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Do Scientists Have a Special Responsibility to Engage in Political Advocacy?
James Hansen, NASA climate scientist, has argued strongly against Cap and Trade legislation, promoted the need for a carbon tax, complained of muzzling by the Bush administration, and has even been arrested for protesting coal burning power plants. As a scientist and citizen, does Hansen have a moral duty to speak out on policy and politics? Or does he step over an important boundary, risking his own credibility and that of climate science by engaging in political activism?
Questions about how scientists should participate in public debates over science-related issues such as climate policy or voice their preferences when it comes to a specific election, have emerged as major topics of discussion. In a survey report released by Pew last year, 76% of the public and 97% of scientists said it was indeed appropriate for scientists to "become actively involved in political debates." These survey results suggest that perhaps the outlook on scientists and their role in the political process may be changing.
Still though, despite what appears to be widely shared acceptance of scientists' involvement in politics, as Roger Pielke Jr. argues, many scientists still run from the label of advocate. Instead these scientists often describe their efforts not as an attempt at promoting a particular policy direction but as simply scientific popularization. This tendency toward “stealth issue advocacy” may be the greater risk to their credibility.
So perhaps many scientists--when they claim they are not engaging in advocacy--are misreading not only public opinion but also the opinions of their peers. Is it possible that all that is needed is more open discussion about the types of advocacy roles scientists can fulfill, a discussion that would enable scientists to define and articulate exactly what they are doing when they join the political fray?
For insight on this question, I interviewed last week Michael Nelson, associate professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Michigan State University. In a recent jointly authored article and book, Nelson has begun to re-articulate the debate over scientists as advocates, arguing that in fact, scientists have a special responsibility to become involved in policy debates.—Matthew Nisbet
How do you define advocacy?
In our article “On Advocacy by Environmental Scientists: What, Whether, Why, and How” my co-author, John Vucetich, and I define advocacy as first of all entailing more than merely conducting research and communicating results through primarily scientific venues—even if the nature of the research is inspired by or relevant to a policy matter. For us, advocacy entails promoting, developing, or assessing policy positions. Moreover, we also consider the assessment of policy a form of advocacy because policy assessment routinely entails important yet obfuscated promotion or refutation of a policy, even when the assessor is unaware of such affects.
In a recent (though not yet published) survey that I conducted with some colleagues, this notion of advocacy, in comparison to some others used in the science and advocacy literature, was the most agreed upon by those in leadership positions in various professional conservation organizations.
What is the difference between advocacy and popularization --i.e. communicating about science---which is generally considered uncontroversial? Is there sometimes a false distinction here?
Right, advocacy for the use of science as a tool for discovery, or even communicating the results of scientific findings, seems relatively uncontroversial. We have to remember, however, that we are just coming off roughly a decade where even reporting the results of one’s science could be risky and could subject the scientist to censure – a decade where non-scientist political appointees had no qualms with, and often suffered no penalties for, interfering with science.
Certainly, advocating for the use of science and for revealing the discoveries of science, as well as for specific policy positions are forms of advocacy. Simply because the former is uncontroversial does not mean it is not a form of advocacy, it most certainly is. So in some ways the question is not, is advocacy acceptable, but which kinds of advocacy are acceptable and, most importantly, how ought we to go about advocacy and how ought we as a scientific community react to advocacy. Very little of the vast literature on science and advocacy considers or treats the topic in a sophisticated manner.
What are some of the common arguments against scientists engaging in advocacy?
The arguments against advocacy all suggest that, while scientists seem to have a prima facie duty to serve society, this obligation is overridden by something else: concerns about the loss of credibility, the conflict of time and energy, or a conflict with the fundamental nature of science itself (e.g., assumptions about objectivity vs. subjectivity). But scientists vary wildly on the relationship between these conflicts and advocacy. For some, advocacy is strictly taboo. Some actually do not see a necessary conflict between science and advocacy and believe that scientists are justified in their advocacy at times.
A few, very few, believe they have a moral obligation to be advocates, mainly motivated by their sense of being citizens first and scientists second. In the survey I alluded to above, the leadership of these professional conservation organizations were overwhelmingly, and surprisingly of the opinion that it was okay for scientists and scientific organizations to advocate, at least sometimes.
In your article, you draw upon an interesting comparison when discussing the argument that scientists don't have enough time for advocacy work. You compare balancing advocacy and scientific research with commitment to a marriage. Can you explain?
I think the “time argument” is something of a copout. As morally mature human beings we have many moral commitments, and sometimes these commitments conflict with one another, and sometimes we might lack the time or energy to fulfill them all. I have a commitment to my spouse to fulfill certain responsibilities of marriage. I also have various obligations to my neighbors, my community, my university, my various departments, my colleagues, my students, etc.. The simple fact that I cannot always and in each and every case fulfill all of these various commitments does not mean that I do not have them, nor does it mean that I am a hypocrite if I fail to realize them all.
Think of the morally mature person as a juggler, working hard to keep in the air the many moral obligations that they’ve taken on as the morally mature person. The morally mature person is bound to also be the person who drops the ball sometimes. Navigating the rich world of moral commitments that we hold is tough, no doubt, but it is also the obligation we have as morally mature and capable people. It certainly takes wisdom, and courage, and attention, but it is also a rewarding and privileged position.
In discussing the reasons to engage in advocacy, you suggest that scientific research itself is value-laden. What do you mean by this?
I want to be careful here. We know people often claim that science is not value laden, and we know there are other people who point out that science most certainly is value laden. I do not think the former position is defendable, but the latter position needs to be cautious. The mistake that both sides make, I think, is that they try to quickly reach other conclusions based on the premise that science is or is not value laden. In many ways, science is value laden because we are humans and the world we live in is value laden. And I would say this is not a bad thing or something to be afraid of or wish away.
Scientists choose their topics of study (and choose against other topics of study), frame questions in a certain manner (and not in some other manner), accept funding from certain sources (and not from other sources – though there’s certainly more accepting than not accepting). Governments or corporations or agencies fund science, and scientists are employed by governments or corporations or agencies. Science employs concepts such as carrying capacity, health, and conservation. All of these things are normatively laden and it is probably dangerously delusional to think otherwise. All one needs to do is read a little history of science to know how quaint is the notion of value free science.
Now, from this fact alone, however, it does not follow that scientists ought to be advocates, nor that they ought not be advocates. Likewise, if scientists could actually successfully argue that science was not value laden in any way, it would not follow from that fact alone that scientists ought not be advocates. So, in some ways the question about the value laden nature of science, while interesting and fun to think and read about, is quite separate from the question of whether or not scientists ought to be advocates.
You argue that scientists have a "special responsibility" to engage in advocacy. Can you explain?
I shutter when I think about the implications of stripping scientists – those who might know more about some given topic then anyone else – of their citizenship. I do not think people know what they are saying or implying when they say scientists should not be advocates, or when scientists justify their lack of advocacy or criticize their peers on this basis. I can hardly imagine anything more undemocratic, unhealthy, and un-American than knowingly stripping someone of their citizenship, or knowingly giving it up.
As we argue in our Conservation Biology paper, citizens in a democracy have a moral obligation to actively promote within their society that which they are justified in thinking is right or good and to actively opposing that which they are justified in thinking is wrong or bad. Consequently, because they are citizens, every scientist has an obligation to be just and transparently honest advocates. Societies behave unethically when they expect or encourage their citizens to abdicate their privileges and responsibilities as citizens without adequate justification. When scientists reject advocacy as a principle, they reject a fundamental aspect of their citizenship. Rejecting one’s responsibility as a citizen is unethical. An important part of this, however, is the manner in which scientists, as citizens, are obligated to be advocates: in a justified and transparent manner. We have too often seen scientists, and others, not advocating in this manner.
Culturally, in comparison to other fields such as climate science or physics, is there something different about the fields of conservation biology and ecology, where there is perhaps more acceptance and more of a natural turn towards advocacy? Is it easier for conservation biologists and ecologists to be advocates, or do the same considerations apply to all scientists?
This might be the case, it is something of an empirical question and would make for an interesting bit of scholarship. A number of scholars have suggested that it is a short leap from describing the state of nature, as ecologists do, to being willing to act on behalf of nature. I am not sure we understand a lot about the nature of that “short leap.” I would guess it would have something to do with the love of that which you study, or the love of studying living things and systems (something akin to the biophilia hypothesis). Conservation biology from its very inception, however, has quite intentionally and unabashedly been motivated by the normative assumption that the diversity of life is a good thing, a value quite apart from its mere use value.
Certainly this makes some conservation biologists uneasy, and there are always attempts to “purify” the discipline by ridding it of these roots, but the intrinsic value of nature has been there from the beginning. If I admittedly and intrinsically value that which I study, and if in my study of it I discover threats to it, I think the leap to my willingness to act on its behalf is hardly a leap at all.
You also argue that if advocacy is done effectively by a scientist, they are at little risk for losing their credibility. But what about universities or scientific societies: If more of their faculty or members are engaging in advocacy, does this jeopardize the reputation or funding support for a university? Or the reputation of a scientific society?
I do not really believe that scientific credibility is as fragile as other people seem to believe. Scientists can be terrible people and still do good science, or they can be wonderful people and do bad science, and we can all make that distinction. Moreover, we sometimes forget that it is the scientific community that is the gatekeeper of credibility. If a scientist or scientific community cannot draw a distinction between a person and their advocacy on the one hand, and their science on the other, then shame on us. If we give away the control over our own ability to judge credibility, then shame on us.
I actually think that universities, especially land grant universities, would gain some credibility in the eye of the public if they became more engaged. Certainly if they advocate without transparency and in an unjustified manner that would be a terrible thing – and we see some of that today. But can you imagine a university where scientists worked with communication specialists, philosopher of science, ethicists, writers and poets and film makers, to consider and craft messages relaying the results of their work in a justified and transparent manner? Where we all took engagement as a sacred duty, as a way to justify and measure and test our work? Can you imagine what an example that would set in a culture that currently struggles so much with basic notions of civility?
Are there places where you draw the line on advocacy. For example do you make a distinction between advocating for a) general societal action on climate change, b) specifically for passage of Cap and Trade legislation and c) specific advocacy in support of a political candidate or one political party that has a preferred position on climate change?
I am not sure I would necessarily draw the distinction there, I am not sure that my advocacy for a general societal action and the support of a candidate or specific legislation can be reasonably disentangled from one another. Scientists have always supported legislation, societal actions, and candidates that supported increasing science funding or perpetuated certain myths about the advance of science and the advance of civilization (see Daniel Sarewitz’s Frontiers of Illusion). Would I, however, draw the line on advocacy somewhere else? Again, I think if we stick to the basic idea that advocacy is acceptable if it is justified and transparent, then that is where I would draw the line. Some of what goes by the name of advocacy today is inappropriate for sure, but not because it is advocacy, but because it is done in an unjustified and/or un-transparent fashion. I guess at the end of the day I do not worry about the results of advocacy done in a justified and transparent manner.
How does James Hansen's advocacy work fit with the framework of your arguments? Is Hansen an ideal type scientist advocate? Or are there elements of Hansen's advocacy that generate cause for concern? Is his status as a Federal employee raise issues?
I think Hansen if probably pretty close to what I am thinking about here. I do not think I am aware of anything he does that is not based in the best available science, transparent, premised upon fairly uncontroversial normative assumptions, and justified. His status as a Federal employee might raise issues with those who believe that Federal employees should not be advocates (or should not be advocates for certain policies – since when Federal employees advocate for some policies no one bats an eye), or with those who do not agree with what he is advocating. On the other hand, if Federal employees are not working on behalf of the well-being of the public what are they doing? But at least with this type of advocacy it is transparent, it could be laid out as a formal argument, we could have a rational discussion about the argument, its premises and inferences, we would know where to begin a rich conversation.
Last year you participated in the Columbia River Quorum, a summit among members of each of the four academic cultures to discuss strategies for how each of these disciplines can participate together in public communication initiatives about climate change. In other academic cultures such as the humanities or even the social sciences, do think there is a different view about advocacy? In other words, are these disciplines more open to advocacy historically?
The question of advocacy comes up far less in the humanities I think. This might be because we are not taken as seriously as are scientists. We are not well placed to have the impact that scientists can have. It might be that questions of advocacy are heightened in disciplines that are wealthier, more powerful, perceived to be more central. Historically, however, philosophers believed advocacy to be a duty and they were great advocates. In fact, they sometimes suffered terribly and unjustly for it. One might argue that Socrates was put to death because of his advocacy. Somehow, somewhere we lost that. By and large, though certainly not universally, philosophers do not engage with the world in a way that many would recognize as engaged, helpful, relevant, or even understandable. It is a strange thing to me because what we possess and what we teach and the skills that we can bring to bare if we chose to are amazingly powerful. What I am talking about is really basic, but equally lacking: critical analysis and serious rational thought. Philosophers could be great partners and collaborators with biological scientists, media specialists, and social scientists. And although there are some serious obstacles here, such partnerships have incredible potential for good in the world, and they could well serve all disciplines.
What types of advocacy initiatives do you see as requiring four culture collaborations?
Here is just one. In the last week I published a book with philosopher and writer, Kathleen Dean Moore, Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril (Trinity University Press, 2010). The book is premised upon a philosophical or ethical argument. The first premise of the argument, that we are doing great and harm to the world such that we are infringing upon the well-being of the future, is established by the biological and social scientists. Advocates immediately take these facts, these bits of information, and try to urge us to act to prevent these harms. But we know that people are not acting. They do not act because from any given set of facts alone no specific course of action follows. We need to make, loud and beautifully clear, the missing second premise.
We need to argue that we have a moral obligation to leave a world as rich in possibilities as the world that was left to us. So, our book is a collection of over 80 recognized moral voices (scientists and politicians, ethicist and writers, religious leaders and business leaders) who all argue that we do have just such an obligation. So, the basic framework comes from philosophy. But the first premise is from the sciences. The idea of how we convey or communicate this message is from media and communication specialists. We argue that only by fusing science, with ethics, with communication specialists, with writers and poets and film makers will be fully capable of addressing our environmental problems that are, by their nature, precisely this multi-dimensional.
I love to think about these fusions. Philosophers working on films, poets inspired by the work of a scientist, communication experts wrestling over messages with sympathetic and creative colleagues from the sciences and humanities. We all know that the academy is not currently like this, but it could be, and just think about the possibilities, the power of this, and the good fun.
--Interview with Michael Nelson, Michigan State University
For more on what Nelson calls second premise fusions, see this previous post and article on “four culture” partnerships at universities.
What do readers think? Does Nelson make a convincing case about the need for scientists to engage as advocates? Do you agree with Nelson that when scientists reject advocacy as a principle, they reject part of their citizenship?
Watch below a Big Think interview with James Hansen as he advocates for a carbon tax [Transcript follows]. Do you agree with Nelson that Hansen is an ideal example of a scientist-advocate?
Northwell Health is using insights from website traffic to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations two weeks in the future.
- The machine-learning algorithm works by analyzing the online behavior of visitors to the Northwell Health website and comparing that data to future COVID-19 hospitalizations.
- The tool, which uses anonymized data, has so far predicted hospitalizations with an accuracy rate of 80 percent.
- Machine-learning tools are helping health-care professionals worldwide better constrain and treat COVID-19.
The value of forecasting<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTA0Njk2OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMzM2NDQzOH0.rid9regiDaKczCCKBsu7wrHkNQ64Vz_XcOEZIzAhzgM/img.jpg?width=980" id="2bb93" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="31345afbdf2bd408fd3e9f31520c445a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1546" data-height="1056" />
Northwell emergency departments use the dashboard to monitor in real time.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>One unique benefit of forecasting COVID-19 hospitalizations is that it allows health systems to better prepare, manage and allocate resources. For example, if the tool forecasted a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations in two weeks, Northwell Health could begin:</p><ul><li>Making space for an influx of patients</li><li>Moving personal protective equipment to where it's most needed</li><li>Strategically allocating staff during the predicted surge</li><li>Increasing the number of tests offered to asymptomatic patients</li></ul><p>The health-care field is increasingly using machine learning. It's already helping doctors develop <a href="https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/early/2020/06/09/dc19-1870" target="_blank">personalized care plans for diabetes patients</a>, improving cancer screening techniques, and enabling mental health professionals to better predict which patients are at <a href="https://healthitanalytics.com/news/ehr-data-fuels-accurate-predictive-analytics-for-suicide-risk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevated risk of suicide</a>, to name a few applications.</p><p>Health systems around the world have already begun exploring how <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7315944/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">machine learning can help battle the pandemic</a>, including better COVID-19 screening, diagnosis, contact tracing, and drug and vaccine development.</p><p>Cruzen said these kinds of tools represent a shift in how health systems can tackle a wide variety of problems.</p><p>"Health care has always used the past to predict the future, but not in this mathematical way," Cruzen said. "I think [Northwell Health's new predictive tool] really is a great first example of how we should be attacking a lot of things as we go forward."</p>
Making machine-learning tools openly accessible<p>Northwell Health has made its predictive tool <a href="https://github.com/northwell-health/covid-web-data-predictor" target="_blank">available for free</a> to any health system that wishes to utilize it.</p><p>"COVID is everybody's problem, and I think developing tools that can be used to help others is sort of why people go into health care," Dr. Cruzen said. "It was really consistent with our mission."</p><p>Open collaboration is something the world's governments and health systems should be striving for during the pandemic, said Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's president and CEO.</p><p>"Whenever you develop anything and somebody else gets it, they improve it and they continue to make it better," Dowling said. "As a country, we lack data. I believe very, very strongly that we should have been and should be now working with other countries, including China, including the European Union, including England and others to figure out how to develop a health surveillance system so you can anticipate way in advance when these things are going to occur."</p><p>In all, Northwell Health has treated more than 112,000 COVID patients. During the pandemic, Dowling said he's seen an outpouring of goodwill, collaboration, and sacrifice from the community and the tens of thousands of staff who work across Northwell.</p><p>"COVID has changed our perspective on everything—and not just those of us in health care, because it has disrupted everybody's life," Dowling said. "It has demonstrated the value of community, how we help one another."</p>
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
A new study proposes mysterious axions may be found in X-rays coming from a cluster of neutron stars.
Are Axions Dark Matter?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5e35ce24a5b17102bfce5ae6aecc7c14"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/e7yXqF32Yvw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
New research suggests you can't fake your emotional state to improve your work life — you have to feel it.
What is deep acting?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTQ1NDk2OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTY5MzA0Nn0._s7aP25Es1CInq51pbzGrUj3GtOIRWBHZxCBFnbyXY8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=333%2C-1%2C333%2C-1&height=700" id="ddf09" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9dc42c4d6a8e372ad7b72907b46ecd3f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Arlie Russell Hochschild (pictured) laid out the concept of emotional labor in her 1983 book, "The Managed Heart."
Credit: Wikimedia Commons<p>Deep and surface acting are the principal components of emotional labor, a buzz phrase you have likely seen flitting about the Twittersphere. Today, "<a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/5ea9f140-f722-4214-bb57-8b84f9418a7e" target="_blank">emotional labor</a>" has been adopted by groups as diverse as family counselors, academic feminists, and corporate CEOs, and each has redefined it with a patented spin. But while the phrase has splintered into a smorgasbord of pop-psychological arguments, its initial usage was more specific.</p><p>First coined by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in her 1983 book, "<a href="https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520272941/the-managed-heart" target="_blank">The Managed Heart</a>," emotional labor describes the work we do to regulate our emotions on the job. Hochschild's go-to example is the flight attendant, who is tasked with being "nicer than natural" to enhance the customer experience. While at work, flight attendants are expected to smile and be exceedingly helpful even if they are wrestling with personal issues, the passengers are rude, and that one kid just upchucked down the center aisle. Hochschild's counterpart to the flight attendant is the bill collector, who must instead be "nastier than natural."</p><p>Such personas may serve an organization's mission or commercial interests, but if they cause emotional dissonance, they can potentially lead to high emotional costs for the employee—bringing us back to deep and surface acting.</p><p>Deep acting is the process by which people modify their emotions to match their expected role. Deep actors still encounter the negative emotions, but they devise ways to <a href="http://www.selfinjury.bctr.cornell.edu/perch/resources/what-is-emotion-regulationsinfo-brief.pdf" target="_blank">regulate those emotions</a> and return to the desired state. Flight attendants may modify their internal state by talking through harsh emotions (say, with a coworker), focusing on life's benefits (next stop Paris!), physically expressing their desired emotion (smiling and deep breaths), or recontextualizing an inauspicious situation (not the kid's fault he got sick).</p><p>Conversely, surface acting occurs when employees display ersatz emotions to match those expected by their role. These actors are the waiters who smile despite being crushed by the stress of a dinner rush. They are the CEOs who wear a confident swagger despite feelings of inauthenticity. And they are the bouncers who must maintain a steely edge despite humming show tunes in their heart of hearts.</p><p>As we'll see in the research, surface acting can degrade our mental well-being. This deterioration can be especially true of people who must contend with negative emotions or situations inside while displaying an elated mood outside. Hochschild argues such emotional labor can lead to exhaustion and self-estrangement—that is, surface actors erect a bulwark against anger, fear, and stress, but that disconnect estranges them from the emotions that allow them to connect with others and live fulfilling lives.</p>
Don't fake it till you make it<p>Most studies on emotional labor have focused on customer service for the obvious reason that such jobs prescribe emotional states—service with a smile or, if you're in the bouncing business, a scowl. But <a href="https://eller.arizona.edu/people/allison-s-gabriel" target="_blank">Allison Gabriel</a>, associate professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management, wanted to explore how employees used emotional labor strategies in their intra-office interactions and which strategies proved most beneficial.</p><p>"What we wanted to know is whether people choose to engage in emotion regulation when interacting with their co-workers, why they choose to regulate their emotions if there is no formal rule requiring them to do so, and what benefits, if any, they get out of this effort," Gabriel said in <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200117162703.htm" target="_blank">a press release</a>.</p><p>Across three studies, she and her colleagues surveyed more than 2,500 full-time employees on their emotional regulation with coworkers. The survey asked participants to agree or disagree with statements such as "I try to experience the emotions that I show to my coworkers" or "I fake a good mood when interacting with my coworkers." Other statements gauged the outcomes of such strategies—for example, "I feel emotionally drained at work." Participants were drawn from industries as varied as education, engineering, and financial services.</p><p>The results, <a href="https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fapl0000473" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">published in the Journal of Applied Psychology</a>, revealed four different emotional strategies. "Deep actors" engaged in high levels of deep acting; "low actors" leaned more heavily on surface acting. Meanwhile, "non-actors" engaged in negligible amounts of emotional labor, while "regulators" switched between both. The survey also revealed two drivers for such strategies: prosocial and impression management motives. The former aimed to cultivate positive relationships, the latter to present a positive front.</p><p>The researchers found deep actors were driven by prosocial motives and enjoyed advantages from their strategy of choice. These actors reported lower levels of fatigue, fewer feelings of inauthenticity, improved coworker trust, and advanced progress toward career goals. </p><p>As Gabriel told <a href="https://www.psypost.org/2021/01/new-psychology-research-suggests-deep-acting-can-reduce-fatigue-and-improve-your-work-life-59081" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PsyPost in an interview</a>: "So, it's a win-win-win in terms of feeling good, performing well, and having positive coworker interactions."</p><p>Non-actors did not report the emotional exhaustion of their low-actor peers, but they also didn't enjoy the social gains of the deep actors. Finally, the regulators showed that the flip-flopping between surface and deep acting drained emotional reserves and strained office relationships.</p><p>"I think the 'fake it until you make it' idea suggests a survival tactic at work," Gabriel noted. "Maybe plastering on a smile to simply get out of an interaction is easier in the short run, but long term, it will undermine efforts to improve your health and the relationships you have at work. </p><p>"It all boils down to, 'Let's be nice to each other.' Not only will people feel better, but people's performance and social relationships can also improve."</p>
You'll be glad ya' decided to smile<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="88a0a6a8d1c1abfcf7b1aca8e71247c6"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/QOSgpq9EGSw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>But as with any research that relies on self-reported data, there are confounders here to untangle. Even during anonymous studies, participants may select socially acceptable answers over honest ones. They may further interpret their goal progress and coworker interactions more favorably than is accurate. And certain work conditions may not produce the same effects, such as toxic work environments or those that require employees to project negative emotions.</p><p>There also remains the question of the causal mechanism. If surface acting—or switching between surface and deep acting—is more mentally taxing than genuinely feeling an emotion, then what physiological process causes this fatigue? <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00151/full" target="_blank">One study published in the <em>Frontiers in Human Neuroscience</em></a><em> </em>measured hemoglobin density in participants' brains using an fNIRS while they expressed emotions facially. The researchers found no significant difference in energy consumed in the prefrontal cortex by those asked to deep act or surface act (though, this study too is limited by a lack of real-life task).<br></p><p>With that said, Gabriel's studies reinforce much of the current research on emotional labor. <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2041386611417746" target="_blank">A 2011 meta-analysis</a> found that "discordant emotional labor states" (read: surface acting) were associated with harmful effects on well-being and performance. The analysis found no such consequences for deep acting. <a href="https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0022876" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Another meta-analysis</a> found an association between surface acting and impaired well-being, job attitudes, and performance outcomes. Conversely, deep acting was associated with improved emotional performance.</p><p>So, although there's still much to learn on the emotional labor front, it seems Van Dyke's advice to a Leigh was half correct. We should put on a happy face, but it will <a href="https://bigthink.com/design-for-good/everything-you-should-know-about-happiness-in-one-infographic" target="_self">only help if we can feel it</a>.</p>
Archaeologists discover a cave painting of a wild pig that is now the world's oldest dated work of representational art.