Everyone has heard of Pavlov’s dog: When you ring a bell and give them food, they will, after a few times, salivate just by the sound of the bell. They are primed to the bell.
Close your eyes and imagine taking a big bite out of a juicy, yellow lemon. Depending how good you can imagine this, you will start salivating. You are primed (just like the dogs).
This is called primary reinforcement, the direct effect on our bodies.
The language that we use triggers those effects.
If I use metaphors that you are familiar with, it reinforces certain pattern in your brain.
There are primary reinforcers that are cross cultural and pre-lingual. They speak straight to the amygdalae, bypassing your neocortex.
up = good
down = bad
warm = kind
cold = bad
clean = good
dirty = disgusting
weight = good
shame = bad
The amygdalae responds to these concepts. For example, there is research showing that when people are offered a cup of tea when welcomed, compared to coke, they will perceive the person welcoming them as more kind when offered tea.
If you leave people feeling shameful, they will not listen to the message.
Climate change triggers shame, because it’s over-stepping our amygdalae’s idea of ‘tribal thinking’ – we are good, they are bad. Climate change is caused by all of us, and the constant messages suggesting we can switch of the light or shower less, make it clear, that it’s in our hands.
In this sense, global warming might actually sound positive to the amygdala – kind warming.
There is no way of escaping this mechanism, but once we are conscious and aware of it, we can notice our own reactions and we start to understand why many of us are reluctant to touch this topic.
It also means that we – if we are talking about climate change – need to be careful about the words we use.