Feeling is First

Feeling is First: Why Feelings are Important in Getting People to Respond to Climate Change


Authors Karen Spehr & Rob Curnow, Community Change, 2011


Logicians have but ill defined

As rational the human mind

Logic, they say, belongs to man

But let them prove it if they can.

 -       Oliver Goldsmith, Irish poet, 1730-1774


Changes to our planet’s living systems as a result of climate change are happening at lightning pace from an evolutionary point of view, but seem to merge into the slow background of our own lives. Even for those of us who understand the risks of climate change at an intellectual level, it can be hard to pay it proper attention on a day to day basis. We know we are vulnerable, we just don’t feel it. Earlier this year for instance, we attended an interstate conference on the environment. Truth be told we only briefly considered the possibility of not attending the conference and didn’t seriously consider not flying to get there. Although we can provide ‘valid’ reasons for our decisions (the train is inconvenient and time consuming, the benefits of attending a conference on the environment outweigh the costs and so forth) the fact is that a lot of the time, the issue of climate change just doesn’t feel dangerous, well not at the moment anyway. When we make these kinds of continual daily assessments of whether something like climate change is a risk to our wellbeing and what action we should take right now, it turns out that its our feelings rather than our thoughts that tend to win the day.


Theories from psychology and neuroscience show that we understand risk in two quite different ways. The first involves an ‘analytic’ system which uses strategies like probability, logic and sets of rules on how to solve a problem. It is relatively slow, verbal, takes quite a bit of effort and typically involves conscious work and control. The perceptions of risks by climate scientists for example are based on analytic processing. They reach their conclusions by gathering information, analysing it and drawing conclusions based on the evidence. Many of the skills needed to use our analytic system involve logical step by step procedures and rules and must be taught explicitly, requiring conscious effort and control. This evolutionarily newer system involves the neocortex, a structure found only in mammals and is associated with ‘higher’ functions in more evolved animals (like humans, primates and dolphins). In humans, this includes functions like conscious thought and language.


The second way in which we work out whether something represents any kind of risk to our wellbeing uses our experience of the world. This involves much older ‘paleocortic’ structures of the brain which often ‘override’ our slower, evolutionarily newer more analytical system. Our early evolutionary ancestors faced many, often sudden threats to their survival, including threats from other hominids just like them. We were most likely to respond to a threat when our nervous systems were aroused and we experienced intense feelings like dread, anger or outrage. Our ancient selves could not respond to every threat, big or small, as this would have led to a state of emotional and physical exhaustion. The most successful survivors were those of us who monitored our routine environment without getting too excited but then responded immediately to an unexpected threat when it happened. Through trial and error, through experience, we learned to associate particular events and images with our feelings about them. We experienced risk as a feeling. This told us whether it was safe to eat this strange looking substance or avoid the aggressive looking person coming towards us. It provided a fast, efficient system for making decisions about our safety in an uncertain and sometimes dangerous world.

Our feeling based ‘experiential’ inheritance is intuitive, pretty much automatic and not particularly accessible to our conscious awareness. Because we associate an event (or a risk) with a feeling, this incredibly fast reaction tends to operate in preference to our more ‘rational’ thinking based responses. Even in our modern environment, this preference serves us well to avoid immediate physical dangers such as avoiding a hot stove top, for example. However as psychology professors and environmental researchers Deborah Du Nann and Susan Koger point out, it was probably maladaptive for our evolutionary ancestors to attend to gradually worsening events and “(as) a result, our species is shortsighted and has difficulty responding to potentially catastrophic but slowly developing and harmful conditions. Rather than working to prevent such conditions, we ... delay action until the problems are large scale and readily apparent, at which time we attempt to respond. Unfortunately, by then it may be too late” (1).


People with a lot of practise in analytic thinking such as climate scientists are more used to setting aside their experiential responses if they don’t line up with the facts. Non-scientists on the other hand will often naturally rely on more feeling based experiential system in their ‘understanding’ of and responses to large environmental problems like climate change.


Nevertheless, how we perceive risk is influenced by both systems which interact with each other. When information from the two different systems disagrees however, it is the feeling laden, experiential system that prevails. If the feelings are very intense like dread, outrage, joy, awe, pleasure and pain, it’s these that are even more likely to be remembered (2). Someone with a fear of closed spaces for example often knows it is irrational and that it prevents them doing many things they would like to do (information from their analytic system) but they cannot suspend this view because the learned response from their experiential system fills them with dread every time they walk into a lift. Although they can understand the problem in their head, they cannot suspend the sense of immediacy and personal threat involved in their feelings.


Environmental problems including climate change often involve situations where there is a mismatch between the two systems. Analytic reasoning suggests to most of us that the problem is serious but there is no compelling sense of ‘feeling’ risk to accompany it. Understanding that climate change is a risk to our own wellbeing and that of future generations has often translated into numerous laudable actions in doing our bit for the environment but there are many times (like our own conference trip) where it just doesn’t feel like there is a threat to survival and we fail to act accordingly. Getting back on track in terms of our risk perception requires much conscious effort at times like these. The problem is that most environmental problems, requiring the analytical system to triumph, suffer the same fate.


In a series of studies designed to improve communication of probabilistic seasonal climate forecasts to rural communities in Southern Uganda (3), researchers attempted to improve the likelihood that the analytical system would prevail by broadcasting a series of radio programs in local languages on climate information and seasonal forecasts. ‘Farmer listening groups’ discussed the programs along with a facilitator from the project. While farmers drew directly on personal experiences, and their fear of unusually scarce or heavy rains and the potential impact on their families, they also however discussed the relative merit of different course of action such as crop selection, planting dates and redirecting labour to field preparation and planting during critical weeks as a result of their exposure to the radio program. While the feeling laden experiential system was at work, the analytical system was able to influence decision making and action.


Because feelings are a great motivator for action, our tendency to go with our experiential system also means that we are likely to act differently depending on the way a risk is labelled. For instance, we are more likely to response to threats of ‘mad cow’ disease’ than the more scientific label for the same condition, Creutzfeld-Jacob disease (4). In an American study (5), 65% of a group of republicans were willing to pay a carbon offset fee for items such as airline tickets, but when the same charge was labelled as a carbon tax, only 27% were prepared to pay. This phenomenon is well known to government spin doctors who are masters of the ‘reframe’. A 2005 New York Times article describes the advice given by Frank Luntz to the Bush government on what he termed the ‘New American Lexicon’. “A smart republican never advocates ‘drilling for oil', he prefers 'exploring for energy.' He should never criticize the 'government,' which cleans our streets and pays our firemen; he should attack ‘Washington’ with its ceaseless thirst for taxes and regulations. 'We should never use the word ‘outsourcing’ Luntz wrote, 'because we will then be asked to defend or end the practice of allowing companies to ship American jobs overseas’ (6). A similar effect can be seen in government use of the term ‘climate change’ (a term also often attributed to Luntz) rather than the somewhat more vivid image of ‘global warming’ or ‘global heating’.


Because our experiential system has evolved to speed our decision making about what is dangerous and what is not, it has also taught us to pay selective attention to certain features of a situation (like the feelings it generates) in order to speed the process up. So as part of our brain’s amazing ability to ‘navigate’ its response to our environment, we tend to use only that information which is required to make a decision about what to do. We organise our information into mental ‘maps’, organised shortcuts helping us to make a decision much faster than if we had to process all the information separately from scratch. The ‘risk as feeling’ phenomenon is a case in point as images or words where our emotions kick in are more available to memory and so provide a reasoning ‘shortcut’.

Whilst this process speeds up our ability to make efficient decisions, it often results in biases, like the labelling bias described above, where a different label for exactly the same thing results in us forming opposing attitudes or taking quite different actions. These biases mean that we over react to some risks and under react to others. Using emotive language that triggers our more instinctive ‘visceral’ reaction can provide an emotional early warning of a real, dangerous situation, but as information on climate change is often time delayed, abstract, and statistical in nature it does not evoke these strong feeling based reactions (7) and we are less likely to pay attention to it. 


Of course emotional appeals can be used to direct attention towards certain risks. The image of the grim reaper used in the AIDS advertising campaign in the 1980’s was successful because it was vivid, evoked strong emotions, and spoke directly to our experiential system. The 2004 American science fiction film The Day After Tomorrow on the catastrophic effects of climate change is another example. The power of images to produce strong feelings and influence people’s sense of risk in the short term can backfire however, paralysing us with fear and rendering us unable or unwilling to act.


The fact is we need both systems to effectively assess and respond to risks in our environment. Scare campaigns are no good if they inhibit positive action and scientific facts and figures will fail to lead us to action if we don’t feel any discomfort. Effective counsellors and therapists for example, are well aware that dealing with a personal problem may require various personal skills or intellectual insights but without some emotional discomfort, motivation to change is unlikely to be sufficient for people to start working on recovery.


Another reasoning shortcut is created by whether we perceive something as a loss or a gain. We tend to feel the loss of something more keenly than we do some kind of benefit. Avoiding the pain of loss and working towards the pleasure of gain both prompt action but it seems as if, in responding to risk, fear is the greater motivator. We are primed to selectively pay attention to information framed in a context of avoiding loss and, like the labelling bias described above, the intense feelings associated with it are more likely to lead to action. In work by psychologist pioneers Amos Tversky and Nobel Laureate in Economics, Princeton psychologist Professor Daniel Kahneman (8), researchers asked 152 people to "imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people” and asked them to choose which of two proposed programs to combat the problem they preferred. In the first program, people were told that "200 people will be saved" and in the second, "there is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved, and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved". Although both programs lead to exactly the same outcome, 72% preferred the first program. Another group of 155 people were given the same cover story but told that in one program, "400 people will die" and in another "there is a one-third probability that nobody will die, and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die". Again, although both programs lead to the same outcome, 78% preferred the program with the ‘safe and secure’ wording of ‘lives saved’. When the programs were presented in terms of expected deaths, people tended not to choose the seemingly more ‘risky’ wording triggering the psychological ‘pain’ of loss.


The ‘loss versus gain’ bias is often used in health messages that focus on the negative consequences of ill health, like the risks of cancer in smoking, which are more likely to be effective than those that describe positive health benefits. A study in the U.S used this tendency to increase people’s contribution to their superannuation schemes. During a three year trial, employees were asked to agree that a proportion from any future pay rise would go to their super fund, thereby avoiding the psychological pain of loss if they were asked for contributions from their existing earnings (9). The average contribution rate increased from 3% of earnings to 11%. Similarly, in an environmental study to encourage people to install thermal covers for their water heaters to reduce energy consumption, people were more likely to invest in one if it was presented as a way to avoid losing money, rather than as a way to save it (10). This simple strategy has obvious benefits in household energy audits, recommendations from which are often perhaps unwisely framed as ways to save money rather than ways to avoid losing it.


Reasoning shortcuts that lead us to respond using our experiential system rather than our analytic system are often operating whether we want them to or not. Although our human brains are complex, marvellously adaptive and capable of mapping our experience to make fast and efficient decisions, when we need to analyse and think, even for the long term survival of our species, we are frequently trapped by this evolutionary legacy. Included in the many and varied strategies we need to undertake to drive pro-environmental behaviour change, dealing with our feeling driven old brain has to be among them. 




1)    Du Nann Winter, D and Koger, S. (2004). The Psychology of Environmental Problems (second edition). New York: Psychology Press, p5.


2)    Lowenstein, G.F., Weber, E., Hsee, C.K and Welch, N. (2001). Risk as Feelings, Psychological Bulletin, 127(2), 267-286.


3)    Marx, S.M., Weber, E.U., Orlove, B.S., Leiserowitz, A., Krantz, D.H., Roncoli, C and Phillips, J. (2007).  Communication and mental processes: Experiential and analytic processing of uncertain climate information, Global Environmental Change, 17, 47-58.


4)    Sinaceur, M., Heath, C and Cole, S. (2005). Emotional and deliberative reactions to a public crisis: Mad Cow Disease in France. Psychological Science, 16(3), 247-254.


5)    Hardisty, D. H., Johnson, E. J., & Weber, E. U. (2009). A dirty word or a dirty world? Attribute framing, political affiliation, and Query Theory. Manuscript under review. Cited in Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges A Report by the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change (2009).


6)    The Framing Wars. New York Times, 17 July 2005.


7)    Weber, E. U. (2006). Evidence-based and description-based perceptions of long-term risk: Why global warming does not scare us (yet). Climatic Change, 77, 103-120.


8)    Tversky, A and Kahneman, D. (1981). The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice. Science, 211, issue 4481, 453-458.


9)    Thaler, R.H and Benartzi, S. (2000). Save More Tomorrow: Using Behavioural Economics to Increase Employee Saving.


10) Yates, S. (1982). Using prospect theory to create persuasive communications about solar water heaters and insulation. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz. Cited in Du Nann Winter, D and Koger, S. (2004). The Psychology of Environmental Problems (second edition). New York: Psychology Press, p173.


11) Oliver Goldsmith. (n.d.). Retrieved from Web site: