Within the public and social change sectors, many nonprofits, foundations, activists, and communications professionals have a classic toolkit of persuasive tactics. They employ these tools to reach stakeholders and audiences who can move the needle on issues they care about.
One of the workhorses in this toolkit is using facts and data to build arguments and inform stories that support a case. It’s smart thinking—science tells us that stories are fundamental to building empathy with the people most affected by an issue. However, as we enter what many consider a “post-truth” world—where emotion and personal belief take precedence over objective facts in shaping public opinion—these go-to tactics may not be enough. As people become more divided in how they see the world, it’s more important than ever that social sector organizations reach people who have a deep investment in seeing the world a particular way. Since these perspectives tend to be resistant to change, it’s time to update the persuasion toolkit using the best of behavioral, social, and cognitive science.
Everyone has a set of core beliefs that affects how they see themselves, understand their place in the world, and know what’s right and wrong. These are socially learned beliefs we acquire from our various social tribes—family, friends, colleagues, religious affiliations, and political parties. Some people may be deeply committed to free-market, bootstrap ideologies, for instance, or identify strongly as advocates fighting for justice through investment in social programs. These core beliefs shape how people see and interpret the world.
Likewise, since new information that challenges our beliefs may threaten how we see the world, we have become very good at disregarding new information that runs counter to what we believe. This means the time-honored strategy of educating people to create change is likely to close some people off and make them defensive unless it’s presented in a way that avoids challenging core beliefs.
As scholars studying the science of social change, we offer social sector organizations some suggestions for getting past these roadblocks.
Do more than present facts.
Gathering facts and statistics—learning about the problem at hand—is a logical enough place to start mobilizing. Indeed, education can help motivate people to act on poorly publicized problems, especially if there is broad consensus on solutions and these solutions don’t aggravate anyone’s core beliefs.
But ideologically driven beliefs are often resistant to change from new facts and figures. Research from the field of cultural cognition suggests that we filter our understanding of risk and the potential for harm—whether climate change is dangerous, say, or whether gun ownership keeps us safe—through our core beliefs. Psychologically, people automatically downplay risk if it helps them discredit new information that threatens their core beliefs.
Take gun violence in the United States. Around 33,000 people are killed each year by firearms, for example—as many as in automobile accidents. But numbers by themselves won’t change a longstanding Second Amendment supporter into a fan of gun control. In a study, Donald Braman, associate professor of law at George Washington University, and Dan Kahan, Elizabeth K. Dollard professor of law at Yale Law School, make the case that arguments based on the evidence that gun control promotes public safety are destined to fail, because they don’t tap into symbolic meanings gun proponents associate with guns. They write:
[G]uns (at least for some) resonate as symbols of “freedom” and “self-reliance,” associations that make opposition to gun control cohere with an individualist orientation … While control opponents see guns as celebrating individual self-sufficiency, control supporters see them as denigrating solidarity: guns are often equated with a hyper masculine or “macho” personal style that many individuals, male as well as female, resent.
In other words, the gun debate is destined to stagnate as long as those waving their empirical evidence in the air continue to ignore the symbolic meaning guns have for so many Americans.
Meet people halfway with stories.
One strategy that’s getting increasing attention is the use of stories to bypass the brain’s insistence on keeping the facts separate from our opinions. We need to tell the right kind of stories, though. Stories must resonate to have an effect on their audiences. Research suggests that people are more receptive to stories that use familiar themes and story arcs; they are more likely to engage with a story if it matches something they have heard or seen before. Stories should highlight the audience’s core beliefs—the very ones resistant to change—and show how these beliefs are still compatible with new ways of seeing a problem.
The suffragists, for example, drew attention to their campaigns and garnered support for their cause through parades and pageantry. Their well-organized public events proved to suffrage opponents that women were, contrary to popular belief, politically competent. They also often used the well-known narrative of Joan of Arc to illustrate women’s political deftness, as well as beauty and personality. This narrative introduced women as political actors in a way that did not pose an immediate threat to popular views of women as the “softer and more virtuous sex.”
A more recent example is the Yes Equality campaign devised by Brian Sheehan, former director of Ireland’s Gay Lesbian Equality Network, which resulted in Ireland becoming the first country to support marriage equality in 2015. Targeting middle-aged, straight men, the campaign tied voting “yes” on marriage equality to the core Irish values of citizenship and fairness. The campaign encouraged thousands of people to come out and explain why they were voting yes on marriage equality—including parents, religious leaders, athletes, journalists, and other messengers the target audience respected. The campaign flooded social media with these stories, and a vote for marriage equality ultimately became synonymous with a vote for the rights of Irish people.
Avoid solution shutdowns.
Changing how we communicate problems, of course, is only half the battle. Research now suggests that people downplay problems when they don’t like the proposed solutions—especially if the solution is to change their beliefs or behaviors.
Consider climate change. Conservative ideology places a heavy emphasis on free-market solutions and is suspicious of governmental regulation. Most proposed solutions for dealing with soaring carbon dioxide emissions are regulatory—anathema to conservatives. It’s psychologically easier, then, for conservatives to deny climate change than to reconsider their position on regulations. Reframe climate change to focus on market-based solutions, and skepticism decreases.
Even solutions that seem apolitical can trigger people to reject new information, as public health and environmental advocates arguing for reduced red meat consumption can tell you. Eating less meat is a straightforward solution to many problems, and one that theoretically isn’t politicized. But meat consumption is tied into deep cultural and psychological norms. In American society, for example, meat is inexorably linked with masculinity, and its consumption is often sexualized. Telling men to eat less meat can feel like an attack on an expression of their masculinity. That gets push-back. And while men may not be resistant to learning about the problem, for many, the solution hurts.
Resistance to particular solutions means that some problems may require multiple messages and multiple possible solutions, each targeting a different audience, and taking into account different core beliefs and hang-ups. It also means that those working in the public and social change sectors have to understand what their audience values when crafting solutions.
For instance, one study examined messaging campaigns that encourage rural smokers to kick the habit. They found that many of the most popular tactics—telling smokers they were harming those around them and explaining that smoke-free policies save lives— backfired, because smokers felt personally attacked and became defensive. Researchers found that anti-smoking messages featuring quotes from scripture—that tapped into the spiritual values of many rural smokers—were much better received.
Tap into new tools.
Speaking to people’s core beliefs is becoming an ever-more important tool, and there are some good resources and examples available for those looking to incorporate behavioral, social, and cognitive science in their messaging efforts. Kristen Grimm, president at Spitfire Strategies, recently released a new report called “Mindful Messaging,” demonstrating how communicators can use behavioral science insights on values, worldviews, and identity in their messaging. And groups like frank (the organization we are part of), Frameworks, and Neimand Collaborative research social issues and the values of various stakeholders, and then use the findings to craft persuasive messages that tie issues to those values.
Given today’s political environment, it is no longer enough for messages and campaigns to be factually right. Creating change requires that they are psychologically right too. Social sector organizations must take into account the many ways their audience’s core beliefs can foil their persuasive efforts. By moving beyond facts, using smart storytelling, and crafting solutions that don’t require audiences to sacrifice their values organizations will be better equipped to move the needle on ideologically or politically sticky issues.