When soundbites bite back

October 14, 2010 by
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

‘We are all in this together’ and ‘Your country needs you’ – two soundbites that sum up much of government policy at the moment. The thinking and logic behind both is clear; the situations they are invoked to address are familiar and important to us all; and the sentiments behind them are, on the face of it at least, motivating and ‘very British’. Yet neither seems to have caught the public imagination, and indeed both are facing considerable backlash at the moment.

Why should this be? Perhaps part of the reason goes beyond reactions to the perceived fairness and necessity of individual policies and measures. Perhaps we in the UK are predisposed to resist and even to fight against messages like these. Perhaps while they may have been ‘very British’ in the past, they are not any more.

An excellent and potentially very important new report from the WWF, Common Cause, certainly suggests this may be the case.  Although primarily concerned with how to motivate individual action to address environmental and human problems on a global scale, it’s not too much of a leap to apply its conclusions to the UK scene as well.

So what are today’s British values, and how do they help or hinder acceptance of the government’s messages regarding the country’s own ‘bigger-than-self’ problems?

The ‘traditional’ approach to motivating individual action and behaviour change on issues such as global poverty and climate change involves putting the facts in front of people, on the basis that ‘if only they knew’ about the scale of the problem, they would do something to help.  Common Cause argues that this approach to what it calls ‘bigger-than-self’ problems is fundamentally flawed because the way in which people respond to facts is determined by their underlying values.

It seems that ‘individuals are often predisposed to reject information when accepting it would challenge their identity and values’, and that for these individuals such information ‘may simply serve to harden resistance to accepting new government policies or adopting new private sphere behaviours’.  This sounds relevant to the UK situation, so what are today’s British values, and how do they help or hinder acceptance of the government’s messages regarding the country’s own ‘bigger-than-self’ problems?

Common Cause classifies values as extrinsic or intrinsic, the former being associated with image, status and self-advancement, and the latter relating to the importance of relationships, community and self-development.  Importantly, these values are not innate, but rather a product of culture and experience, generated and strengthened by the media, the services, the policies, the attitudes and all of the other influences that individuals are exposed to in daily life.  The two sets also act in opposition to each other, with strong extrinsic values making people less likely to value community and relationships, and strong intrinsic values making worldly success seem less important.

Values are formed by experience, but they are underpinned by what cognitive scientists refer to as ‘deep frames’ – long-held, stable conceptual structures that contain particular values.  Once established, deep frames (and the values they espouse) can be ‘activated’ very easily by mentioning key terms and phrases, and a frame (and its associated values) is strengthened every time it is activated.  This makes established frames durable and difficult to shift, but not unchangeable over the long term.

Common Cause gives the examples of ‘War of Terror’ and ‘tax relief’ as phrases that instantly activate frames regarding security issues and the proper role of government respectively.  As soon as you hear them, your views on the underlying issues are brought to the surface, and the nature of those views depends on the deep frames to which you have unconsciously subscribed.

I’d say that ‘We are all in this together’ and ‘Your country needs you’ are two more examples of soundbites that activate deep frames and bring to the fore values that will influence the way they are received.  These messages are inherently associated with intrinsic values, and on the basis of the Common Cause’s argument will be well received by people who hold such values and resisted by people with extrinsic values.

It may be that 50 years ago, the dominant frames in the UK were intrinsic – certainly the experience of the two World Wars is likely to have been an influence in this direction.  In that context, the soundbites we are considering, and a more general appeal to the ‘British sense of fair play’, would have gone down well – indeed, ‘Your country needs you’ went down very well when accompanied by Kitchener’s face and pointing finger.

The focus on celebrity, rich lists, competition and market forces has promoted a deep-seated emphasis on the self at the expense of the community.

The trouble is that, as George Monbiot has pointed out in a recent Guardian piece, in the past two decades or more extrinsic values have been continually activated and reinforced by the media, advertising and government policy, and as a result the frames that espouse these values have come to dominate in UK society.  The focus on celebrity, rich lists, competition and market forces has promoted a deep-seated emphasis on the self at the expense of the community.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, then, and the dominant frames have changed, so it is perhaps unsurprising that messages which appeal to intrinsic values and community feeling are now not only falling on deaf ears, but are being counterproductive and actively hardening many people’s resistance to issues on which action is vital.

Common Cause’s solution to this situation is for campaigns to acknowledge the importance of frames and to try to activate and strengthen intrinsic values, rather than fighting against extrinsic attitudes with facts and soundbites.  The report presents a powerful argument for this, but it is a long-term solution.  The problems these soundbites are trying to address are all too evident in the here and now.  Perhaps a different approach to motivating change in people’s attitudes and behaviours is needed?

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