We can prove it scientifically. In academic terms, an “emotionally competent stimulus” is any video or photo that elicits a strong emotional reaction. These images can trigger fear, sadness, joy, hope, shock, surprise, or disgust. The turtle video triggers several emotions at once.
Once we see or experience an emotionally charged stimulus, the amygdala—an almond-shaped structure in the brain’s temporal lobe—releases neurochemicals which are essential for us to feel emotion. Dopamine is one such chemical. A release of dopamine acts to stamp information on the brain. In other words, if the content triggers a rush of dopamine, it’s more likely to stick. You can see why this served as an important evolutionary function. If we don’t feel fear when faced with a lion, our species wouldn’t have made it this far.
The key lesson for anyone seeking to convince others to make big changes is put big numbers into an emotional context. The number—one billion—doesn’t mean anything to anyone. It’s just a number. Add one billion plastic straws, and it still doesn’t mean much without context. Attach the statistic to one disturbing video of a sea turtle and the combination creates an emotional experience that sparks people to action.
Scientists and experts who hope to drive change in any area—environmental, financial, governmental—would be wise to study statistics and emotion. Statistics are good; emotion is better. Emotion drives behavior and triggers change.
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