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? …