How we imagine

Imagine having a chilled beer on a hot afternoon. Imagine falling off a cliff. Which was more real? For me the beer was.

When you imagine something it feels like you draw on your cumulated experience of that thing. If you think about having sex or eating a mushroom omelette then you base the imagined experience on previous, actual experience. It’s like posting photos from the past into the future.

In the West lots of us experience more good things than bad things. At the extremes, there is asymmetry: if you have a really good experience, then you live to relive it. If you have the ultimate bad experience, then you aren’t there to remember it.

So our imagination is served by a larger store of good memories than bad memories.

This might help explain why we aren’t really worried about climate change. If we haven’t already experienced the tribulations of climate change, it’s hard for us to imagine them. And if we can’t imagine the bad bits of climate change, then we are not going to bother about it so much.

This might also shed light on the right-left divide on climate change. Right wing people don’t have much imagination because they are so fiercely rational. Left wing people do tend to imagine things – creative people are invariably left wing. So you could imagine that people with stronger imagination can compensate for the lack of experience of climate change and still create in their minds a compelling image of the troubles ahead. While right-wingers with weak imaginations find it hard to conjure up that internal image.

This speculation might not be right, but if it is there are at least two implications.

One, to help people with weak imaginations we do need to keep on telling stories. The role of film, novels and theatre is not trivial. They can replicate imagination in the dullest minds.[1] Great art might move us more than the EU ETS. With the EUA price scraping Euro 12 that wouldn’t be hard. Did someone say “tragedy”?

The second implication is about whether we give bad news or good news. We are perhaps more persuaded by good images because we can relate them to familiar good experience. Bad images are less compelling because we have less real experience to relate them to. So perhaps the optimists are right. Showing a fun low-carbon world is more effective than showing a grim, hellish high-carbon world. As they say, carrots are better than sticks. Well, the low-carbon world will have carrots … probably lentils and lots and lots of cabbage. Plenty of beer, too. Although I don’t know how we will chill it.

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[1] At this point a cynic will say that stories are exactly that – merely stories – but cynics will eventually fizzle up in their own bile. So we should ignore them.

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