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James Marshall Fellow Update
By Jutta Tobias
Over the last few months, I have come across a seemingly increasing number of social science-based publications on how to promote pro-social behavior in communities, and what types of frames are most effective when advocating for positive social change. This could not be more timely; arguably, many of our contemporary public policy issues could be called ‘wicked problems’, i.e. too complex to solve using traditional methods. A ‘wicked problem’ in the context of social policy planning, according to Rittel & Webber (1973), is virtually impossible to solve because of conflicting requirements and ever-changing base lines. Take the Health Care Reform dispute in the U.S. media, for example, or the international policy debate on sustainability and conservation in the lead-up to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference this coming December. Understandably, many policy messages on these controversial topics may come across as confusing and unfocused to the public – and individuals and groups involved in formulating or influencing public policy may benefit from the latest science on persuasion and communication in order to generate more effective advocacy messages, which is surely why I have recently seen so many reports on this topic.
In Drew Westin’s (2007) book The Political Brain, for example, the author argues that most people are typically not engaged when they are presented with intellectual or ‘rational’ arguments. Hence in Westin’s view social activists or public policy advocates should generally focus less on appealing to the cognitions of their audience, and instead attempt to engage the public by speaking to their hearts and minds, and in this way emphasize the underlying affective components that creates common ground between the communicator and his or her audience. Westin further maintains that conservatives have made far more effective use of this principle than the intellectual left wing, and the Democratic Party is missing an important opportunity to engage the electorate by focusing excessively on ‘getting the facts right’ in its arguments. Another appeal to more effective policy messaging comes from Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, in their (2009) book Unscientific America. One of the main arguments of this book is targeted at the scientific community, claiming that the American public has largely disengaged from being interested in science, and that the scientific community is guilty of not framing science in a way that appeals to ordinary Americans.
One of my personal research interests is persuasion and effective communication; hence I wanted to know what the above authors had to say about message framing. I don’t agree that all scholarly insights should be watered down when a scientist communicates them to the general public, yet these books prompted me to summarize recent social scientific evidence on message framing and persuasion in a format intended to be readily usable by advocacy practitioners. I entitled this paper “Advocacy for Social Change: The Psychological Science Behind Persuasion”, and I selected in particular those components of framing and mass communication theory that I considered most helpful in making public policy advocacy messages more effective. The resulting advocacy messaging guide is available at the SPSSI website, at http://www.spssi.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=page.viewpage&pageid=1264.
I have started disseminating this guide to advocacy groups here in Washington, DC, and found that there seems to be a considerable demand for an enhanced understanding of the underlying science of effective advocacy framing. I am currently preparing an interactive face-to-face workshop with a group of local advocacy organizations, which will serve as a forum to discuss these concepts further. The goal for this workshop is to facilitate the exchange of ideas and best-practice on effective framing of persuasive messages, and I intend to serve the advocacy community in this way in their quest to maximize their effectiveness by applying the latest scientific and ethical theories of persuasion to their work.
Please contact me with any comments; you can reach me at (202) 675 6956 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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