Jyotika Virmani is the senior director for Prize Operations at Shell Ocean Discovery xPrize. The $7 million xPrize challenge is designed to accelerate ocean exploration and inspire the public by uncovering some of the mysteries that await us below the wavering surface of the water.
Virmani wanted to understand why the public seems to engage enthusiastically with the space program, but not with ocean exploration. Her team examined public perception of ocean news. While the results of the study haven’t been published, Virmani explained the initial findings: “Space stories are generally very positive – exploring a new planet or finding life out there, or tapping into that human achievement of getting into space.”
Space exploration captures the imagination. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman
Ocean stories, on the other hand, are often framed by what’s wrong: ocean acidification, marine debris, and coral bleaching events are pressing concerns requiring action. And, it turns out most people aren’t very good at making decisions when stories are framed negatively. What if the frames we commonly use to discuss oceans, rather than engaging, serve as barriers to progress?
Public perception of ocean stories can be better understood when partnered with cognitive bias research. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, starting with their 1974 paper, "Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases," created a paradigm shift in our understanding of decision-making (for which Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in 2002). The duo set out to determine if humans were “intuitive statisticians” and discovered that we are, in fact, not.
Humans make decisions using heuristics — mental shortcuts — that may or may not lead us to the best possible outcome, especially when playing with odds. When a person is presented with options based on the probability of an outcome, they are more likely to select the option that is framed in a positive light.
While this discussion barely skims the surface of framing research (for more, see here and here), one thing is clear: When the outcome of a decision is uncertain, as it is with climate change, how the message is framed impacts the actions we take. By focusing on the positive and tapping into the sense of magic and awe that awaits us below the surface, we could better engage the public.
“The ocean is full of alien creatures,” Virmani said. “We're looking into space, but we have entire alien creatures on our own planet that can glow in the dark, conduct electricity, have eight limbs and you can see through them.”
Video Credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium
Virmani cites the recent discovery of 40 ancient shipwrecks in the Black Sea and a 7,200-foot tall underwater volcano (accidentally located during the search for the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines flight 370) as evidence of all that waits for us, if we engage with ocean exploration.
“Our largest museum on Earth is the deep sea because it preserves so much. It’s such a massive store of historical knowledge and we just do not yet have access to it,” Virmani said. She remains confident that we will eventually access it all because, she cheerfully adds, “How often do we get to explore a new planet?”
As I think about how to frame the stories I’ll write in the coming year, I will do so in ways that offer hope and foster a connection with the ocean. And, I approach the end of 2016 imagining that Virmani and others like her will be exploring our own "new planet" very soon.