Interview: Till Schröder, Photo: Amac Garbe
Dresden Magazine: Professor Brunnhuber, let us assume that there is such a thing as social progress. What is the way forward, as you see it?
Stefan Brunnhuber: The way forward is always where you see openings. The way forward leads us into areas that are as yet imperfect; it represents uncharted territory. But we can use our critical faculties to map it out. The scientific community plays an important role here.
Dresden Magazine: Using their critical faculties, scientists have produced the evidence to show that we are consuming the resources of our planet at an ever-faster rate. Does human nature limit our ability to recognise the scope of the problem and to respond appropriately?
Brunnhuber: Yes, but there can be no transformation to a sustainable society if we do not take the findings and insights of psychology and life sciences more seriously.
Dresden Magazine: So would you say that the scientific facts alone are not sufficient for us to avert a frightening future scenario?
Brunnhuber: Human decisions and changes of direction have never really taken place on the basis of facts. Look at the figures for absolute poverty, climate change and loss of biodiversity, urban sprawl and the gap between the highest and lowest earners. We have incontrovertible facts. But many people are not interested in facts. Instead, they are interested in ‘frames’.
Dresden Magazine: What are frames?
Brunnhuber: Frames are the mental models we use to interpret reality. When we see things through a frame, we can choose to take facts into account or to ignore them, because the perspective it gives us is stronger than the facts. If you are a climate change denier and your frame tells you that it’s one huge lie, then even the best-founded studies on climate change will not change your mind.
Dresden Magazine: Why is that?
Brunnhuber: This is because it is more important to us to maintain our identity than to accept scientific evidence. Statistics alone are not enough to persuade us to change our behaviour. By contrast, a frame that shapes our interpretation of reality operates on a semantic, physical and emotional level all at the same time. This can be a concept such as ‘climate change’, which incidentally is not suitable for changing human behaviour. It is more likely to trigger the response: “I’ll buy myself a T-shirt because it’s getting warm.” It is the job of the life sciences to point this out. The mind is unstable and regularly makes mistakes. We dissociate constantly, so that the reality in the outer world somehow matches the reality of our inner world, and we tell ourselves narratives that come closer to our own interpretations, because reality has become too complex for us to process.