The Science of Engaging Existential Risk
We face an unprecedented set of existential threats to humanity — what some call the ‘polycrisis.’ These include nuclear war and catastrophic climate change, as well as emerging threats from AI and bioengineering that could result in mass loss of life and/or destruction of critical ecosystems and infrastructure. These are the threats that human civilization would be unlikely to recover from.
Humans are notoriously unwilling or unable to engage in deep thinking about or active prevention of, existential threats. Our emotional distress, lack of perceived agency, the tendency to discount the future, perceived psychological distance from the threat, and poor capacity to judge non-linearities all play a role in hindering us from engaging more deeply.
But if we are going to navigate the existential threats we face, which we must, and then diminish them, we need to help each other overcome the barriers to engaging them. We will review recent work in psychology, science communication, futures thinking, and human-centred design on how these barriers work and on how we might overcome them.
We are engaged in the following work, which we will report on in our panel discussion:
1) reviewing multi-disciplinary academic research in cognitive science, affective psychology, the science of science communication, risk communication, and other areas of scholarship that can inform the challenges we face as humans in engaging existential threats and taking action to counter them
2) network building among “committed outlier” professionals who are unusual in the extent to which they have committed their professional lives to reducing existential threats and learning from them individually and collectively
3) through the Decolonizing Futures Initiative, engaging marginalized communities around the world in imagining their preferred futures, countering a “one size fits all” approach to foresight
4) analysing existing design approaches to catalysing action to reduce existential threats, and envisioning future design principles that could help to counter barriers to engaging existential threats
This work is ongoing, but we will share what we have learned thus far, as well as plans for future research and design projects.
Our research has identified psychological and sociological barriers to deep engagement with existential threats and/or to behaviour change or directed action to reduce those threats. As scientists, designers, social innovators, and futurists, we are taking a multidisciplinary approach to understanding these barriers and to identifying and testing new ways to increase engagement with existential threats. Our research is ongoing, but our eventual goal is to develop actionable tools and approaches that can be used by scientists, science communicators, policymakers, and leaders, in multiple cultural contexts, to help the audiences they care about mode deeply engage with existential threats and take action to reduce them.