Peter Sandman discusses here the three main types of denial. For a specific discussion by Sandman on climate change denial see “Climate Change Risk Communication. image from "resilience.org"
by Peter Sandman
The word “denial” has lots of uses and lots of definitions in different fields. Even within risk communication, the word gets used with widely varying meanings that are usually more implicit than carefully defined. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else. Without pretending to have come up with a definitive typology, let me try to tease apart three kinds of denial I think are important in risk communication.
All three matter mostly in precaution advocacy. And all three are in contrast to the usual core problems in precaution advocacy, ignorance and apathy. When you’re trying to rouse people to action about a risk, the principal barrier is generally that they don’t know enough or don’t care enough (or both) to take the risk seriously. Denial masquerades as apathy. Maybe some denial can even be seen as a kind of apathy. But it’s different from ordinary apathy in important ways.
Denial type one: It hurts to think about itIn my 2003 article on “Beyond Panic Prevention,” I wrote about denial as an antidote to panic: People so frightened they’re at risk of panicking go into denial instead. “Like apathetic people,” the article notes, “people in denial are reluctant to pay attention to the issue; if pushed to talk about it, they do so without emotion.” The key difference is how they respond to alarming information. “Apathetic people don’t have much initial interest in your warnings, but once you get through to them they become more concerned. But people in denial have a very different response: The scarier your message, the deeper into denial it pushes them.”
In this article and elsewhere, I have written about a number of ways to reduce and prevent this type of denial. Here are seven:
- Legitimate the fear, so it can be acknowledged and accepted.
- Provide action opportunities. People are less in need of denial if they have things to do.
- Provide action choices. People are less in need of denial if they have things to decide.
- Focus on victims who need to be helped and potential victims who need to be protected. Love is a bulwark against denial.
- If appropriate, focus also on malefactors who need to be caught and punished. Unless it escalates into out-of-control rage, or is itself denied, anger is also a bulwark against denial.
- Model tolerating fear, not being fearless. You’re finding it scary too, but you’re bearing your fear and addressing the situation – so maybe I can too.
- Stress determination but not necessarily optimism, rather like Winston Churchill in the dark days of early World War II: “We will fight them on the beaches….”
This 2009 column implies a much broader definition of denial than I was using in 2003. Now it’s not just fear that can make you “go into denial.” So can guilt, sadness, anger, and other emotions. And so can the uncomfortable feeling (cognitive dissonance) that arises when we can’t make attitudinal sense of our own actions or lifestyles.
The “Climate Change Risk Communication” column also lists some subtypes of what I am now calling “denial type one,” other than simply claiming the risk isn’t so.
- Isolation of affect – acknowledging the risk without feeling its emotional punch.
- Intellectualization – acknowledging the risk but finding ways to deny its importance or urgency.
- Displacement – over-reacting to some other risk in order to avoid focusing on this one.
- Humor – turning the risk into an object of ridicule in order to avoid having to take it to heart.
Denial type one is mostly unconscious. People don’t usually say to each other, or even to themselves, “I’m feeling too much cognitive dissonance to think about this” or “I’m too emotionally distraught” to think about this. They’re likelier to see themselves as simply apathetic about the risk … or to see you as simply wrong that it’s serious. You have to diagnose the denial in order to address it effectively.
Denial type two: I don’t need any more worries to think aboutI wrote about denial type two very recently, in my July 2, 2013 Guestbook response.
In a nutshell: People often shrug off a risk in order to minimize their distress. When very high distress trips an emotional circuit breaker, that’s denial type one. But even if I’m not especially distressed about an issue, I may well prefer to avoid becoming distressed about it. It’s not as if I were feeling some kind of stress deprivation. I have enough stress in my life already. So I blow off your warnings.
That’s denial type two.
In my July 2 Guestbook response I called denial type two “willed apathy.” Like denial type one, it’s a kind of motivated inattention. But the motivation is a lot less powerful and a lot more conscious than it is in denial type one. It’s not that I can’t bear to think about the new problem. I’d just rather not have to. Once you get me distressed enough about it to overcome my resistance, I’ll add the new problem to my worry agenda … and delete or diminish some older problem(s) to make room.
Denial type three: It’s futile to think aboutThis is the kind of denial you’re calling my attention to. It usually goes under the label “learned helplessness.”
Psychologist Martin Seligman and colleagues developed the “theory of learned helplessness” in the 1960s and 1970s as an explanation for depression. In a key 1967 experiment by Seligman and Maier, dogs that were shocked when there was no way to escape learned to bear the shocks stoically without trying to escape. Later when an escape route was available, they tended not to find it. Having learned that there was nothing to be done to stop the torture, the dogs became less able to learn newly available solutions.
At least in humans, the effect of learned helplessness isn’t just cognitive. The motivation to try new coping responses is reduced. And according to Seligman, an emotional state that resembles depression is inculcated; people who learn that they’re unable to control their own lives become passive and depressed.
As a risk communication concept, learned helplessness (denial type three) is issue-specific rather than global. Learning that we can’t do much about a specific problem makes us passive about that problem, disinclined to take action about it or even to find out more about it.
Denial type three can be conscious or unconscious. Some people – like you – announce that it’s futile to fight. Others just give up.
The boundaries between denial type three and the other two types are fuzzy. If someone’s learned helplessness gets so pervasive that it leads to depression, it starts to look a lot like denial type one: I can’t bear to think about it. The fuzziness works in the other direction too: People who can’t bear the emotional burden of addressing a problem – such as climate change – may defend themselves from that burden by insisting that the problem is hopeless. As for the border between denial types two and three: If you’ve already got too many problems on your worry agenda, it makes sense to focus on the ones that are likelier to prove solvable.
What can we do to fight learned helplessness – your own or someone else’s? I wrote about this at length in a 2012 Guestbook entry entitled “Why are people so politically inactive? Is it denial? Are they sheeple? What can be done?” In that response I tried to distinguish denial (“I can’t bear what I’m feeling”) from hopelessness/helplessness (“I believe there’s no point in trying”). Now I’m calling them denial type one and denial type three respectively.
The “obvious answer” to learned helplessness, I wrote then, “is to try to bolster your audience’s sense of self-efficacy. But I think that may be – in part, anyway – the wrong answer.” I continued:
According to the literature, the best way to increase people’s self-efficacy is to arrange for them to have mastery experiences; success breeds confidence. But there are other ways, most notably modeling (“if she can do it so can I”) and social support (“if he says I can do it, maybe I can”).This time around I want to add three more observations.
I don’t question any of that – but I think it’s probably close-to-irrelevant when someone’s low self-efficacy is mostly a rational response to reality….
Instead of cheerleading for efficacy, my hunch is that it will help more to get on the other side of the risk communication seesaw:
The myth of Sisyphus – the Greek king compelled to roll a boulder uphill forever – is powerful precisely because so much effort really is Sisyphean. It can’t be good risk communication strategy to try to convince people that it isn’t … or, worse, that they should feel like it isn’t whether it is or not.
- “This feels almost futile, doesn’t it?”
- “At most we can only help a little – and maybe not even that!”
- “Even if we win a battle or two, we’re probably not going to change the world.”
And yet things do change….
I think it is good strategy to acknowledge and even proclaim that change and unchangeability are both characteristics of life; that it’s hard to tell which of our efforts might make a (probably small) difference and which efforts are doomed from the outset; and above all that it’s more fun (“fun” in the most serious sense) to take your best shot than to stand around watching.
First, it’s worth noting that tasks often feel Sisyphean when they’re not. To pick one example out of many: I can only guess how discouraging the battle for gay rights must have felt until just the past few years. Governments and companies do everything they can to make their critics’ goals look unachievable. It’s often wise to ignore the impression of futility and pursue the goal.
Second, community organizers are professionals at overcoming people’s false sense of helplessness. Regardless of your political leanings, you’ll find much of value in books like Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Among other tips, Alinsky writes about the huge importance of early victories, even manufactured victories achieved by aggressively demanding something that was about to happen anyway.
And third sometimes we really are helpless. Sometime it simply makes sense to give up, and save our efforts for a more achievable goal.
The justly famous “Serenity Prayer” written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous asks God to “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I certainly don’t claim to possess the wisdom to know the difference.