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Mindful : December 2015
suggests something in their psychology is at fault. Psychologists think they know what. Perhaps the most important reason people don’t care, and don’t take the threat seriously, is that global warming lacks a face. Humans are social mammals, with brains fine- tuned for thinking about other humans. The price we pay for our ability to notice and understand humans is a blind spot for threats that don’t come from identifiable individuals. As a result, we worry more about health- care workers (identifiable individuals) bringing Ebola back from Africa than we do about influenza (sources unknown). Climate change also fails to connect psychologically because, as Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University has pointed out, “it doesn’t make us feel nauseated or angry or disgraced.” People are wired to rail against threats that do incite such emotions. “If climate change were caused by gay sex, or by the practice of eating kittens, millions of protesters would be massing in the streets,” Gilbert argued. What risks do incite emotional outrage of the kind that leads to mass action? Those with several characteristics. We become most outraged when a threat is visible (oil slicks, not the carbon dioxide behind man-made global warming), clearly tied to consequences (a toxic spill poisoning a town’s drinking wells, not the complicated chain of cause-and-effects from carbon dioxide to weather), and scarily exotic (dimethylhexachlorochem- ical, not the very gas that we exhale). Global warming fails on all these counts and therefore doesn’t trigger the outrage that goads us into action. Global warming is also hobbled by being distant in time and space. Our brains don’t react to threats to our futures and to far-off places as strongly as they do to threats that are here and now. Activists erred badly a decade ago in making the polar bear and its melting arctic home the symbol of global warming, which conveyed the message that this isn’t a threat right here, right now (or soon). “ When it’s about polar bears or Pacific islands sinking sometime in the future, it seems too psy- chologically distant to care about,” said Leiserowitz. “ People might know global warming exists and wish someone would do some- thing about it, but they don’t have an inexhaustible capacity for worry”: They have to focus their concern first on immediate wor- ries—things like feeding their kids and holding a job and getting from Point A to Point B alive. The pace of global warm- ing also keeps our brains from caring. Our senses are sensitive to—and alert to threats from—changes in light, sound, temperature, and the like, but only if the rate of change is detectable. Global warming, however, brings increased tem- peratures of fractions of a degree per decade. “ We’re not very good at picking up slow changes, much less convincing ourselves to care about them,” Leise- rowitz said. 20 mindful December 2015 brain science (858) 334-4636 firstname.lastname@example.org mbpti.org UCSD Center for Mindfulness Upcoming Programs Visit mbpti.org for full course descriptions and registration www.bridgingconference.org Group discounts available. Register now! Feb. 26 - 28, 2016 Catamaran Hotel, San Diego, CA Experiential Breakout Sessions ■ Workshops Research Sessions ■ Morning of Practice Keynote Speakers Include Prince Ea, Dr. Kristin Neff, and more MSC: Mindful Self-Compassion Intensive December 13-18, 2015 MBCT: Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy February 14-19, 2016 Mindfulness for ADHD: Training for Adults, Parents and Professionals February 19-24, 2016 MBSR: Teacher Training Intensive March 19-25, 2016