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To Make Your Policy Messages Stick, Find the Right Frame

If you’re a communicator working on the issue of climate change, psychology researchers Mauro Bertolotti and Patrizia Catellani from the Catholic University of Milan in Italy have some advice for you: match your policy with your messaging strategy.

Most climate change policy discussions are framed in one of two ways: 1) achieving a potential new gain, or 2) avoiding a dangerous loss. But is one better than the other at building public support for a policy? To answer this question, Bertolotti and Catellani conducted a set of studies, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

For the study, Bertolotti and Catellani exposed student participants to messages from a fictional politician proposing one of two policy solutions for addressing climate change: investing in renewable energy, or regulating greenhouse gases.

Each participant saw the policy framed in ways that emphasized either the policy’s potential to achieve a positive outcome or its ability to avoid a negative outcome.

Let’s take for example the regulation of greenhouse gases. The policy could be framed as either achieving a positive outcome (“If we intervene on the emissions of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, we will obtain better climactic conditions”) or avoiding a negative outcome (“If we intervene on the emissions of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, we will avoid worse climactic conditions.”)

The policy can also be framed in terms of achieving more safety (“If we intervene on the emissions of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, we will obtain a reduction of the negative effects of natural disasters”) or avoiding more concerns (“If we intervene on the emissions of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, we will avoid an increase of the negative effects of natural disasters.”)

After reading the statements, participants were asked how much they agreed with the proposed policy, and whether they would vote for a politician who made that statement.

The researchers found that policies get more support when they are framed in a way that naturally “fits” with or uses similar sentiments as the proposed policy. The regulation of greenhouse gases policy, for instance, proposes the creation of restrictions on certain economic activities to protect the climate. So it’s “more persuasive when it is framed in terms of the negative outcomes that may be avoided by adopting the policy and when the content of the message emphasizes safety as the primary concern.”

Likewise, the renewable energy policy proposes making an economic investment to deal with the climate problem. This policy is “more persuasive when it is framed in terms of the positive outcomes that may be achieved by adopting the policy and when the content of the message emphasizes growth as the primary concern.”

In other words, if you want people to invest in a solution, talk about positive economic growth. If you want them to cut back on something, talk about avoiding threats to their safety.

This is important for communicators working on the climate issue. Bertolotti and Catellani suggest that “an increased awareness of the dynamics underlying the persuasiveness of policy messages about climate change might be helpful for international organizations, governments and other[s]…in their efforts to convince citizens of the best course of action” on the climate.

European Journal of Social Psychology

Researchers:
Mauro Bertolotti and Patrizia Catellani, Catholic University of Milan

Posted: July 20, 2015
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