Research & Insights

What We’re Learning From What Others Are Discovering

At frank, we put a premium on finding and sharing research that can lead to better social change communications practice.

This work is much on our mind as we get ready for our second frank gathering in February, when we will again award prizes to those doing academic research that informs and helps advance communications aimed at building a better world. So this seems like it would be a good time to look back at what we’ve learned, both from our awards program and from the many articles we’ve been publishing on frankology and our blog since we launched in August.

Here are three things we can’t ignore:

1. People act according to how they see themselves, their values and their place in the world

It isn’t news that people’s receptivity to messages – especially those trying to get them to act or think differently — are influenced by their values, self-perception and core beliefs. It helps explain why sometimes we’re eager to accept what we hear or at other times reject it. For communicators, the most useful research are studies that shed light on why people look the other way even when presented with evidence that suggests getting vaccinated, cutting down on energy use or eating healthier is in their best interest. And, thankfully, we have a lot we can share on that topic.

For example, Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law & Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School, looked at what causes people to deny scientific evidence in public debates about global warming and vaccinating young girls against cancer. Kahan says the denial results from “a dynamic known as ‘cultural cognition,’ or “the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g. whether global warming is a serious threat, whether the death penalty deters murder or whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities,” regardless of what science might say.

In an article in the October 2013 issue of Science, (summarized here), he suggests one solution to this denial problem might be “evidence-informed risk communication strategies,” or strategies that frame the science as a rational choice. By framing science-based issues, like climate change or human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccinations this way, Kahan says, “perhaps we can get people to see that their cultural identities are not threatened, but that the suggested solution or recommendation is the wisest course of action.”

Similarly, in a study submitted to our 2015 prize in public interest communications, Dartmouth College political science professor Brendan Nyhan found that when it comes to polarizing issues – such as the cause for insurgent attacks in Iraq, factors affecting job growth in the US and global temperature change – people are unwilling to acknowledge factual information if it conflicts with their existing beliefs. Nyhan writes, “People resist acknowledging unwelcome facts because those facts are threatening to their worldview or self-concept. . . when people feel forced to choose between who they are and what others want them to believe, the facts will too often lose out.”

Research suggests that if we want to effect  long-lasting change in the public interest, we have to start by acknowledging how people see their world and their place in it. We also must communicate in their language. Our messages can’t threaten or challenge their identities, it must help them see the benefits for themselves and their larger community.

2. The messenger is key

Who delivers the message is just as important as how the message is delivered. Studies conducted across disciplines and in a range of settings suggest that local social networks are an effective means to change people’s behaviors and attitudes.

For example, in their 2015 frank prize submission, marketing and advertising psychologists David Sleeth-Keppler, Humboldt State University, and Robert Perkowitz and Meighen Speiser, ecoAmerica, found that one way to engage those who resist or are indifferent to climate change information is through their own social networks, such as family, neighbors, religious congregations, co-workers, local community officials and health care providers. These social networks slowly drop seeds that will help foster engagement in climate change.

“Different audiences in America vary reliably in their degree of concern about climate change,” the researchers write. “An important question for practical future climate change outreach is how to effectively reach audiences that dismiss the issue, or are otherwise skeptical or unwilling to act… One approach to increase engagement among resisting or indifferent audiences would be to connect with people on climate change where they live, using informal communicators.”

Similarly, University of Florida sociologist and public health scholar Lauren Gilbert suggests in her frank 2015 prize entry that when it comes to reaching the most vulnerable populations, local messengers are key. Gilbert studied the effectiveness of using African-American survivors of prostate cancer to advocate for increased awareness about the disease and the benefits of screening education to other African-Americans. She found that local messengers who have experienced cancer could be the most effective at reaching African-American men and increasing their knowledge and action regarding prostate cancer. Gilbert writes, “Survivor advocates can provide a trusted and ongoing voice within the community … because they are familiar faces sharing their own experiences and bringing the messages of awareness and prevention, which they often are able to ‘translate’ into terms that men can easily understand.”

Furthermore, new research suggests that a conversation with a messenger who has “lived” the issue can create long-lasting changes in attitudes around polarizing issues. For example, political scientists Michael Lacour and Donal Green found that having a conversation with a gay canvasser dramatically altered attitudes toward same-sex marriage. “Gay and straight canvassers produced distinctive patterns of attitude change… but only gay canvassers’ effects persisted in 3-week, 6-week, and 9-month follow-ups,” LaCour and Green write. “Our experimental results demonstrate that active contact is capable of producing a cascade of enduring opinion change.”

3. Effective communications are often a shade of grey

There is no one, fixed way to effectively share our messages. Instead, we have to keep in mind that strategies should be situation based. In their exploration of the growing reliance on Twitter among advocacy groups, researchers Chao Guo at the University of Pennsylvania and Gregory Saxton at the University of Buffalo uncovered what they called a layered, “pyramid-style” approach to how advocacy groups use social media as part of their outreach efforts. They found that how an advocacy organization uses Twitter is based on its campaign stage, outreach goals and intended audiences. “At stage one, the organization’s priority is to reach out and bring awareness of the cause to the public,” the authors say. “The messages sent by the organization are predominantly informational and serve to support the public education tactic. At stage two, the organization’s priority switches to sustaining communities of interest and networks of supporters. The messages, in turn, focus more on community building and direct interactive conversations between organizations and their publics. At stage three, the organization’s priority becomes mobilization, which the organization achieves through a smaller number of targeted ‘call to action’ messages.”

Context is fundamental in communications. Starting with where people are and their cultural norms can provide insight as to what to include in a campaign. For example, marketing researcher Iman Naderi at Fairfield University and David Sutton at the University of North Texas found that playing into people’s narcissistic tendencies (a growing trend in the U.S.) can be an effective way to shift purchasing behavior toward more “green” or earth-friendly habits. They found that narcissists were more likely to purchase green products if others around them could see them in a public setting purchasing or using the product. They were also more likely to buy green products if doing so provided some sort of higher class status and if their peers highly valued green products. Naderi and Strutton suggest that, “As a direct consequence of normal narcissists’ propensity to engage, as expected, in highly self-absorbed consumption behavior environmental communicators need to create strategies that play to those traits.” In other words, we have to start with where people are, and our strategies must be open and contextual.

That’s a brief look at what we’ve learned so far through our efforts to find, synthesize and share useful communications research. Rest assured, there’s lots more to come.

Posted: January 14, 2015