Here's Why You Get Punished for Trying to Protect Everyone You Care About.

Even if you're a doomer.

Woman staring at burning city.
Cristiano Venti

There's a lot going on, and you want to talk about it.

Unfortunately, nobody else does.

You probably get punished for trying to warn your friends and family about all the threats we're facing. You try to plan for an uncertain future. You do your best to protect everyone around you. It's a lot of heavy lifting, especially when you're the only one who seems to care.

In return, you get dismissed and made fun of, or worse. You get ridiculed, threatened, patronized, and pathologized. Almost everyone you know has learned to equate caution with "panic" and "doomscrolling." Increasingly, activists and whistleblowers get blamed for the problems they point out and told they're making everything worse, just for being honest.

What's going on?

Psychologists have a term for the backlash aimed at doomers.

It's called spontaneous trait transference.

According to John Skowronsky and Donal Carlston, spontaneous trait transference happens when "communicators are perceived as possessing the very traits they describe in others." Work on this behavioral glitch started in the 1990s when Skowronski and his colleagues began noticing something strange when someone tried to raise concerns about someone else. Instead of believing them, people tended to transfer those negative traits to the person trying to warn them. They confirmed the behavior in four different studies.

In other words, if you try to call out someone else's unethical or alarming behavior, people regard you with more suspicion. People actually believe if you smelt it, then you're the one who dealt it.

As Skowronsky explains it, "politicians who allege corruption by their opponents may themselves be perceived as dishonest" and "critics who praise artists may themselves be perceived as talented."

Even worse, if you describe someone or something as negative, people tend to misremember it as a self-description.

A few years later, Rick Brown and John Bassili even found that people can transfer personality traits to inanimate objects like bananas, which makes no sense whatsoever. This study confirmed that spontaneous trait transference doesn't follow any kind of logic. It's an unconscious bias.

It's linking, not thinking.

In another article, Skowronski and Carlston found that spontaneous trait transfer persists even when you warn someone about the bias. As they write, people "use their feelings to make trait judgment, even after being warned." However, you can mitigate the effect somewhat by "forcing" them to remember and think about the original suspect, not the person warning them.

That's a problem.

Bottom line, it's incredibly easy for people to form negative associations between threats and the ones trying to warn them.

Spontaneous trait transference pops up in other research in psychology on people's tendency to shoot the messenger.

In 2019, a team of psychologists at Harvard led by Leslie John reviewed hundreds of studies and conducted eleven different experiments to explain why people punish someone for giving them bad news.

Essentially, bad situations drive everyone to look for causes and explanations. Instead of searching for logical causes, they reach for the ones that preserve their self-image and group harmony. As Leslie John and her colleagues write, "people are especially prone to attributing agency to others for negative outcomes." They also "attribute agency to those proximal to the event."

And so:

"Bad news messengers may be prime candidates in recipients' search for antagonists to cast in accounts of unwanted outcomes."

In other words, the average person wants to blame someone else for bad things happening. They try to blame the first person they associate with the bad news, even if they had nothing to do with it.

That's you.

The blame takes a lot of forms.

One of the first things they do is label you as negative and unlikable. They attribute messengers like you with malicious motives.

That explains the accusations about fearmongering we see tossed around at anyone who tries to warn, educate, or inform the public about the real threats we face from diseases and ecological collapse.

It gets weirder.

According to the Harvard team, bad news also motivates people to come up with "fallacious" causal explanations "often generated effortlessly, seemingly automatically." They generate these fallacious explanations through poor reasoning "characterized by shallow, unconscious thought." That's how we wind up with bad theories like immunity debt.

In 2022, a team of researchers explored the psychological drives behind misinformation in Nature Reviews. They describe another glitch in our brains called the continued influence effect. Basically, when you correct misinformation, the misinformation doesn't just go away. "Instead, misinformation and corrective information coexist and compete for activation."

When people form negative impressions of someone based on all of these cognitive biases, it's hard to undo.

It all makes sense.

All of this explains why so many of us have so much difficulty with our friends and families. When we try to warn them about threats, they transfer those negative traits onto us. They come to see us as "unlikable." The more warnings we give, the more unlikable we become, and the more everyone associates us with bad, scary things. These cognitive biases predispose our loved ones to grifters who manipulate them with lies and misinformation.

Ironically, when you try to point out the lies and misinformation, people associate you with... lies and misinformation. They transfer those traits onto you instead of the ones you're trying to warn them about.

There's no easy way out of this.

The only real solution is the hard way. We have to keep sounding alarms, presenting evidence, telling our stories, and making emotional appeals. We can't get scared whenever we hit nerves. Our critics are going to accuse us of repeating ourselves, but psychology has shown that repetition is the most effective way to persuade the public.

That's why our opponents work so hard to silence us.

There's also ways for us to sound more positive without spreading false hope. For example, the research shows that spontaneous trait transference works both ways. People will attribute you with positive traits if you speak highly of others. That would mean all of us praising experts and activists who tell the unvarnished truth and thanking each other for our advocacy.

A lot of us already do that, but we can do more of it.

By all means, we should keep criticizing public health and climate grifters. When we do that, we should balance it. Every time we call out minimizers and deniers, we should make sure we're promoting and amplifying real experts who talk about reality in plain terms and thanking them.

The public needs to understand that when climate activists and public health experts get online and make warnings, they're doing it because they care about people and don't want to see them suffer. It's not because they like all of these bad things or secretly want them to happen.

There's no secret, ulterior motive on our part.

More often, it's the ones telling everyone not to panic that have secret agendas. They often care more about their profits and careers. They don't care who they hurt along the way.

Doomers aren't negative or unlikable.

We talk about unpleasant things.

That makes us brave.

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