Aim For The Head But Don’t Miss The Heart

I recently picked up the book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard,” by bestselling authors Chip and Dan Heath. The book is filled with lots of useful insights for anyone working to advance social causes. But what stood out for me was a metaphor (originally used by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book, “The Happiness Hypothesis“). This metaphor likens the process of making lasting change to riding an elephant

Chip Heath elaborated in a 2010 interview: “The Rider represents our analytical, planning side. The Rider decides, ‘I need to go somewhere. Here’s the direction I want to go,’ and sets off. But it’s the Elephant, the emotional side, that’s providing the power. The Rider can try to lead the Elephant, but in any direct contest of wills the Elephant is going to win — it has a six-ton advantage. So part of achieving change, in either our lives or in organizations, is aligning both sides of the brain by pointing out the direction for the Rider but also motivating the Elephant to undertake the journey. Of course, the Path the Elephant walks down matters, too. High-ranking executives can shape that Path, that environment and make the journey easier even when the Elephant is less motivated.”

Change happens when we can align the emotion-driven elephant with the rational rider, so long as we provide a clear path for change. According to the Heaths, improving the ability to reach the head (rider) and the heart (elephant) is fundamental for creating long-lasting change.

I recognize that the head and heart concept is not new — just ask any public interest communicator. But, as I thought more about the idea, it occurred to me how frequently that concept also appears in communications research, including many of the studies featured in the frankology section of our website.

What stands out most, though, is that this interplay — between our rational and emotional selves — does not play out the same way for everyone. Nuances abound.

People are poles apart on climate change, for example, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that global warming is real. Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law & Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School, found that this polarization has less to do with knowledge of science and more to do with cultural identity. In a study published in the April 2012 issue of Nature, Kahan argues that people are less willing to accept scientific evidence if it runs counter to “how they see themselves.” In other words, if it is in their best interest to deny evidence, then denial becomes the rational choice.

Kahan further maintains that the “public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.”

Just as our rational side, our “head,” can be influenced by factors such as identity, so can our heart. In a study published in the November 2014 Personality and Psychology Bulletin, Dr. Martin Day, Harvard fellow in the Department of Psychology, and his colleagues found that what we consider “moral” is shaped by our political affiliations. Day’s work suggests that liberals tend to favor values of avoiding harm and promoting equality, while conservatives tend to favor values of respect for authority, protection of the in-group and preserving the sacred. People are more likely to support political stances that speak to their sense of morality, and thus are moved emotionally by different moral framing.

Research suggests that if we want to move people emotionally, we must speak to their own personal sense of morality, which, as demonstrated, is tied to identity. If we want to reach disparate elephants and riders, then we need strategies that speak to differently motivated heads and hearts.

This tension between head and heart often plays out in whom people trust as sources of information. David Sleeth-Keppler of Humbolt State University and Robert Perkowitz and Meighen Speiser of ecoAmerica, winners of a 2015 frank prize for public interest communications research, found that many people, especially those with deep religious and conservative beliefs, are more likely to rely on informal communicators (co-workers, religious leaders, family members and neighbors) for information and insight on issues like climate change, rather than formal communicators like government officials.

Speaking at the frank 2015 conference, Sleeth-Keppler cited Blessed Tomorrow, a group that uses faith-based narratives and religious leaders to call people to action on issues of climate change. The group brings together pastors to talk about climate change as a religious value of conservation and to ask their congregations to “walk more gently on the earth and inspire others to lead on climate solutions in their homes, congregations and communities.” In this case, Blessed Tomorrow seeks to reach the head and the heart of those who are influenced by their religious affiliation.

In short, research suggests that we need to consider strategies that use individual identities and their relative sense of rationality and morality to speak to diverse audiences. To create long-lasting and meaningful change, we need to motivate the elephant, direct the rider and clear a path. We can do this by speaking to the head and the heart of our audiences — and their various shades of grey.

Posted: April 28, 2015