Pascal’s Wager, Perception and the Oil Sands.

As an undergraduate, I spent about a year studying the phenomenology of religious conversion. What psychological conditions were required for an individual to completely change their cosmology or worldview, often in a single moment of “realization” or “awakening”? The work I did back then continues to influence much of my thinking about the relationship between linear and non-linear change, the innovation process, and organizational development – but that is a story for another day.

Early in my investigation, I came across an obscure article about the rhetoric of Pascal’s wager. Sadly, I can remember neither the author nor the title, but the gist of the article was that Pascal’s strategy is rational and defensible in light of recent evidence showing the likelihood an individual will change her beliefs about something is correlated with an understanding of how that change in belief would benefit her.

In other words, Pascal did not attempt to persuade people that belief in God is accurate. That is a complex debate, and difficult (impossible, for some) to prove or disprove definitively. Instead, his approach was to show people why believing in God would be good for them, whether it was true or not. And in doing so, he (at least according to recent research) did in fact increase the likelihood that they would change their minds.

Reflecting on this, I started wondering what this approach would look like within the context of the oil sands debate.

Traditionally, the industry’s approach has been to outline what it is doing to improve its environmental performance, and to provide evidence showing that the impacts it has on the environment are significantly less than what people may have been led to believe. But again, this is a complex discussion, there is a lot of nuance, and the industry does indeed have some impacts. Often the facts industry presents about its environmental performance are ignored, misinterpreted, or just overshadowed by the emotional, totalizing doomsday narrative that detractors of the oil sands propagate.

But what if, instead of leading with an emphasis on how the oil sands industry is doing well in environmental performance, industry started by giving people a reason to want the oil sands industry to succeed in its environmental performance.

This led me to draft up a couple “mock” ads (one pictured above, and one pictured here), to intuit what that approach might look like (with an American audience in mind, of course). These ads could be linked to other kinds of white papers, research and details about how industry’s performance is actually quite good, but they set a different tone for the discussion about the facts. What do you think?

One thought on “Pascal’s Wager, Perception and the Oil Sands.

  1. Hi Justin – great post. You won’t be surprised that I agree with you wholeheartedly – this is the WIIFM principle at work. I think the ads are great.

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