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Could the “overview effect” calm political polarization?

This paper makes a case for teaching emotional regulation in schools and looking at the Earth from space. The author explains this would help us all become emotionally capable individuals who could engage in conversations with people different from us, with empathy and respect.

Image Credit: Pale Blue Dot: Source: NASA JPL

In a special edition of the science journal Futures, Sanjoy Som considers the future evolution of the Earth through investigating the longevity of humanity. This article is an exploration of his thoughts, previous work on this topic, and was reviewed by fellow scientists.

Astrobiologists study the origins, evolution, and future life of the universe. As an astrobiologist, Som argues that societal stability is connected to the longevity of the human race. He defines stability as the ability of people to avoid conflict with individuals outside of their inner circle. Societal instability is argued to be caused by a lack of a common identity between people and a lack of preparation in handling one’s emotions.

A ‘cosmic perspective’ means that we see the Earth as a small planet in our massive universe filled with billions of galaxies. The iconic Blue Marble image (shown below) first allowed people to think this way in the 1970s. This view argues that humans are all connected to the universe, so the ‘inner-circles’ we create are not so important in the grand scheme of things. This cosmic perspective gets lost in everyday life because many people have become comfortable in their inner-circles and uncomfortable with out-groups (groups culturally different to their own).

People are also emotionally complex, and some may struggle to manage their emotions. If this is left undeveloped through adulthood, Som predicts that, during cross-cultural interactions, humans will alternate between tolerance (enduring someone’s opinion rather than embracing it) or violence. Som challenges society to not simply tolerate opinions they disagree with, but understand them. Simple toleration does not allow for conversations about change.

So how can society get better at communicating between different cultures? Som states that by creating a common identity, an identity that can be shared by many different cultural groups, people may cope better in conversations with those different from them. This common identity can be taught alongside empathy education and psychology in schools which will help reduce people’s reflexes of mistrust. The idea would be to encourage students to develop  more empathetic behavior and self worth, which would reduce violence against others and oneself.

A figure to summarize Som’s proposed solution to improve cross-cultural exchanges is shown below. It is inspired by Roman Krznaric’s definition of empathy. His definition details two branches of empathy, one being ‘perspective-taking’ which is the ability to step into someone else’s shoes and the other as ‘shared emotional response’, the ability to mirror the emotions of another person.

Current worldwide empathy education does not provide enough emphasis on how to interact with people on a global scale and it is seen more as a sideline module than a part of the core curriculum. Psychology provides an opportunity for self-reflection. Som proposes that integrating psychology into the core education curriculum will allow for greater handling of emotions. He emphasizes that this education would help them practice how to handle relationships and listen to and respect points of view different from their own.

The “Overview Effect” is a psychological concept that describes a shift in mental state that astronauts experience when they view the Earth from space. From space, it seems that all astronauts become hyper aware of the fragility of the planet and wish to protect it. The power of viewing the Earth from space was seen after the Apollo 8 and Apollo 11 missions.

But, the power of the “Overview Effect” is not restricted to astronauts. Even without visiting space people can experience this shift in perspective. People of all backgrounds are fascinated by images of space, including the famous 1972 ‘Blue Marble’ photo that changed the world. Som argues that teaching students a common identity inspired by an Earth-from-space perspective creates a sense of belonging in people which helps with self worth. The Earth-from-space perspective is neutral towards culture and background. He emphasizes that it does not replace national and regional identities that people hold dear, nor does it erase the individual.

As both psychology education and self-esteem should be nurtured over time, Som highlights that it is important to integrate them into pre-university curriculum. By helping students nurture emotional skills and develop a neutral worldwide view, cross-cultural exchanges will be less fraught with conflict and misunderstandings. He emphasizes that our species depends on our ability to get along to achieve longevity.

Study Information

Original study: Common identity as a step to civilization longevity

Study was published on: 24 August 2018

Study author(s): Sanjoy M. Som

The study was done at: Blue Marble Space Institute of Science

The study was funded by: This work was not funded.

Raw data availability: The reference list of this study provides the data and background used to produce this work.

Featured image credit: Pale Blue Dot: Source: NASA JPL

This summary was edited by: Gina Misra