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Description: Sometimes when a question about human behavior occurs to us it is rather easy to work out how we might do some research to find some possible answers to the question. Other times the questions we consider have a quality of wickedness. Wicked questions or problems are ones that seem to run and hide or become more complicated or harder to define as we start to try and figure out how to test or answer or address them. Certainly questions about climate change, poverty, or homelessness have shown themselves to be wicked questions or problems again and again. Read just the title of the linked article below. Does it seem like a wicked question? We  could do research into the rates of burnout among people who work in difficult positions (e.g., neonatal intensive care medical staff, first responders, social workers, etc.) but that, while informative, would not address the question posed by the article title. Article about the need for climate change, for another wicked question example, tend to sound a bit doom and gloom focused as in how can we make things better when they are so bad now? Think for a moment about how a psychologist who has spent their clinical career providing therapeutic support for suicidal clients might consider the recent report of alarming significant jumps in teen and emerging adult suicide rates. Think about how a physician and other staff working in a pediatric hospice (a facility for terminally ill children and their families) might work to find ways to better engage with their clients and their families in light of the diagnosis they arrive with. Would one need to be somewhat delusionally optimistic to take on such work? What sort of research might we do if we want to gain some insight into this increasingly important and perhaps somewhat urgent existential (psychological/motivational) question? Once you have your thoughts in order have a read through the article linked below to see what some of the folks I just described have to suggest.

Source: Do You Have to Be an Optimist To Work Towards Better World? Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, The New York Times.

Date: February 17, 2023

Image by Наталия Когут from Pixabay

Article Link:

So, the “data” contained in the article is limited am mostly comprised in individual points or comments. However, sometimes that sort of data can be a good place to start sorting out wicked research questions. The clinician who works with suicidal clients indicates that he is “pessimistic about the human race [while] optimistic about individuals.” The marine biologist says that it is “her moral duty to be part of the solutions”. The pediatric hospice physician describes himself os a pragmatic optimist”. Avoiding “climate doomism” means taking things one step at a time. Maybe in deciding how to informatively conduct research into how people can move forward towards solutions to wicked problems we should not start with versions of research questions that do not resemble ‘deer in the headlights.’ Easy to say, but hard to do and that is the reality of taking on wicked research questions.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What are wicked questions or problems?
  2. What are some of the problems with the ways that media articles typically discuss climate issues?
  3. What sorts of research might we try and do in order to make the wicked problems of suicide, climate change or pediatric terminal illness less wicked?

References (Read Further):

Chopik, W. J., Oh, J., Kim, E. S., Schwaba, T., Krämer, M. D., Richter, D., & Smith, J. (2020). Changes in optimism and pessimism in response to life events: Evidence from three large panel studies. Journal of Research in Personality, 88, 103985. Link

Sharot, T. (2011). The optimism bias. Current biology, 21(23), R941-R945. Link

Chalmers, I., & Matthews, R. (2006). What are the implications of optimism bias in clinical research?. The Lancet, 367(9509), 449-450. Link

Canuck Place – Pediatric Hospice Link

Climate Doomism Link

Wilson, P. J. (2021). Climate change inaction and optimism. Philosophies, 6(3), 61. Link

Nordgren, A. (2021). Pessimism and optimism in the debate on climate change: a critical analysis. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 34(4), 22. Link

Gifford, R., Kormos, C., & McIntyre, A. (2011). Behavioral dimensions of climate change: drivers, responses, barriers, and interventions. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 2(6), 801-827. Link

Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American psychologist, 66(4), 290. Link

Harth, N. S. (2021). Affect, (group-based) emotions, and climate change action. Current opinion in psychology, 42, 140-144. Link

Ratinen, I., & Uusiautti, S. (2020). Finnish students’ knowledge of climate change mitigation and its connection to hope. Sustainability, 12(6), 2181. Link

Termeer, C. J., & Dewulf, A. (2019). A small wins framework to overcome the evaluation paradox of governing wicked problems. Policy and Society, 38(2), 298-314. Link

Craig, R. K. (2020). Resilience theory and wicked problems. Vand. L. Rev., 73, 1733. Link