OpinionFlourishing Oceans09 Feb 2019

Why we need to harness brain science to get environmental messages to stick

Neuroscience is changing our understanding of how people think, learn and respond to change. How can we use this research to amplify our success in tackling global environmental challenges?

Manta rays in formation
A group of Manta rays collectively feeding on plankton in waters off Ashmore Reef. Photo Credit: Minderoo.

It is crucial that information on global environmental issues is delivered in a way that demands people listen, develop opinions and act. Cognitive psychology and neuroscience are showing us the way.

Environmental challenges including climate change and ocean health are often framed in terms of disaster, destruction, cost, uncertainty, and sacrifice. Negative framing rarely motivates people and has not led to a shift in public opinion to the extent that it has driven policy makers to implement the suite of significant changes the world needs.

We require a different approach. New findings in neuroscience are demonstrating that a stronger understanding of the brain allows us to better predict people’s reactions and understand why some common approaches to persuasion often fail while others succeed. Minderoo Foundation has sought to understand how we can apply this to our Flourishing Oceans initiative and other critical environmental projects.

What have we tried?

Scientists love data, especially the kind that can be used to create elegant models and charts that show the impact of environmental change. But neuroscience is demonstrating that people are not driven by facts or figures or data. Data works really well to reinforce views and beliefs you already have. Somewhat counter-intuitively, presenting someone with data that is in complete opposition to their beliefs, reinforces their beliefs.

We have tried fear and crisis to the point that people are switching off and not engaging with the message at all. Psychologists have shown that fear is only successful in two conditions: when you want to induce inaction and when your audience is already anxious. A good example of this was the anti-vaccination campaign – short on facts, big on fear-inducing emotions. Fear is a powerful reaction and severely impedes your higher order thinking, problem solving and your ability to be creative and plan for the future.

How can the latest research help us improve?

Some messages are difficult to deliver, particularly messages your audience might not want to hear. We need great data, research and information to uncover the truth and ensure we are well informed, but often, that isn’t enough. The tsunami of information we have available makes people less sensitive to data, and it is easy to find support for your own opinion with the click of a button (Google is always on my side).

So how do we ensure that we address people’s needs, desires, motivations and emotions so the scientifically robust information is heard and they are inspired to make the right decision?

Recent research in neuroscience suggests we can do this successfully if the messaging is well matched with the core elements that govern the workings of our brains:

Prior beliefs

What do people already believe? Not only can you find online support for any opinion, but your feed and search results are curated by algorithms designed to support your views. A member of an oceans-based environmental group will see different things in their feed to a commercial fishing company employee. Technology induced confirmation bias is a significant issue. Therefore, considering the outlook of others in our communication can help determine what messaging will best help them understand and engage with the issue. To successfully initiate change we need to identify common motivations.


Emotions are contagious. Our brains are designed to convey them quickly because, for example, it can keep you safe if you sense fear in others. Heightened emotions, positive or negative, impede rational thought, creativity and problem solving. Messages that focus on health, preparedness, ethics and opportunity are less likely to trigger negative emotional responses. Reframe your message so that the information you provide will induce hope not dread. This isn’t sugar coating, but reframing.


Offering rewards (pleasure) triggers action while feelings of loss (pain) trigger inaction. Looking at opportunity rather than sacrifice may provide a good incentive. Messages that reinforce how buildings, companies, cities, and societies with low emissions can be more efficient and competitive while also providing better jobs, for example.


How can we shape behaviour without taking away individual agency? If people are empowered to own the problem and consider solutions, they are more likely to engage. Through our messages we can encourage preparedness. How can we protect our oceans? What actions do we need to do now? Preparedness is less fearful and can inspire people into action, including applying political pressure.


Research tells us it is best to fill a knowledge gap with information people want to know instead of telling them what you want to get across. Information is only useful if people pay attention and they are more likely to do that if it is positive. If the knowledge you have fills another person’s gap, then highlight the gap and spark their curiosity. If it can help people benefit the world, help them understand how.

Connectedness, others and ethics

Connectedness is a human driver and recognising that in messages is important. Recent findings show that there is little public understanding of the importance of the ocean and the interconnectedness of this system within the broader environmental agenda. Messages therefore need to focus on protecting and caring for current and future generations and the planet as a whole.

Let’s move on from fear based campaigns, they haven’t worked so far!

Sarah Glenister
by Sarah Glenister
Sarah has worked in a range of strategic and change management roles and previously led a change management strategy to reconfigure seven hospitals and open a new tertiary hospital. She has since established a new statewide Mental Health service for young adults and an award-winning partnership with WA Police. Sarah works across all areas of the initiative with a focus on stakeholder engagement.
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