The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After 2020, we need to talk about how we talk about catastrophe

Narratives of crisis can create feedback loops that make it harder to inspire action.

The Walbridge Fire burns west of Healdsburg, Calif., in August in Sonoma County. (Stuart W. Palley/FTWP)

The story of 2020 has been a story of crisis: A world on fire. A killer contagion. Cultural polarization and democratic decay. All this catastrophizing cannot be good for us. In fact, the people who study how storytelling affects decision-making know that it’s not. While doomsday stories help convey urgency, decades of research by social scientists show that people usually respond to those narratives in one of two ways, neither of them useful. Confronted with bad news, people tend to either dismiss it outright or conclude that catastrophe is inevitable. Either way, the constant drumbeat of doom leads people to tune out and give up.

Simply put, narratives of catastrophe and crisis can create nasty feedback loops that make it harder to achieve the compromise, hard work and sustained engagement necessary for meaningful action, especially in a deeply divided society. Many studies conducted over the past 30 years show how exposure to information about the massive scale of crises can lead people to all sorts of counterproductive responses, variously engendering indifference toward others’ suffering, false feelings of inefficacy, or a turn inward toward self-preservation. Some research even suggests that people preemptively down-regulate their emotions (keep themselves from feeling too much) when they know they are going to be asked to help the overwhelming number of victims of a crisis such as the civil war in Darfur.

It’s true that narratives of crisis and catastrophe sometimes serve to promote action — up to a point. They can fuel a movement’s purpose and a community’s resolve to keep fighting by inspiring a sense of urgency. Calling something a crisis can grab attention when action must be taken quickly and decisively, as public health officials have shown during the current pandemic. And when there is broad agreement that a crisis truly exists, the label can promote cooperation and coordination. (Think of the trope that there were no Republicans and Democrats on 9/11, only Americans.)

But there’s a major caveat: Crisis and catastrophe narratives don’t keep people engaged for long, especially when there’s a new emerging crisis to worry about every few weeks or months. When a crisis truly demands and can be resolved by immediate, near-term action — think natural disaster response and relief — crisis language can be both effective and necessary. But what about the long-term challenges we face as a society, like a warming planet? What about societal problems — such as systemic racism — that require sustained engagement and collective action over years and decades?

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Crisis narratives can also set the stage for powerful but dangerous “us vs. them” thinking, further entrenching already cavernous political and social divides. This is especially likely to happen when there is deep, group-based disagreement over the nature or scale of the problem being highlighted, as the coronavirus pandemic has ably demonstrated. Worse, when invited into crisis mode, we are pushed into a self-preservation mind-set and our tendency to see the world in terms of in- and out-groups kicks into overdrive. This is not a sensibility that leads to solving collective social problems.

Even more importantly, a careful meta-analysis of well-designed studies that have explored the effects of fear appeals in promoting healthy decision-making shows that being bombarded with threatening information only produces positive outcomes when people are also given practical, meaningful ways to reduce the highlighted threat. When people feel there’s nothing they can do, they respond to crisis communication with fatalism, thinking that the problem must be too big, too unmovable to solve.

On the flip side, seeing a threat and knowing what to do about it is motivating. This explains why using scary, crisis-drenched language to talk about an immediate, in-your-face threat like covid-19 can be productive. In these situations, there is a relatively short-term time frame and a problem where individual action can reduce risks in real time — say by wearing masks, washing hands and limiting physical contact with people outside your household.

So how should we talk about the long-term, seemingly intractable problems we face? Research by social scientists suggests multiple ways to tell more effective stories about the challenges before us. Here are four of them.

First, avoiding overt crisis and catastrophe frames does not mean playing down the urgency of the challenge. After all, foregrounding the urgency of a problem is critical to building and maintaining engagement over time. Yet urgency comes not only from recognizing and trying to avoid negative consequences; it can also come from identifying the kind of world we want to live in and striving to make that world our reality. There’s a reason one of the most galvanizing orations of all time is the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech; “I Have a Nightmare” probably wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful, even if it would have more accurately portrayed the terrible truth of the moment America was living through.

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Second, communicators need to engage the full suite of human emotional responses, not just fear, despair and guilt. Research by psychologists and social scientists finds that people are motivated to take costly prosocial action by a wide array of emotions, including awe, pride and anger. Stoking negative emotions can call attention to an immediate challenge, but overreliance on this strategy neglects the critical role that positive emotions such as hope and gratitude play in sustaining participation in social movements over the long haul.

Third, people need coherent explanations about how our problems became problems in the first place. Simply yelling “Panic!” in a crowded room doesn’t work when the challenge is complex, long term and counterintuitive — to say nothing of when powerful voices have a vested interest in misleading the public — or when the solutions are multifaceted and nuanced. Qualitative and experimental research on narrative framing and public engagement across many different topics — from early-childhood education to criminal justice reform — reveals that stories that lay out not only what is happening but also how and why those things are unfolding can help people process complex information in ways that promote action and support for solutions rather than disengagement. It’s not enough simply to tell people that a problem exists.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, stories that foreground pragmatic, concrete solutions that people can see and feel are critical to promote public engagement with the societal challenges we face. Even when the path forward is difficult, solutions-oriented narratives and imagery offer a positive vision that can promote greater issue engagement, efficacy and large-scale public action. In the climate change domain, for example, researchers have found that visual images of possible future energy systems — think wind and solar farms — promote a sense of self-efficacy that is depressed when people see images of the negative effects of global warming. It is extremely hard to motivate and sustain action, or even build critical awareness of a problem, without some emotional carrots for all the sticks.

In truth, we are living through an era of compounding crisis and catastrophe. But if we want to empower ourselves and our communities to address the grave and interlocking challenges before us, it’s time to tell stories that actually work.