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Principles for Promoting Social Change



Influence opinions with an effective message.

Presentation. The way you present your message and the style of your person or organization will play an important role in the delivery of your message. Peripheral factors such as your credibility, appearance, personality, style, etc. may have more influence than the content of your message, when politics or the issue you are presenting are not that important to the listener. Powerful examples and vivid images also induce a greater and more dedicated response.

The Nuclear Countdown Doomsday Clock expressed an otherwise complex point in a shockingly simple manner. Similarly, the beautiful AIDS quilt spread out so dramatically at the foot of the Washington Monument, and elsewhere, did more to bring AIDS victims to life than did any series of statistics.

National Symbols. The use of national symbols can be powerful when they are linked to your message and they can identify your cause or purpose. Organizers of the Cuba Caravan that protested the U.S. embargo used this knowledge to their advantage. They chose to challenge the Border Patrol with a battered yellow school bus from a Cuban elementary school. The U.S. government looked foolish trying to portray such a familiar vehicle as a threat to American security--and it made a great "photo op" which tempted the media into covering the story.

Linking your cause to the claimed traditional "American values" (i.e., equality, hard work, freedom, family, fairness, etc.) or to the values of your particular audience can also make your educational job easier. When apartheid in South Africa was linked to "No taxation without representation" and "Justice for all," people were more likely to accept that the system was fundamentally flawed.

Being Consistent. Those who have a minority view on an issue are more likely to be influential if their arguments are coherent, they appear confident, and they are consistent over time. The non-violent civil rights protesters in the South developed considerable respect due to the persistent way they refused to stoop to the violence of their opponents.

Also, people may be moved when faced with an inconsistency in their thinking or behavior (cognitive dissonance). Influence is likely only if your new option for them (new attitude or behavior) is seen by them as a valid way out of their contradiction. For example, some whites feel like bad people if they do not "do something" about racism, but they also feel that there is "nothing they can do." An effective anti-racism workshop leader can help alleviate the dissonance by introducing the "white ally" approach, showing that there is something effective that white people can do.

Finally, people judge one's positions in relation to alternative ones, so present your case alongside less attractive alternatives.

Appeal to the Emotions. People's opinions can also be effected by using positive or negative association. For example, regarding the latter, you can create a negative association through a slogan that connects something aversive with something you oppose, as Central American activists who worked against U.S. involvement in Latin America did with their slogan "NO MORE VIETNAMS!"

Using fear to generate responses will be effective if the threat you allude to seems real and the action you suggest seems potent enough to actually alleviate the problem at hand. Local activists meet both of these criteria, for example, when they correctly identify a right-wing group "that will take over a school board unless we, and our larger numbers, pay attention and get involved."

Integrity. The messenger's integrity is important when your opposition is striving to paint your cause as evil, subversive, "on the fringe," "leftist," etc. Your uprightness and honesty will annul your opponents' defamation and provide your audience with a "reality check." During the Cold War, Soviet-American exchange programs opened many eyes. And during the Reagan years, Witness for Peace delegations brought back alternative views of the Nicaraguan Contras. When possible, tactfully undermining your opposition's credibility will have just the opposite effect--it will lower their integrity. During the G.E. boycott, G.E.'s slogan "we bring good things to life," came back to haunt them. The sponsors of the boycott, the Infact Project, made an effective video documenting over and over again where G.E. spokespersons had said one thing to governmental regulators or inspectors only to have the facts prove otherwise. By the time those same spokespersons were denying the dangers of G.E.'s nuclear weapons production, they were infinitely less believable.

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The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues / / last updated May 10, 2000