Should research(ers) get emotional?

As part of the heart of engagement blog series, Professor of Interdisciplinary Environmental Research Mark Reed from Birmingham City University shares his thoughts on emotion in communicating research. You can read the full blog on the Project Maya website here.

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.

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 recognise 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. 

Should researchers use emotion to communicate evidence? Leave your comments below.

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