How we perceive risk & make decisions, with Dr. Sabine Marx

Dr. Marx Dr. Sabine Marx Earth Institute Columbia University

How we perceive risk & make decisions, with Dr. Sabine Marx

By Flannery Winchester

Each month, Citizens’ Climate Lobby hosts an online meeting featuring a guest speaker to educate listeners on topics related to climate change and our Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal. Check out recaps of past speakers here.

How do we make decisions when something is uncertain? How do we perceive risk? How do we choose to change our behavior? Dr. Sabine Marx, a social scientist from Columbia University’s Earth Institute, joined our January 2018 call to explore these questions in the context of climate change and CCL’s advocacy work.

CCL Executive Director Mark Reynolds welcomed Dr. Marx with this quote from German author Thomas Mann: “Democracy is the only system build on respect for the infinite dignity of each individual man and woman; on each person’s moral striving for freedom, justice, and truth. It would be a great error to think of and teach democracy as a procedural or political system or as the principle of majority rule.” Dr. Marx agreed heartily, saying, “We do have a great responsibility in keeping the democracy that we have going, and improving it.” Throughout her presentation, she offered information to help us do that more effectively.

Risk communication

Dr. Marx started off providing some background on how people perceive risk, which weighs heavily into how they respond to climate change. “People don’t heed warnings,” she said, citing the example of people who choose not to evacuate even when a hurricane or some other extreme weather event is bearing down on them. Why? Dr. Marx explained, “Because risk perception is subjective. I may be afraid of very different things than my neighbor, and I will pay a different level of attention to the respective information that is available.”

CCL volunteers should keep this in mind when talking to someone about climate change, understanding that they may not perceive climate change as the same risk that we do. “Not because they don’t have the knowledge or the cognitive capacity—there are psychological reasons,” Dr. Marx said. Good news: Once we understand those barriers that prevent accurate information processing and good decision making, we can overcome them.

Getting emotions involved

Dr. Marx presentation to Citizens' Climate LobbyPeople aren’t purely rational—emotions, or “affective processes,” are involved too, as are their beliefs, values and goals. Dr. Marx showed the cartoon at the right and asked, “What makes you jump?” Very often, scientific charts and graphs about rising emissions and temperatures don’t produce an emotional response of fear and concern—they may not make you “jump.” CCLers can be mindful of this and seek out opportunities to connect with people’s emotions, which makes them much more likely to act.

“One way to achieve greater emotional response and engagement is by using frames,” Dr. Marx explained. Framing something as a potential loss rather than a potential gain can be very powerful. “People are usually willing to go the extra mile to avoid losses,” Dr. Marx said. “Losses loom larger—we are loss averse.”

To illustrate this, Dr. Marx painted a picture: Imagine that someone offered to pay you $100 for listening to her presentation. “That sounds pretty good,” she said. But now imagine that before you can sign off of the national call, you have to pay $100. Generally the response to losing that money is much more intense.

Dr. Marx presentation to Citizens' Climate LobbyOne other thing to keep in mind is that people have a limited number of issues they can be concerned about. So when possible, linking climate change to another of their priorities (the economy, national security, etc.) can be an effective way to get through to them.

Providing social context

When the Paris Agreement was being negotiated, Dr. Marx said, social context was a big deal: “The U.S. wonders what India will do. India wonders what China will do. China says, ‘Well, if the U.S. doesn’t participate, then we won’t participate.’” Being in a group setting motivates a concern for others and activates an awareness of others’ goals.

“I think CCL, with its emphasis on relationships, goes a very long way here,” Dr. Marx said. She pointed out that our approach to lobbying, which always starts with an appreciation, creates a group setting that encourages more willingness to act on our proposal.

Leading with solutions

“Some problems are perceived as too big to solve: climate change is one of them. It’s very often viewed as something that’s paralyzing and there’s nothing we can do about it. If we feel overwhelmed by a problem, we don’t want to think about it,” Dr. Marx explained. But as we know in CCL, there are solutions that can drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions while supporting the economy, such as our Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal.

Dr. Marx said, “Knowing that there are ways to tackle a problem makes us more likely to accept the existence of the problem.” So not only do we offer the solutions, but in fact, we lead with the solution. “Being part of a solution can lead to greater overall support of a cause and collective action,” Dr. Marx said. “I think leading with solutions is really important.”

To hear more from Dr. Marx and ask her your own questions, join the Citizens’ Climate University session on January 25.

Flannery Winchester
Flannery Winchester has put her words to work for magazines, for marketing agencies, and now for our earth as CCL's Communications Director. She is grateful to spend every day working to preserve this beautiful planet.