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How to Persuade the Public to Care About Other People's Problems

A communications expert reveals the most effective ways, and the results may surprise you.

When trying to win support for an antipoverty program like welfare, it's not what you're saying that's most important, it's how you're saying it. At least according to a study by the FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit research organization focused on the communication of ideas in social policy. 

Nat Kendall-Taylor, FrameWorks' CEO, says that many officials in human services don’t think of themselves as messengers who can shape the way the public perceives and responds to social problems. But they should.

By embracing their communications role and making intentional decisions about messaging, Kendall-Taylor argues officials can do a better job promoting the most effective policy solutions. 

Governing recently spoke with Kendall-Taylor about the value of framing in human services. His conclusions are partially based on a study of 6,000 people in Alberta, Canada, who were randomly assigned to read one of three mock newspaper articles about the importance of addressing addiction.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.    

Your study shows how three near-identical articles elicited more or less support for addiction policies. The only difference between them were value cues -- in this case, interdepence, ingenuity and empathy. Can you tell us a bit more about this experiment?

Everything was held constant -- the length, the number of words, the sentence structure. Everything about those messages is the same, except for the cultural value. That is the thing we were testing. All of the messages would start off with, “It’s important that we do a better job of addressing addiction in this province because…”

With interdependence, it might say: “because we are all connected. What influences one of us influences all of us.”  

Ingenuity would say something like, “because we are a province of problem solvers. We have addressed major social problems before. This is another issue that if we roll up our sleeves and get down to it, can be addressed.”  

With empathy, a person may have read something like, “because people who are dealing with addiction are people, too, and we need to show compassion and empathy for these folks as people.”  

What should readers take away from this experiment?  

It does a great job of showing that frames matter. The way you talk about your issue can have a significant impact on the way people think and what they do.

People who read the interdependence or ingenuity versions became more supportive for evidence-based addiction policies. Meanwhile, people exposed to the empathy value became less willing to support the same policies.

The study also shows how messages get lost in translation between the expert’s statement and the public’s interpretation of that statement. Why does the message get garbled?  

Take the expert saying something about the negative health and educational effects of early, chronic, severe stress on a child’s development. Stress is the frame. It is the thing that activates cultural models that people then use to come up with an understanding of the information they're receiving.  

A very dominant way that Americans have of thinking about stress is this boot straps/John Wayne sense of “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” People tend to think that stress is actually something that kids need to develop grit, fortitude, drive, will power and gumption.  

That frame of stress, without additional strategies, generates an understanding that is almost directly in opposition to the intention of the message. 

For professionals in human services, a lot of times there isn’t a highly effective solution for the problem they’re addressing. What should officials do when they don’t have a silver bullet they can match with a high-urgency situation?

I could easily fill a blog on poverty with examples and statistics that make it clear that this is a really bad problem. But if it is all about the problem, just leaving someone there doesn’t get someone to think in new ways about the issue. It gets people to shut down. 

Even saying, “it’s a cycle of poverty,” and not ending there, but saying, “that can be broken if we…” and saying a couple of general things is better. Giving people cognitive cues that there are solutions that are possible makes for a really different takeaway.

You also warned against myth-busting as it’s typically practiced by advocates and public officials today. But if I am a public official, and I’m hearing distressing falsehoods about one of my programs, how do I make sure that people absorb the correct information and stop listening to falsehoods? 

Start with the position that you’re trying to advance. When it comes to issues of framing, the order really matters. The problem with myth-busting in general is that people start with the myth and remind people of the misperception, giving it a chance to expand and gain momentum. And then they discredit it with a more logical truth. Unfortunately, cognition is not logical in that way.

Instead, if you lead with the thing that you are trying to get people to believe, and you do a good job of cementing it in their thinking, there is a point in a message where you can correct the misperception. 

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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