence, but Lovelock fears whereas Kunstler almost revels. The only positive side Kunstler sees is the end to the alienation of modernity and a return to the close communal relations of our ancestors. This demonstrates a deep dislike of the present and adds a retributive element to his imagined catastrophe.

Lovelock, by contrast, has a number of suggestions to mitigate the crisis, including the replacement of fossil-based technologies with those that are significantly less damaging to the planet and a strong case for nuclear power. He differs from many environmentalists by his acceptance that certain kinds of technology might be used to help heal the Earth. Lovelock is a kind of optimist because, though he fears the worst, he proposes practical action rather than despair.

This is the most significant difference between hope and despair. A constructive attitude toward the future is not one that eliminates fear in favor of blind optimism, but one that uses all emotions as springboards for the conative, or action component of attitude. One problem with depression as a mental illness is that it tends to inflate the individual's perception of the hopelessness of a situation; if you believe a situation is hopeless, you are hardly likely to take action to prevent it from happening.

Assessing Risks, Imagining Solutions

One thing we need to know before we take action is whether a threat is really significant. In Emotional Intelligence (1996), Daniel Goleman points out that many of our emotional problems emerge from old learning, when the amygdala sends out alarm signals when there is actually nothing to be alarmed about. Research also shows that we generally overestimate threats like the chances of being in a plane crash or catching BSE (mad cow disease) from a hamburger and underestimate long-term threats like the possibility of getting lung cancer from smoking. This explains the apparent paradox of smokers refusing to eat hamburgers because of their fears of mad cow disease.

It is even harder to assess future threats like global warming or asteroid strikes, because there is a large subjective component in any decision to act. Statistics might tell us that there is a 1 in 100 chance of such-and-such a threat emerging in the next 50 years, but is this short enough odds to justify expenditure on a solution? How about odds of 1 in 50, or 1 in 25? The situation is even harder when the odds cannot be quantified in this way.

Situations requiring group decisions are complicated or even arrested by politics. Scientific data and empirical checks can act as reality checks, but only if those with the ability or authority to act are willing to listen. Since collective decisions are often made on the basis of the relative power of competing factions and not empirical evidence, it is easy to see why the conative (action-taking) component of collective decision making is often the most problematic.

But there is one final element that is crucial in any attitude toward the future: imagination. Kunstler's despair about finding an alternative for fossil fuels assumes that there will be essentially no significant technical innovation in the coming years--this despite the experience of the often bewilderingly creative twentieth century behind us!

More than 40 years ago, Sir Arthur C. Clarke said that if we fail to find an alternative to the fossil economy it will be because of incompetence and the lack of an ability to imagine a different, better world. Knowledge is nothing without an inspired attitude to interpret it, which is the essential ingredient in any pre-vision of the human future.

About the Author

Matthew Colborn has a doctorate in biological psychology and is a freelance writer with a special interest in psychology and the future. His address is Wakefields, 14 Hall Road, Haconby, Bourne, Lincolnshire PE10 OUY, United Kingdom. E-mail

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