Change is all over the news.
It’s a huge part of our lives in Maine. As mills close, will the good jobs we have counted on permanently go away? As rivers become contaminated, will the salmon we love to fish for become rarer? If the Gulf of Maine changes, will we see fewer lobsters or perhaps more?
Change is so important that our leaders devote much of their time and energy to it: trying to improve our schools, roads and economy. And we pay just as much attention to change in ourselves and our families — children growing up (sometimes not fast enough) and parents growing old (often all too fast).
Change comes in so many forms. Sometimes it’s about silly things: Are there more tattoos these days? But more often change is about urgent issues we need to address: Are rates of domestic violence increasing? Is child abuse becoming more common? Is the rate of drug use going up?
As is often said, change is a constant.
It turns out that finding ways to measure change is a big part of science: How do scientists assess how much the climate is changing? How do scientists decide how much Maine’s economy is changing? How do they know if the health of Mainers is getting better or worse? Science is moving toward better and better ways to measure and predict change. But policymakers need to act before the final results are in. And they need to implement solutions that are in tune with public perceptions of change.
For this reason, we need to understand when people are good at judging change and when people may go amiss in their estimates. People are constantly making change judgments and often can do so effectively. Farm families on century farms know their land so intimately that they may develop a deep understanding of how that land has changed. People who have gone ice fishing for years in their same favorite pond may develop what seems like an uncanny ability to know when the ice is safe and when ice out has happened over the years. Owners of lakeshore property over decades could come to a highly accurate sense of the changes in how far down they can see in the water now compared with the past. People who hold deep knowledge of a topic can make good change assessments.
Much of my research has focused on studying everyday change judgments. This includes the kinds of judgments people make, the information they draw on, and their memory for past events to which the present is being compared. We are learning more about when people’s judgments can be counted on and when such judgments can lead people astray, such as when they have to depend on information from fuzzy memory, use information about highly variable events or draw on information that is recalled through a nostalgic haze.
And it matters what we think has changed and why. Let’s say that we are worried about an uptick these days in car-moose crashes. What’s changed? More moose? More cars? We found that people often jump to conclusions about what’s changed and then base their solutions on those conclusions. Do we need to increase moose hunting permits because we think the number of moose is increasing? Do we need to start educating the increasing number of drivers coming into the state about crash avoidance when moose are present? What we think should be done often depends on what we assume has changed, and so it is important to get our understanding right about what has changed.
Do we always get the judgments right? No.
Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his best-selling book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” helps us see how often people make good judgments but also when and why our everyday thinking leads to mistakes. Kahneman’s psychological research offers us a roadmap for when we should trust our judgments and when we should be wary of assuming our judgments are right just because they feel right. Read his book. It’s fun and interesting.
In the end, it is clear that balanced attention needs to be paid to everyday judgments and scientific evidence, with the sources of both being open to recognizing weaknesses in their conclusions.
Linda Silka, a social and community psychologist, is a senior fellow at the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine in Orono. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.