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SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

Discovering the Future: The Role of the Arts in Addressing Temporally Distant Environmental Risks

Hadjilambrinos Constantine

Doctor of Philology

Professor, the department of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of New Mexico

87131, SShA, New Mexico, g. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico, MSC01 1110, of. Department of Geography and Environmental Studies

Til Diana

Professor, the department of English Language and Literature, University of New Mexico

87131, SShA, New Mexico, g. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico, MSC03 2170, of. English Language and Literature




Review date:


Publish date:


Abstract: Risk perception research conducted over the past twenty years has revealed that risk perception is characterized by a dual process in which rational-analytic thinking is preceded by and, ultimately, shaped by experiential-affective response. Neuroscience research has further shown that all decision-making processes are based on an integration of affective and analytic responses. Perceiving and, more importantly, acting to mitigate risks is based on an individual’s visualization of the consequences of his or her action. People react to temporally distant risks only on the basis of their current experience, which allows them to visualize these risks. In risks with which there is no experience, such as the risks from global climate change, there is little to generate affective response and, as a result, risk perception is typically inadequate. A solution to the problem of perception of temporally distant environmental risks emerges when we understand that risk perception requires engagement of the experiential response system and that this system translates reality into images, metaphors, and, ultimately, narratives. The arts, including literature, the performing arts, visual arts, etc. are humanity’s primary means for creating affective meaning in both the present and future. This paper describes how the arts can explore and, therefore, discover the future, driving a process of effective risk perception and response to temporally distant environmental risks.


Risk communication, Science communication, Arts in risk communcation, Risk perception, Arts and risk perception, Science, technology, society, Arts, science, technology, affect and decisionmaking, decisionmaking, risk and decisionmaking


Research on risk communication and perception has long recognized that individuals and social groups, generally, do not respond adequately to risks the impacts of which are not perceived to be imminent (risks that are perceived to be temporally distant).[1][2][3] Long-term environmental risks such as global climate change, repositories for toxic and radioactive wastes, etc., because of the large temporal scales over which they manifest themselves, and because of their complex nature and inherent uncertainties, are extremely difficult to conceptualize and grasp.[4] For these types of risk, at least, scientific analyses of risk must be framed in a social context before individual and societal responses can emerge. Consequently, the vast majority of the general public relies on representations from the media, which play a critical role “in the production, reproduction, and transformation of the meaning” of such risks.[5]

The scientific community has long acknowledged the important role the media play in framing environmental issues.[4][6] Research on the role of mass media in environmental communication has expanded tremendously since the 1990s.[7] However, very little attention has been paid by environmental communication researchers to the role of the arts (i.e., literature, film, visual arts) in the climate change discourse.[7] The lack of attention to this important set of means of communication is problematic on at least two levels:

• it discounts the effectiveness of the arts in the formation of values and beliefs and, therefore, inhibits the use of these tools in communicating vital information and, most importantly, in eliciting support for actions to reduce the risk in question, and

• it misses the opportunity to study the ways in which the arts can be utilized to channel important scientific information on environmental risks most effectively.

Effective Risk Communication

We would argue that the purpose of risk communication is twofold: to elicit action to mitigate the risk, and to ensure that the action elicited is appropriate to the level of risk. The effectiveness of risk communication, therefore, can be measured on the basis of how well it attains this objective. The body of research on risk communication is considerable and is largely driven by the need to determine how risk may be communicated effectively. Much of it is specifically focused on communication of scientific information and analysis, based on the assumption that risk is a concept that is defined by science and perceived and analyzed by intellectual processes. Nevertheless, relatively recent developments have led to the recognition that non-intellectual, experiential processes play an important role on risk cognition [Cox, 2012; Slovic et al. 2004]. Even these, however, assume that rational and emotional processes work in parallel and play equal roles in risk perception. When the two are aligned, risk communication and perception is effective, and when not, problems arise. Slovic at al. [2004], for example, open their discussion in this way:

Risk in the modern world is confronted and dealt with in three fundamental ways. Risk as feelings refers to our fast, instinctive, and intuitive reactions to danger. Risk as analysis brings logic, reason, and scientific deliberation to bear on hazard management. When our ancient instincts and our modern scientific analyses clash, we become painfully aware of a third reality—risk as politics . [p. 311]

In this model, risk as feelings (to use Slovic’s terminology) antecedes risk as analysis and the objective of risk communication is to communicate scientific information in a way that can effectively influence the subjects’ emotive state so that feelings will match the conclusions of the expert analyses of risk. Therefore, effective risk communication is predicated on effective scientific/technical communication.

Conventional scientific communication is designed to access the rational and analytical aspects of the human brain. This is by design, as the scientific process explicitly demands exclusion of visceral and emotional responses from any part of the collection, analysis, and dissemination of scientific information. The rationale for this is that objectivity can and must be maintained for effective decision-making to be possible. Psychology research, however, has shown that the formation of beliefs, attitudes, and preferences (that are fundamental blocks of the decision-making process) is driven by people’s visceral and emotional responses to inputs (whether these are communicated information or direct experience) [Damasio, 1994; Zajonc, 1980].

While direct experience engages human beings holistically, accessing all dimensions of cognition and, therefore, inherently eliciting visceral and affective reactions, communicated information may or may not elicit these types of reactions. As we have already discussed, traditional scientific communication is explicitly designed to avoid eliciting visceral and affective reactions. It is, therefore, very ineffective in driving decision making in the public sphere [Damasio, 1994]. Many in the scientific community recognize this and do not hesitate to engage alternative communication processes and channels when, as, for example, in the case of global climate change, they believe that scientific analysis points out the need for urgent social action:

Some [climate scientists] hold this belief so passionately that they go to great lengths to alert the public and politicians to the magnitude of the risks, stepping outside of their typical scientific venues to provide congressional testimony or popular press accounts to trigger action. [Weber, 2006, p. 102]

When it comes to environmental risks that are temporally distant, such as global climate change, however, even these ways of communicating scientific information have not been very effective. Generally, the concern over climate change shown by non-scientists is smaller and less intense than that shown by scientists [Weber, 2006]. Public perceptions of it as a future problem not requiring strong or urgent action also persist [Bord et al., 1998].

Two important studies on public perceptions of the risks from global climate change had similar findings and reached similar conclusions. Weber found that “the absence of a visceral response on part of the public to the risks posed by global warming may be responsible for the arguably less than optimal allocation of personal and collective resources to deal with this issue” [Weber, 2006]. Similarly, Leiserowitz [2006] found that, in the U.S.A., even many who accept the reality of global climate change nevertheless consider it a low priority relative to other environmental and broader national issues. He attributes this to media representations of the issue that lack emotional appeal. He argues that “affective reactions to stimuli are evoked automatically and subsequently guide rational information processing and judgement. Affect and feelings are not mere epiphenomena, but often arise prior to cognition and play a crucial role in subsequent rational thought”.

The argument that visceral and affective reactions precede and, in important ways, guide intellectual processing of information is antithetical to the scientific ideal of rationality. Nevertheless, psychology and neuroscience research on the role of emotion in decision making has provided strong evidence that this is the case—that emotional response often precedes and directs rational thinking and that “much of so-called rational thought is little more than a post-hoc justification for our behavior” [Beattie et al., 2011]. This is borne out by a significant body of experimental research which underscores the importance of emotion in decision making. There is strong evidence that emotion focuses attention, that heightened emotional response increases retention of information, and that it impacts behavior more strongly than cognition [Walsh and Gentile, 2007].

Ground-breaking experimental work by Damasio showed that emotional, affective response to stimuli precedes and governs any conceptual or intellectual response, and that the visceral and intellectual dimensions of brain function are distinct and separate [Damasio, 1994]. Additional research with subjects that had suffered damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain that governs emotive response) showed that these subjects “failed to act according to their correct conceptual knowledge” (Bechara et al. 1997: 1294). This work clearly demonstrated the relationship between emotions and intellect in decision making:

[I]n normal individuals, non-conscious biases guide behavior before conscious knowledge does. Without the help of such biases, overt knowledge may be insufficient to ensure advantageous behavior. [Bechara et al., 1977, p. 1293]

More recent research shows that the same process governs individuals’ value formation and ethical decision making. Again, experiments with individuals that have suffered damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex showed that they were significantly more likely to engage in utilitarian moral judgements (which are predicated on a rational calculation of the advantages and disadvantages to one’s self as a moral basis for decision making) than individuals that had not suffered such damage [Koenigs et al., 2007]. So, in constructing a model of value formation and moral action, Haidt considers that in ethical or evaluative decision making, moral (or evaluative) judgement happens automatically and effortlessly but “moral reasoning is an effortful process, engaged in after a moral judgement is made, in which a person reaches for arguments that will support an already-made judgement” [Haidt, 2001].

Decision-making and human values

In the preceding discussion, our definition of effective risk communication implies a convergence of the perceptions of the general public with those of the experts who assess the risks. While it has long been recognized that such convergence of perceptions, i.e., the effectiveness of the communication, is predicated on a high level of trust by the public of the experts [Alaszewski, 2005; Peters et al., 1997; Johnson and Slovic, 1995; Heesacker et al., 1983; Hovland and Weiss, 1967], we consider this subject well-explored and shall not focus on it here. Our definition of effective risk communication also implies appropriate action in response to the communication. Therefore, we will direct our discussion on the decision-making processes that may lead to or inhibit such action.

In his influential work Thinking, Fast and Slow,Kahneman[1] [2011] introduced the notion that the human brain operates in two distinct and separate modes (which he calls “systems”), both of which are involved in the decision-making process. System 1 is based on intuition and operates automatically, quickly, and effortlessly, while system 2 is deliberative, must be engaged consciously, and is time and energy-consuming. However, because system 2 requires effort, it is often engaged incompletely. Even when decisions do not need to be reached quickly and have evidence to consider, deliberation is often circumvented by intuition and impression. As a result, decision-making appears to be systematically prone to preconceptions based on beliefs, values, and experiences (which the author terms “biases”), and to the use of reasoning shortcuts (which are termed “heuristics”).

While Kahneman [2011] does not describe how the two brain systems work together in deliberative decision-making and, indeed, leaves the possibility open that system 2 can, by itself, be engaged in a purely rational decision-making process, other research makes the claim, as we have discussed briefly above, that what Kahneman terms system 1, and others cognitive-affective processing system (CAPS) [Mischel and Shoda, 1995; Zajonc, 1980], precedes rationality and deliberation in the decision-making process. This means that biases and heuristics are always utilized in decision-making and indeed, shape any process of rational (system 2) decision-making. There appears to be significant evidence against the idea that system 2 thinking engages system 1 in order to minimize the effort required for “pure” rational and deliberative thought processes and that, through concerted effort and training, one can engage in a pure system 2 process. Nevertheless, we find Kahneman’s contribution valuable, especially because it offers a comprehensive identification and description of the biases and heuristics which can give rise to faulty decision-making.[2]

These insights lead us to conclude that, for effective risk communication, it is necessary to access people’s emotions directly. If affect shapes rational thought processes, then it would be useful if biases and heuristics could be modified to enhance rational analysis in complex decision-making. To the extent that affect (or feelings, to use Slovic’s terminology) can be influenced to match the dictates of the analysis and data, the likelihood will increase that appropriate action will be taken to mitigate risk. The question arises, of course, what means are available to directly impact affect.

The Arts as Agents of Value Formation

It has long been understood that the arts can and do play an important role in critically examining social norms, impacting value formation, and motivating social action. Examples of this abound and, so, we will list a few from the span of human history in order to illustrate our point:

· The tragedy The Trojan Women, written in 416-415 BCE to criticize and attempt to change the attitudes and actions of the Athenians against vanquished adversaries during the Peloponnesian War.

· Brueghel’s paintings such as The Numbering at Bethlehem, which was painted in 1566, at the outset of the Dutch Revolt and the ensuing Eighty Year’s War. The painting was created to call attention to Spain’s brutality against its subjects in the Low Countries.

· Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel to which president Lincoln attributed the spark that ignited the American Civil War.

· Picasso’s Guernica, commissioned by the republican government of Spain to jolt the world to action against the horror of mass bombing of civilian populations.

Art, of course, is a universal attribute of human culture. Norms, values, and beliefs are another such attribute—framing each culture’s ethical system. The purpose of a culturally prescribed ethical system is to circumscribe behavior patterns of individuals and channel individual decision making to what is societally acceptable and, even more importantly, what is desirable.

Art plays an important role in culture formation. Specifically, art is a crucial tool for the critical examination of norms, values, and beliefs, being able to both question their efficacy and reinforce them [Bhabha, 1994]. In either role, art operates by accessing the emotional, affective aspects of personality. For example, by getting the reader to inhabit her novel’s hero, Uncle Tom, Stowe managed to get the reader to feel what it was like being a slave in the U.S. south. This, in effect, created not only empathy for the plight of the slaves but a sense of personal injury to the reader him- or herself, that elicited moral outrage and the urge to take action to end slavery [Yeager, 2005]. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin would clearly be classified as a piece of art that challenged the prevailing societal norms. On the other hand, religious art, from architecture to painting and sculpture, to music, is designed to get its audience, whether believer or not, to feel awe, inspiration, and the divine presence. The purpose of this type of art is to reinforce values and beliefs, and when it is of high quality it is powerful and effective [Yeager, 2005].

When addressing environmental issues, the arts operate as critiques on the societal norms and processes that have given rise to particular environmental problems. Again, examples of art having played an important role in advancing environmental protection abound. Some examples include:

· European romantic landscape painters such as Caspar David Friedrich, whose work in the early part of the 19th century challenged the norms of the emerging industrial society.

· Photographer William Henry Jackson and painter Thomas Moran, whose photographs and landscape paintings done during the 1871 expedition to Yellowstone directly led to a change in the prevailing mindset that U.S. federal lands should be turned over to private interests for development, and the creation of Yellowstone as the first national park in the world.

· Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book which challenged the practice of indiscriminate pesticide application by government.

· Vladimir Gubaryev’s play Sarcophagus critiquing (in 1986 Soviet Union) the failures that led to the Chernobyl disaster.

As even this short list of examples indicates, the role of the arts is strictly critical. We cannot over-emphasize the point that the ultimate effect of art is to create culture and, in so doing, impact values, changing those it is critical of, and strengthening those values that are in tune with the message it imparts. In this way, the arts as agents of cultural change are also heralds calling their audiences to action to effect change.

The Arts and Risk Communication

Studies focusing on risk perception by individuals offer considerable support for the theory that values and beliefs affect individual risk perception [Douglas and Wildvasky, 1982; Stern and Dietz, 1994; Kempton et al., 1995; Stern et al., 1999; Stern, 2000; Sjoberg, 2000; Dunlap et al., 2000; Slimak and Dietz, 2006]. It follows, then, that the arts impact risk perception because of their role in value formation and cultural change. However, the arts also play a more direct role in risk communication.

The arts are a powerful means for creating affective meaning because they can very effectively create narrative. Though not all artistic expression should be interpreted as narrative, nevertheless, narrative art is a very effective means of communication [Wolf, 2003; Bochner and Ellis, 2003; Sclater, 2003; Estrella and Forinash, 2007]. This is because art accesses directly the emotive centers of the brain and creates affect. Art, therefore, communicates narrative to people in ways that allow them to internalize it and integrate it into their own personal narrative.

Cognitive studies of brain physiology also show direct links between the perception of art and the complex decision-making process that is involved in the perception of, and reaction to risk. Although not very many such studies exist, they do show a link between the prefrontal cortex (the region of the brain that, as we have discussed above, mediates affective and intellectual responses and, therefore, enables complex decision-making) and the processing of some of the complex information related to affect that is communicated by art. Specifically, studies of people with prefrontal cortex damage have shown that this part of the brain is crucially involved in processing complex knowledge derived from narrative [Sirigu et al., 1995, 1996, 1998; Grafman, 1995; Zalla et al., 2001]. The findings of such provide evidence ‘that the prefrontal cortex is primarily involved in representing the ‘temporal structure of behavior’ and that its function is to form ‘cross temporal contingencies’ among events not because of their temporal adjacency, but by virtue of their relationship to a common goal [Fuster, 1989; Zalla et al., 2002].

When we consider narrative in the context of risk communication, it is not a coincidence that narrative representations of risk are much more powerful in affecting risk perception than intellectual representations (such as those based on probability and scientific/technical analysis) [Hinyard and Kreuter, 2007; Betsch et al., 2015]. This phenomenon has, in fact, become a standard term in risk communication and perception research: narrative bias . The term bias is used to describe the impact of narrative representations of risk on risk perception because these bypass or reshape the purportedly objective representations of technical analyses [Betch et al., 2015]. More importantly, the impact of narrative bias on risk perception appears to be strongest in affecting reactions to risk:

[N]arratives had the strongest effect on a non-numerical risk measure, which was also the best predictor of behavioral intentions. [Betch et al., 2015, p. 241]

In light of this evidence, we would argue that risk communication and the process of deciding how to respond to the perceived risk are predicated on formation of a narrative about the risk and its significance.

• Narratives are coherent stories interpreting the world around us.

• They lie at the foundation of our cognitive processes and provide personal explanatory frameworks.

By virtue of their narrative quality, the arts are, aside from direct experience, the primary means for evoking emotive responses and creating affective meaning. The arts are, therefore, powerful means for risk communication. This is especially so in cases where the risks arise from temporally distant events, as such events are not typically subjects of direct experience. When these events are the result of complex processes, people find it difficult to imagine the future in ways that are personally relevant. In such cases, artistic representations of the future can be a key tool in assisting people to discover effective ways to respond to temporally distant environmental risks.


Risk communication generally considers approaches based on affect flawed and problematic because they do not necessarily follow the dictates of technical risk analyses. Research in this field has, therefore, been mostly focused on finding ways to minimize the perceived “bias” of narrative risk representations. There are, however, a few specific areas where narrative is understood to be a powerful and, therefore, useful tool for communicating risk and eliciting behavior that can mitigate it—primarily areas in the health sciences [Hinyard and Kreuter, 2007]. For a long time now, the arts, from creative writing and performance arts, to painting and music, have been used to mitigate health risks and improve both mental and physical health outcomes.

We argue that the arts as essentially narrative representations can play a key role in the perception of and response to temporally (and spatially) distant environmental risks. These types of risks present acute difficulties to both individuals and society in terms of perception and response. This is because the human brain is not well adapted to addressing problems that are not immediate and personal [Rogerd and Dearing, 1988; Schӓfer and Schlichting, 2014].

Conventional scientific communication and rational analysis, the lynchpins of risk management, are not well suited to the creation of narrative. To manage risks from long-term environmental problems such as global climate change, high-level radioactive waste disposal, cumulative exposure to toxic substances, etc., we need to engage the arts in order to communicate risk effectively.

Works of art addressing the relationship between humanity and nature, and specific environmental problems such as climate change are being produced in ever growing numbers. They include all types of artistic endeavor, each of which has its own specific strengths in engaging people and eliciting actions that reduce environmental risks. The challenge before us is to study the mechanisms through which the arts impact affect and engage them to communicate risk more effectively.

[1] Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 (shared with Vernon L. Smith) for his work on decision-making.

[2] For this, see the second part of the book, titled “Heuristics and Biases” [Kahneman, 2011, pp. 108-195].

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