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A failure of imagination?
We make the case for imagination as a key tool for marketers and policy makers as we strive to bring about fundamental commercial and societal changes
We seem to be living in a period which rests heavily on imagined futures, and not always good ones. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes (IPCC)’s 2021 Report set out the way that within the next two decades, temperatures are likely to rise by more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels; bringing widespread devastation and extreme weather. With many people having experienced extreme weather conditions in the last decade, then we might expect that our imagination is easily drawn to considering what is yet to come.
Our everyday experience surely suggests that the way we imagine the future sits at the heart of huge amounts of the way we behave. The sportsperson trains hard as they can imagine competing effectively, the student works for a degree as perhaps they imagine a future profession, we imagine our friendship may develop and our romances blossom. Given the huge implications for imagination in many parts of our life, it is surely worth exploring the way in which it works.
However, as many people have seen, the much discussed Netflix film, Don’t Look Up suggests, we do not seem to be activating our imagination as much might be expected given climate change predictions. Why is that and why might it be time to consider imagination as a key mechanism in shaping our behaviour?
What is imagination?
Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky considered imagination was at the heart of much of human life, believing it to be a creative, higher order mental activity and “the essential feature…that of imagination is that consciousness departs from reality. Imagination is a comparatively autonomous activity of consciousness in which there is a departure from any immediate cognition of reality”. [i] In other words, imagination gives us a degree of freedom from the restrictions of our immediate situations.
This was more recently echoed by Tania Zittoun & Alex Gillespie who describe imagination as “an experiential break from the here-and-now of immediate and proximal stimuli”. As such, this is the counterpoint to a classical model of behavioural science which suggests that that our immediate context and past associations shape everything. Some of the ways in which imagination has been discussed are set out below:
Collective imagination: While there is a strong case that imagination allows us to be separate us from the day to day, we are also starting to see the way in which the boundaries of our imagination are shaped by historic and cultural forces. As Zittoun & Gillespie put it:
“It is an obvious, but revealing, fact that for the vast majority of human history it was impossible for people to imagine space travel, intelligent robots, or even telephones. The earliest attempts at such imaginings seem limited, and saturated with the culture of their time.”
Imagination is therefore not a solitary activity; humans are social creatures and we have the ability to build imaginative possibilities with others but at the same time are constrained by them.
Imagination to direct current behaviour: We can also see the way that imagination allows us to not only consider the future but reactivate memories so that we align past, present and future, creating a sense of continuity. Zittoun describes this nicely:
“It is the fundamental process by which we can explore and share our past – individual and collective, define and visit alternative and possible worlds, and imagine the future – our own, and that of the world – and perhaps, set us in motion toward it.”
In a tangible example of this Hal Hershfield and colleagues looked at the way imagining the future self could be used to support long term savings for retirement. They hypothesised that allowing people to interact with age-progressed renderings of themselves would lead them to save more for their futures. In a number of studies, participants were able to see realistic computer renderings of their future selves through the use of immersive virtual reality tools and interactive decision aids. Participants that interacted with virtual future selves showed an increased tendency to accept later monetary rewards over immediate ones (see also the work here by Heather Kappes).
Imagining how we will feel: Of course, we can not only image what might happen in the future but how we might feel. Marketers have long understood the value of encouraging imaginative possibilities of the future – this is what much of marketing communication does, sparking our imagination of how we might feel in the future if we choose to buy and product, service or make a particular brand choice.
Dan Gilbert has done a great deal of work in the area of imagined consumption, suggesting that while our ability to project ourselves forward in time is one of our most important and uniquely human capacities, people can also have challenges in being able to accurately predict how they will feel in the future. An example of the very tangible way this can influence behaviour is in this paper which shows the way in which imagined consumption can very tangibly impact eating behaviour.
Imagining social change: Facilitating imagination opens the possibility for social change, creating directions toward alternative societies, ways of life, justice and fairer distribution of economic goods. Seamus Power also points out that imagining the future informs people’s comparisons and, in that process, can generate feelings of galvanizing social movements.
The limits of our imagination
While it is tempting to assume that we have no limits on our imagination, what we consider to be plausible imagined possibilities can be influenced. For example, someone from a less privileged background may not be able to imagine themselves as a doctor, or the sportsperson may not be able to imagine themselves beating a rival. And on a broader social level, UK politician, Margaret Thatcher, famously considered that ‘There is No Alternative’ (TINA) to the system of economic austerity that was being introduced at the time, despite, as David Bollier’s TAPAS suggests, There are Plenty of Alternatives but we were discouraged from imagining them.
So how can we find ourselves in a position where our imagination is shaped? A well-studied area of research has explored how different frames in communication can affect attitudes and behaviour. Any every issue can of course be viewed from a variety of different perspectives so in many ways, frames are useful. For those doing the communicating, framing can help convey an argument, typically by emphasizing a specific set of considerations. For listeners, they play a key role in distilling complex topics into practicable components so that people can identify its relevance and form opinions. Research has shown that can play a decisive role in determining overall attitudes and preferences on an issue.
Frames are not, however, neutral. Journalists, interest groups, environmentalists, and vested interests compete to elevate frames that reflect their own concerns and ideologies. The relevant point for us is that the way information is framed can lead to our imaginations being constrained. If something is deemed not possible or is not viable then we are less likely to imaginatively explore these possibilities. This is similar to the notion of the Overton Window which frames the range of policies can be recommended without seeming too extreme given the climate of public opinion at that point in time.
How frames can limit climate change imagination
Returning to our opening topic, there has been a great deal of research in the way in which different frames related to climate change can constrain our behaviour: frames emphasizing economic cost reduce support for climate mitigation , while those emphasizing gains are can garner support.. Researchers have hypothesized that uncertainty frames confuse people about the state of the science, and reduce our propensity to engage in mitigation behaviour.
On this point, a more recent paper by sustainability researcher, William Lamb and co-authors suggests that outright denial of climate change has been replaced by more subtle discourses, or frames, that accept the existence of climate change, but justify inaction or inadequate efforts. Alongside the co-authors Lamb points to the underlying logic used to discourage climate action, revolving around four key questions: (1) Is it our responsibility to take actions? (2) Are transformative changes necessary? (3) Is it desirable to mitigate climate change, given the costs? (4) Is it still possible to mitigate climate change?
While each of these build on reasonable concerns and fears, they can readily become arguments for delay – our imagination about the possibility of living in different ways being constrained to ‘business as usual’.
Popular conceptions of imagination can tend to see it as something that is of passing interest, and a very individual act. Yet, there is not only a strong case for the huge impact that our imagination has on our behaviour but we can also see that it is something that is not a purely individual act but has a significant collective aspect to it. The collective element is communicated (along with other mechanisms) through framing of issues, subtly shaping our collective imagination of what is and what is not possible.
This shared element to our imagination is something that offers humans great opportunities – we are not constrained by our own minds and imaginations but can tap into the minds of others to operate in a collective manner. But this strength is also a weakness – the collective nature of imagination can make us vulnerable to misinformation and to framing of issues that can make it appear as if action is pointless or at least constrain our imaginative possibilities. Which is surely what we see reflected in the recent Netflix film, Don’t Look Up.
Given that climate change, technology disruption and COVID are creating fundamental challenges, we are being asked to imagine different ways of living, consuming and acting as citizens. While both public sector and commercial institutions are keen to encourage change, people need to be able to embrace the imaginative possibilities that these changes confer. There is a case therefore for us to more specifically understand the way in which imagination operates and to use this as a conceptual framing for helping to drive engagement and behaviour.