Should research(ers) get emotional?

Posted by sustainable on July 22, 2013

Many researchers prize their objectivity and detached independence, and recoil in horror from the idea of displaying emotion in their work. In a world of politics, where emotion is often used to bias decisions away from the evidence, do we need to be ever more rigorous in our detachment from emotion? Or do we need to start harnessing the power of emotion, to deliver the evidence we generate as powerfully as possible to the people who are making the decisions?

The simple (but perhaps simplistic) answer is to separate the generation of evidence from the communication of evidence. In our quest for new knowledge about how the world works, many argue that we should always strive for independence and objectivity. But how we communicate what we find is another story – communicated with passion and unwavering conviction, we can make evidence compelling.

Positive, effectively channeled emotion gets people’s attention – it makes people sit up and take notice. Through emotion, we can connect with our audience and engender empathy. We have little control over whether decision-makers will act on the evidence we present to them or not. But by engaging with both hearts and minds, we increase the likelihood that our audience is really listening, and actively considering how our evidence fits with the other evidence they have access to, their goals and their worldview.

 

Positive and channeled

There are of course caveats, which I have already alluded to. Decision-makers are more likely to respond to positive emotion than they are to anger, or doom and gloom predictions. For example, there is evidence that decision-makers are less receptive to messages about the value of nature if these messages are perceived as threatening their psychological needs of autonomy (e.g. because they feel manipulated or coerced), happiness (e.g. environmental campaigns based on fear), reputation (e.g. because they feel implicitly criticised or patronised) and self-esteem (e.g. because they start to feel responsible for or guilty about environmental degradation). On the other hand, enthusiasm is infectious. Presenting our evidence with passion and crafting our arguments to meet the innate psychological needs of our audience is more likely to get people to listen, even if they don’t act on what they hear.

As experts, we hold a privileged position of authority, which is likely to be a key factor in getting us an audience with decision-makers in the first place. Retaining that credibility is essential, and so it is important to carefully channel our emotions. No matter how positive our emotional input may be, if we go over the top with our enthusiasm, we may loose credibility. For me this is about never forgetting to choose our words with the utmost care. This may mean lengthy preparation or just slowing ourselves down to pick our words carefully. But if everything we say is measured and supported by the evidence we have collected, then imbuing those words with genuine passion can have a powerful effect.

 

Is all research emotional?

Implicit in everything I’ve said so far, is the idea that the evidence itself is unquestionable; the question is only whether we as researchers should use emotion to communicate that evidence. But there are many researchers who would challenge the idea that research is (or can ever be) entirely independent, emotionally detached and objective. This sort of researcher often values subjectivity and seeks to explicitly recognisise the sub-conscious biases and norms that often frame supposedly objective and independent research.

This tension between objectivity and subjectivity is particularly acute in conservation research, where ecologists and environmental researchers often frame their research within a set of implicit normative assumptions about the value of species and habitats, which are often at variance to the norms and assumptions of other groups within society, who may for example value human and economic development over the environment. If these biases and assumptions are made explicit, then environmental researchers may be seen as advocates for the environment, who frame and use research to support their normative goals of environmental protection and enhancement.

There is of course nothing wrong with this. But if we recognize that this is just one strand of evidence feeding into what are usually political decision-making processes, then we can begin to explore the subjectivity inherent in many of the processes we use to generate “evidence”, and can become less detached and more emotionally engaged in the normative goals that pervade our work.

 

Becoming more emotionally engaged in our research: a role for the creative arts?

There must be many ways that we can become more emotionally engaged in the research process and in the communication of our research. But one mechanism I’ve been considering, is working with the creative arts. Working with artists who share our goals may enable us as researchers to engage audiences in our work at both an academic and an emotional level. This is not to say that we should overstate or stray from the evidence we have collected. But it is a plea to make our normative assumptions and goals explicit, and state them with passion and conviction. Working with artists in collaborative projects, it may be possible to engage emotionally with our audiences and interpret evidence in ways that are not just understandable, but in ways that can convict audiences and spur them to action.

Although not common, serious collaborations between researchers and artists are happening more and more. Many researchers and artists share a desire to discover new insights about the world we live in and to change the way that others look at the world. On the surface, our methods are often very different, but both researchers and artists share a love for experimentation and the critical interpretation of what emerges from that process. By bringing researchers and artists together as equals in interdisciplinary teams, it may be possible to draw upon and combine very different sources of knowledge, and to derive new insights that could not have occurred as a result of either group working in isolation.

In many collaborations between researchers and artists, the artist is relegated to the role of interpreter, translator or communicator, taking research findings and communicating them to a wider public. Although this is a valuable role, it is only part of the role that the arts can play in collaborations with researchers. In the right environment, artists and researchers can coproduce new insights that have the potential to change the way we look at the world.

 

Influential or manipulative?

I’m sure much of what I have said will sit uneasily with many people. Do two wrongs make a right? Just because smoking lobbyists and campaigners use emotion to manipulate decision-making processes, does that mean we should join them and use the same tactics ourselves as researchers? We would of course say that our motives are pure – we are just trying to communicate the evidence, rather than any ulterior motive. But if we use emotion, then aren’t we being just as manipulative?

For me, the difference between someone who is manipulative and someone who is influential, depends on their motives and the level of coercion they are prepared to employ. If we have the best interests of the decision-maker in mind and are seeking to help them make a voluntary decision that they perceive is right for them and for those in their sphere of influence, then we are seeking to influence. If on the other hand, we are seeking a decision that would be in our interests and against the interests of the decision-maker and those in their sphere of influence, and we are prepared to coerce them into that decision, no matter how subtly, then the chances are that we’re seeking to manipulate.

Emotions may be used to influence and to manipulate, and the distinction between these two modes of operation may at times be fuzzy. The simplest solution is to avoid all emotion – play safe and retain our position of credibility aloof from the real world. Engaging with emotion in our research is the riskier option. But if done effectively, I believe it has the potential to make our research truly influential.

Thanks to Alister Scott @bcualisterscott, Professor of Environmental Spatial Planning at Birmingham City University, Andrew Dawes @Wessex_Reiver, producer for Radio 4 wildlife programmes and Anand BS @ABSabyss Senior Manager at Genome Life Sciences for discussion via Twitter that helped shaped this blog post – I doubt you’ll agree with everything I’ve written but I’ll look forward to the debate @SustainLearning.

Mark is a Professor of Interdisciplinary Environmental Research at the Centre for Environment & Society ResearchBirmingham School of the Built Environment, Birmingham City University. Find out more about Mark’s work here: www.markreed.webeden.co.uk. You can read more blogs by Mark and you can follow him on Twitter.