Fear of the unknown

“Learn about your fear and your fear goes away”- The Brain, Arthur cartoon

 

In a matter of just a few years, the smorgasbord of online information that feeds our ravenous fingertips has left an after-party mess. The optimism we initially felt at free, open access to SO MUCH research, resources, and, yes, even rhetoric, now feels like a tangled mess.

With so much available information comes the dubious task of making sense of the confusion, of sorting out what’s true and who’s actually an expert on a particular subject matter. In my head, it sometimes feels like there are sixteen neighbour parties all going on at once, each one competing to be the noisiest, the coolest, the most legit party on the block.

Confusion can make you feel as if you can’t think clearly. You become anxious. Anxiety can cause you to become suspicious. Suspicion provokes more anxiety. Suspicion and anxiety stealthily wiggle into your brain cracks and when their mycelium-like tentacles have spread enough to comfortably sustain itself, you start to doubt what you thought you knew – and fear is born.

Fear is a “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined.”

And many of our fears today are imagined (or at least, not as big as we make them out to be). In a time when the developed world has never had it so good (food secure – in fact so secure that the amount of waste is horrendous; access to the latest advances in health care with innovations in tech driving it forward by leaps and bounds every day; and multiple online and real-world educational opportunities, to name a few examples), we start making stuff up to be worried about – because we have the luxury to do so. It seems almost masochistic: Why do humans look for problems where there are none?

The blue dot effect, otherwise known as prevalence-induced concept change, is a phenomenon where the more we look for threats, the more we’ll see them, despite how safe or comfortable our environment actually is. “When we’re on the lookout for something, bad behaviour, for example, and the instances of this bad behaviour lessen, we expand our concept to include what would have previously been almost bad behaviour. In essence, we lower our bar for what qualifies as bad. We don’t seem happy in this land of relative abundance,” says Sam Brinson in his article ‘The Psychology of Finding What You’re Looking For.’

There are so many damn blue dots out there. Everyone has a dot. Everyone is a dot. What dot do you believe? What dot is a true expert? What dots connected would finally lead you to the truth?

For a consumer who’s never had any interactions with food or farming processes aside from the grocery store aisle (where brands shout at them ‘Buy me, buy me! I’m natural! I’m organic! I’m grass fed! I’m non-GMO! I’m your dream food, dammit!’) or whose food/farm interactions are limited to often questionable sources on the internet, it can be extremely difficult to differentiate between alternative facts, fake news, myths and the truth about food and farming.

Consumers are afraid, understandably, to make the wrong choice because it might be bad for their family, the environment or their health. It’s too time consuming to sift through all the online research behind every single decision; finding the right (true) answer can be like trying to find a particular grain of sand on a beach. So, the ‘wisdom’ of the crowd carries the day. And what crowd you’re being directed to depends on where search algorithms are sending you based on your previous searches.

“Learn about your fear and your fear will go away”, says The Brain. Easier said than done when, as Seth Godin put it, “total information awareness is a fiction” particularly in the black hole of the internet.

Help people learn about and overcome about their food and farming fears by asking questions and listening to their concerns. Dig deeper into surface comments like, “Well, I just won’t buy GMO foods, because I know they’re bad.” Smash assumptions you might have about why someone feels the way the do. Tell stories and use metaphors and analogies to help them understand a concept. Consider where they’re at on the knowledge spectrum so you can provide the most useful and relevant information. Talk to them, not at them.

Each one-on-one conversation has the power to radiate outwards. We like to look informed and knowledgeable among friends, family and peers. We like to be the first to share novel information. One conversation could ultimately spark hundreds, or thousands, of others.

“Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time,” said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Lasting change – important change – is incremental.

Each drip causes a ripple.

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