Wednesday, February 13, 2008

mental models

i'm excited to look at this book. i just finished writing a book review on a volume that looks at how to communicate climate change effectively to (what boils down to) a lay audience with the specific goal of engendering support for mitigation policies. i argued that it was useful for a transportation and planning audience that usually gets (understandably) frustrated when their policies don't find traction. a key lesson is that individuals carry around mental models, groups of understandings that they use when living a life in the world. but they're not necessarily necessary for them to function. one example is a mental model of home thermostats. people need this to interact with their thermostat on a day-to-day basis. their mental model (either the valve or feedback, in this case) informs their understanding, and although one is technically incorrect, at the end of the day, they're warm.

in the case of the climate, we've got a bigger problem. people hold mental models about the climate system that are incorrect, and this can affect their support for climate policy. if my mental model says that (and this is common) the ozone hole is responsible for climate change (it's related, but only marginally), then my solution for climate change is to buy roll-on deodorant as opposed to an aerosol spray. a higher gas tax, a carbon tax, cap-and-trade, etc., all policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through pricing will not find a warm reception.

now, i'm not suggesting that everyone needs to understand the ins and outs of climate science in order to support policy. but they must not hold mental models that are grossly incorrect or misleading. it is not possible to simply swap mental models one for one. so one solution is to direct communication at groups with similar beliefs and values--groups who likely hold similar mental models. you can't simply barrage them with information, either. mental models are tenacious, and when faced with conflicting views the existing ones are made stronger. one option is to present long, sustained information (over periods of decades). this has sort of worked for anti-smoking ads and literature. we can't afford something similar with the climate.

one approach that seems promising is the match the messenger to the target population. if they are someone that the audience respects and can relate to, they'll be more willing to internalize the knowledge. that knowledge should be simple, too, and possibly tied to short term cost savings (if gas prices continue to increase, the lifetime costs of hybrid electric vehicles will be less than conventional internal combustion ones), better insulation, better windows (maybe) can save a ton on heating costs. these measures have short paybacks.

while in the long term society will have to incur costs, in terms of foregone consumption, short term cost savings are fine to get people on board and to begin helping their mental models evolve. (thicker walls means less heat can go through them. the heat comes from natural gas which, when burned, releases gases that act as a heat-trapping blanket in the atmosphere.) simple analogies to complex systems can work wonders.

back to the book mentioned at the top of the post. it got me thinking about the difficulties of being an interdisciplinary researcher. i often feel as though i'm jack of all trades but master of none. i hope this is due mostly to my relative academic youth, and that it will improve with time and hard work. i feel as though i shouldn't read that book because it's not directly related to any of my current projects, but that its knowledge is essential for me to progress. i'll continue to work through these issues as i progress, no doubt.

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