HIPPY IN THE CITY: Fear sells, but focusing on good leads to change

Written by Hippy in the City on 14th June 2017

Hippy in the City is a new, anonymous monthly column from an executive who works for a large firm in the City of London.


Anger and fear can settle upon us quickly at times. Before you know it, you are pouring a G&T and leaving inflammatory comments on Facebook, overcome with the events of the world.

Those emotions might be based on the objective horrors of reality and be totally justified. But psychologists believe that our reactions, which can sometimes produce more negativity in response to the negativity we see around us, can be counter-productive.

This article in Psychology Today is worth reading.

As the author says: “The success of fear-based news relies on presenting dramatic anecdotes in place of scientific evidence, promoting isolated events as trends, depicting categories of people as dangerous and replacing optimism with fatalistic thinking.”

Negativity and fear sells papers and 2017 has been littered with both emotions. The need to attract attention – to show people the urgency of what needs to change – is understandable. Constant bad news, though, numbs and limits our capacity to care. And for what? A 10 per cent boost in newsstand figures.

As with the torrent of fear in political news, the same is true with the environment. It’s easy to feel powerless and switch off.

I’m sympathetic to those who disengage from the Cassandra-like warnings of ecological collapse, switch channels and binge watch Big Heads on ITV. It’s far less disturbing to the psyche to watch a monstrous, macrocephaly-suffering caricature of Boris Johnson clashing foam heads with Vladimir Putin, than it is to watch the New York Times catalogue the extent of the melting Artic ice cap.

Anger and fear is useful but only helps drive action in the short term.

We’re all individuals, with the best of intentions, raising children, working hard, paying bills and enjoying our holidays, but none of us wants to be reminded that each of us is responsible for filling up the oceans with plastic and causing Earth’s Sixth Great Mass Extinction.

See. Look how quickly fear and negativity pops up again….

A relative recently told me that he couldn’t see much point in doing anything because: “Look what Volkswagen has done”.  It’s difficult enough to overcome established generational cynicism about climate change, but if companies are spending millions on technology to cheat diesel emission limits[1], it makes it almost impossible.

So how do we motivate people? We need reasons to be positive. Great things are happening.

It’s key to engaging people and showing that we can make a difference. Over a decade ago, the UN produced a document on Communicating Sustainability[2]. This passage rings true:

“Experts are coming to realise that traditional messages from governments and green groups urging the public to adopt the environment into their day-to-day decisions need to be overhauled. Many of these messages are simply too patronising, guilt-laden or disapproving. Instead of turning people on to the environment, they risk switching them off.

“The lesson to be learned is that communication styles have to be positive and tailored to different circumstances and cultural contexts. Anger and fear is useful but only helps drive action in the short term. To nudge people into changing their behaviour, we need more optimism, and emphasis on the positive.”

Positivity is central to our company’s planned sustainability communications. Our employees want to do the right thing. They’re just like you and me. They’re doing their best, doing their jobs, paying their taxes and raising their children. They want to work for a firm that tries to do the right thing.

Our role isn’t to berate them or impose policies that hinder their ability to do their job. It’s to motivate them by showing them what’s been achieved and what we might be able to achieve in the future with their support.

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On a final positive note, in the first of an occasional series aimed at countering the misery and fear that seems to be categorizing 2017, here’s my first #ReasonsToBePositive entry for 2017.

This quarterly publication – Positive News – aims to meet our need for optimism. The magazine is about hope. Because ultimately, hope for a better future is what motivates all of us.


[1] 2017, Daniel Doffey, 2017 via Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/may/17/eu-launches-legal-action-against-italy-over-fiat-chrysler-diesel-emissions

[2] http://www.unep.fr/shared/publications/pdf/DTIx0679xPA-CommunicatingEN.pdf