How emotion beats rational thought when it comes to infrastructure developments

Whenever a contentious or controversial infrastructure proposal is announced, people will judge it based on emotion not rational thought.

Yes, this is a sweeping generalisation, and as we’ve pointed out before here on the 52M blog, communities and stakeholder groups are far from homogenous - but it’s still pretty true in most respects.

This is important for a number of reasons, not least because it calls for a re-think of how you frame your conversations with those that could be affected by your plans.

When you refer to ‘emissions and discharges’, for instance, in their minds eye, a good proportion of people will conjure up images of Victorian factories belching out black smoke from countless chimneys, whilst pouring a toxic brew of sludge-like remnants into the nearest river.

Refer to potentially affected residents as ‘receptors’ (a common technical term in environmental permitting and planning circles) and you’ll come across as being cold and uncaring.

Language is therefore crucial.

This is especially so if your proposals attract the attention of organised campaign groups who also know that emotive arguments play better than rational, scientific ones.

For instance, when you say that your development will increase HGV movements on local roads by just 2% compared with an observed baseline, they’ll say that means local children are 2% more likely to be injured in a road traffic collision. Provable statistics on your part, an emotive and largely subjective analysis on theirs - but you can guess which will resonate more with local people.

The Brexit referendum in 2016 is instructive. The Remain campaign focused on facts: economic analyses that showed leaving the EU would be bad, open letters in the press signed by big company CEOs that shared more facts, and a leaflet through everyone’s door from the Government that was also very fact-orientated. The Leave campaign, on the other hand, was largely dominated by emotive arguments that appealed to voters on a more esoteric level, driving a gut-feel reaction. As we know, the British public narrowly voted to exit membership of the EU.

Researchers in California believe that it is a function of the way our brains are wired.

Their study conducted by the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California (USC) and Project Reason examined the activation of different brain parts when strongly held political beliefs were being challenged.

It suggests that the political beliefs of participants had become emotionally linked to their personal identity and sense of community.

“The insular cortex is a part of the brain that processes feelings from the body,” said Sarah Gimbel, a co-author of the study. “We know from other research that it’s important for emotion and emotional salience—like how emotionally important something is to you. The fact that we saw increased activation in this region…shows us when we feel threatened or anxious or emotional that we’re less likely to change our minds about these strongly held beliefs.”

This tells us that if a stakeholder group of relevance to you and your proposals develops a strongly held negative belief about a particular aspect of your plans - and you want to try and change that - you’re going to find it difficult to do so with reason alone.

The key takeaway here is that developers of potentially controversial infrastructure shouldn’t be afraid of using emotive arguments provided that they are backed-up by solid facts, because we humans are emotional creatures after all.