Does analytical thinking turn people off to fusion?

Posted by Rezwan Razani on Apr 29, 2012 at 08:58 AM
What do you think about this? Let us know in the comments below!

Why is fusion underfunded

Does it have something to do with a study that shows people contribute less to something when the analytical part of their mind is activated?

If the study is right, then public support for fusion is pretty much doomed at the gate.

The Rokia Study

The study, described in “Made to Stick,” started by looking at how people respond to charity request letters that were worded analytically vs. emotionally.

The people in the study earned $5 for filling out some random questionnaire.  That was just a decoy to get them to feel they had just earned $5.  The real purpose of the test was to give them the opportunity to donate to a charity and see how much of their $5 they would part with. 

Before leaving with their cash, they were given a charity request letter.

One group received an analytical letter that gave overall statistics to the problem of poverty faced by a mass of people.  The other group received information about a single poor young girl named Rokia.  The Rokia letter described concrete things about how her life would change with the contribution. 

And the verdict?

People who read the “Rokia” letter donated twice as much to the charity.  The researchers thought this might be because people connect better with an individual than with masses.  Perhaps reading about the overall need of so many people was overwhelming, triggering a feeling of apathy.  The researchers decided to test this idea by having a third set of people read both letters, the statistics and the Rokia appeal. 

The result?  The group that read both letters contributed just a tiny bit more than the group that had read only the statistical letter.  It was still much less than the Rokia letter alone.

The researchers then wondered if this reduced contribution had something to do with analytical thinking itself.  Could it be that analytical thinking reduces emotional thinking, and emotional connection is what makes people act on something? To test this, the researchers:

...ran a second study.  In this study they primed some people to think in an analytical way by asking questions such as, “If an object travels at five feet per minute, then by your calculations how many feet will it travel in 360 seconds?”  Other people were primed to think in terms of feelings:  “Please write down one word to describe how you feel when you hear the word ‘baby’.”

Then both groups were given the Rokia letter.  And, confirming the researcher’s theory, the analytically primed people gave less.  When people were primed to feel before they read about Rokia, they gave $2.34, about the same as before.  But when they were primed to calculate before they read about Rokia, they gave $1.26”

What does this mean for fusion?

Fusion advocates have a difficult task.  They want to create enthusiasm for fusion research, but few people understand the research, and few people want to support something they don’t understand.  So the fusion advocate tries to explain.  Things get pretty technical pretty quick.  The eyes of your potential supporter glaze over.

Are people put off by the sheer analytical component of this endeavor? 

I picture Rene Zellwegger in the sequel to Jerry Maguire when Jerry becomes a fusion advocate.  She says, “You had me (turned off) at “thermo…”

But does the Rokia study apply to fusion? 

Could it be that all this time, the fusion community has been struggling for funding because:

  • people who don’t know much about fusion feel they need to understand the physics, but this is intimidating and kicks in the analytical turn-off switch;
  • People who are comfortable with the analytical side aren’t good at materially funding it because even though their intellect is engaged, the analytical switch is still a turn off for “material support” type actions.  When you’re in your head, you don’t respond to the material need. 


This could be why “overselling” has worked for fusion.  It’s not because of the fusion promises, but because the oversellers simply cut out the analytical portion. 

The implication here is thrilling.  The fusion community struggles with the choice of “overselling” vs. selling themselves short.  Neither of these is satisfactory.  But it may be that you don’t need to promise/over promise/ oversell.  Fusion advocates can create an emotional connection with the quest for fusion itself, and still get the funding.

It could be that it’s not the presence of the promise, it’s the absence of the analytical.

An experiment

We’ll need do studies on this, of course.  Back of the envelope studies, where we draft tech vs. feely stories on fusion, send them to various people with an appeal for funds and see if there is a difference in response. 

More comparative campaigns need to be tried.

Your input is welcome!

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