How Learning More Makes Bad News Easier to Hear

This morning I was listening to the news on the radio, and I heard a story about shellfish dying off as the ocean becomes more acidic. This is something I found out about only in the last week or two, as I’ve started paying more attention to climate change and learning more about it: the oceans naturally sucks up a lot of carbon that we release into the atmosphere, though we haven’t noticed it much because the world’s oceans are so vast. Unfortunately, absorbing all that carbon makes the water more acidic–30 percent more acidic since the start of the industrial revolution. Shellfish, whose shells are made of materials very vulnerable to acidity, are having trouble coping: they’re dying off faster than they can adapt.

This is really distressing news, and in the past I would have felt deeply worried to hear about it and would have probably tried to distract myself from this problem, considering how little I can do to directly affect it.

The difference lately is that I’ve been facing these problems more, so hearing the news story just made me think “Yup, I’m glad they’re covering that and helping tell people about it.” I haven’t lost any of my resolve to try to help fix the problem of climate change, yet hearing about the damage we’re doing didn’t bother me in the way it has before.

Based on what I’ve learned about emotional responses, I think there are two reasons for this.

First, I’d heard the news recently and was remembering it. In the past, I had probably heard about ocean acidification and not let myself dwell on it, so I hadn’t remembered, but now the news didn’t feel like anything new to me: it wasn’t a new problem to worry about. Confirmation of things we already think we know tends to have a confidence-building effect: it feels good to hear people confirm our knowledge or beliefs, even if the confirmation is about problems or dangers.

Second, while I’m just barely getting started and am hardly doing anything yet, I am taking action, both in terms of educating myself and in terms of trying to spread the word. Actually doing something about a problem, even if what we’re doing is pretty minor, tends to make us feel much better about those problems.

There’s a tricky distinction here: I want to feel better about the climate change catastrophe to the point where I’m not paralyzed by anxiety about it. We can act more intelligently and effectively when we aren’t dragged down by too many negative emotions. At the same time, I don’t want to become complacent–I don’t want to just relax about the whole thing. I need to be working on this problem, not distracting myself to feel good.

Yet I don’t think I need to worry: as long as my coping methods are things like learning more and taking action, I know my improved emotional state is based on facing the problem rather than blocking it from my mind.

You would think that after seven years studying human habits, motivation, and emotions, all of this would have been clear to me long since, that I would realize that if I’m worried about something, facing it is usually the best thing I could possibly do. At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to be too hard on myself for being slow to pick up on this. After all, we’re programmed to fight or flee when something scary comes along. Stepping up and facing the danger is a skill we have to learn to assert, and that can take some time.

Photo by Boogies with Fish