Erotica, Vaccines, Elections and Norse Gods: Emotional reactions to complexity are complicated

The ICCS group works across the world on a dizzying breadth of projects but to my mind there is one theme that links them all, social situations are complicated and your actions often have unintended consequences. This sounds like a bit of a platitude and maybe it is, but I think just the strength of that as a theme tells us a lot. If all the members of a large lab are spending their waking hours trying to understand the social forces behind just one topic, conservation, then the wider world must be hideously complex.

beowolfI think the interesting part is not that the world is complex but the way people react to that complexity. Complexity makes the world hard to understand which is quite frankly, terrifying. An unpredictable world means you can’t effectively plan for the future, but instead have to live with uncertainty. Possibly one of the most ubiquitous phenomena is inventing stories to explain the world, from Kipling’s “Just So” stories to legends about battling Norse gods causing lightning.

To me these stories are wards against complexity; they simplify the world, turn shades of grey into black and white making it more tolerable. The stories therefore become a critical emotional defence, one that you can’t challenge with logic. This is an established concept; a study on anti-vacciners found that providing more information made them more opposed to vaccines. This goes against the broadly held view that providing someone with more facts will help them make a more sensible decision.This is tough to deal with as a researcher; scientists experience this phenomenon just as much as everyone else. You want your results to show a clear finding, to have a nice figure and take home message.

It’s unsettling studying complex social situations, not least because which journal is going to accept an article titled “50 shades of grey”? How we as a field tackle this is up for debate, I hope we tackle it with frank honesty and admit when answers are messy and complex. It seems to me that we’re doing fairly well so far, conservation as a field has responded positively to this human mechanic in others and worked to overcome it by engaging people and developing trust. Terms like “stakeholder engagement” and “ownership” have become a fundamental part of how conservation practitioners interact with this complex world. We’ve learnt from the past and now we use these approaches to both understand and develop relationships, an essential tool in overcoming emotional defences against complexity.

Recent politics have made things appear polarised. I suspect however that as with conservation, the world is more likely to be grey rather than black and white. I don’t know what the solution is but I suspect the answer will have something to do with understanding, empathy and communication rather than cold hard facts.

Sam Lloyd (although inspired by EJ Milner-Gulland)