Like you, I am a fair-minded, considerate, person. The news I read, the stories I engage with, the information I glean is considered, compared, and compartmentalized against my existing understanding, which is itself, considered, compared, and compartmentalized – and so on. I am never told what to think. Frequently I am told what other people think, but never told what I should think. And if anyone tried, I would disengage.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing, it seems. But there’s a trapdoor.

‘I am never told what to think’ works on two levels as far as our cognition is concerned; explicitly and implicitly. Explicitly it’s easy to spot, ‘vote for me’, ‘I’m right when I say . . . ‘, etc. The implicit takes a lot more work to recognise, and is – arguably – more persuasive.

Flogging a dead norm

Maxwell Boykoff wrote a paper in 2007 called ‘Flogging a dead norm?’ for which he examined the reporting of climate change in US and UK newspapers during the mid-2000s. At the time scientific consensus ” . . . the perceived behaviour of the average person usually correlates with actual average behaviour”stated that climate change was human-influenced, with over 90% of scientists agreeing by the end of the decade. At the same time journalists were reporting climate science as a two-sided debate – a debate that didn’t really exist. This is significant, and a perfect example of the implicit message: irrespective of what’s said for or against anthropogenic climate change the presentation of the debate ‘tells’ us that the half of the scientists are for and half against, not +90 for and -10 against. This had a measurable effect on attitudes according to Ipsos MORI (2007) showing over 50% of the general population agreeing that ‘many leading experts still question if human activity is contributing to climate change’.

Is this just unnecessary whining? No. Relative prevalence informs our behaviour directly. Seeing a two-sided debate informs us that it is (it must be) a two-sided debate.

And we get that ‘answer’ as-if for free – it hardly touches the sides.

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At its most basic, this is normative behaviour at work – the perceived behaviour of the average person usually correlates with actual average behaviour. This is not to say that a normative understanding is inherently wrong – it’s not, as evolutionary psychology tells us it’s pretty useful to correlate the perceived behaviour with actual behaviour because it’s usually a ‘good bet’, and we don’t have to think too hard to be able to act on it. But that is also its downfall; we rarely see it for what it is because we adopt without looking.

[br]This is why the balance of reporting itself informs our opinion of the subject irrespective of actual content. I posit that we don’t realise it: and the evidence suggests I’m right. And by extension, I say that people in the media don’t know realise much presentation affects the understanding irrespective of the actual content.

The only way to deal with this – short of having ninety-seven manmade climate change scientists ‘for’ and three ‘against’ in a debate – is to question the presentation.

Whilst this is a problem of presentation in and for the media, it also a problem outside the media. In fact, it’s a problem unrecognised when presenting choice to your partner about where to eat for dinner as much as it is a problem unrecognised when presenting debate to a nation. You can’t avoid it. (You can only be vigilant.)

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• Oliver (LinkedIn) is author of the behavioural communication book Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour: 19 Ways To Ask For Change published by Routledge, available in most countries.
• Member of the Influence Advisory Panel
• Join the London Behavioural Economics Network Meetup group
• Join the London Behavioural Economics Network on Facebook

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