Metaphors can be indispensable tools for conveying complex or abstract ideas in simple, vivid and sticky ways. This Framing Science Brief discusses the power of metaphorical language and imagery, and the challenge of getting it right.
Many communicators have been advised to avoid repeating opponents’ arguments.
They have also been advised to knock down false or misleading claims rather than let them stand.
So is there any evidence one way or the other to help us decide which communications approach is more effective?
Topos begins our new series of Framing Science Briefs with a short piece that addresses the dilemma, “to explicitly refute or not to explicitly refute” – and points readers to some of the cognitive science research that bears on this choice.
Spoiler alert: There is lots of evidence that negating or refuting a statement is less effective than we think – and it can even end up reinforcing exactly the wrong perspectives.
Topos is proud to be working with the Union of Concerned Scientists on how best to communicate their Half the Oil Plan – an initiative to cut projected US oil usage in half in twenty years.
Last month, Joe Grady of Topos spoke at their Board Meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts to lay out in detail how our research insights help convey the plan in ways that resonate with the broadest range of potential supporters and can help build support and momentum among policymakers.
It’s exciting to see our findings translated so effectively in the animation below, which they have been using to explain their initiative.
Have a look.
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Informed citizens are the foundation of effective democracy, but informing citizens depends on providing the context for issues that most mass media neglect; that’s where nonprofits come in. Read the whole report.
https://i2.wp.com/www.topospartnership.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/iStock-1187672030-gap-72-dpi-e1598900570929.jpg?fit=1161%2C782&ssl=17821161Topos Partnershiphttps://www.topospartnership.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/topos-logo-white.pngTopos Partnership2013-01-08 20:26:162021-02-17 13:15:10The Explanation Gap
In a recent cover article for Mother Jones, Kevin Drum tells a fascinating story about how researchers have uncovered a surprising connection: The sharp increase in violent crime in post-war America, and the sharp decline since the 1990s, may be largely due to one surprising factor – leaded vs. unleaded gasoline.
If true (and the evidence certainly seems compelling), the story of this discovery is important food for thought on many levels, with a number of lessons for communicating effectively on social issues.
Moral vs. material dimensions of an issue
It is all too easy to interpret any public issue in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys” at the simplest level.
Child abuse is committed by “bad guys” – so there is little that the rest of the community can do beyond policing and imprisoning.
Farmers are “good guys” so there is no reason to be concerned about the practices they use to eliminate insects or maximize crop yields.
Even the economy is shaped by the choices of “good guys” (who work hard, are loyal to employees, make responsible purchases etc.) and “bad guys” (who spend beyond their means, treat employees cruelly, and so forth).
What these tempting interpretations often miss are the “material” dimensions of the story. How do housing arrangements – which increase or decrease social isolation – end up affecting rates of child maltreatment? How does excessive nitrogen fertilizer affect the ecosystems of downstream lakes, rivers and oceans? How is the economy shaped by laws that make it harder or easier for workers to stick together for their common interests?
The lead poisoning story provides a beautiful illustration of the fact that the “material” dimension, that can seem dry and technical, is often much more important than the simple and appealing moral story about “bad guys” (violent criminals) and the role of parenting, video games, and moral values in creating them. In fact, the moral story is often deliberately used to distract public attention from the material concerns that policy can address.
To regulate or not to regulate
One of the most contentious issues in American life is the extent to which citizens ought to regulate business. Even many Democrats – who are more likely to favor active government – are concerned that putting constraints on businesses can hurt profitability and ultimately put people out of work. The link between leaded gasoline and violent crime offers a striking case study of how our communities and our whole society have a deep stake in the choices made by businesses. And a simple collective decision – i.e. the (government-mandated) phase-out of leaded gasoline – had tremendous benefits for all of us.
Connecting the dots
Scientific findings often get pushed out of policy debate. On a range of issues – evolution, global warming, drug addiction and so on – scientists are ignored or even ridiculed by politicians. This dynamic, once constrained to the most extreme, religious right wing, is becoming increasingly common. This story provides a clear example of the need to rely on science and facts in policymaking.
However, science gets pushed out of public discourse on social issues not just by anti-science activists, but more often by advocates’ inability to provide a simple explanation that people can hear and embrace. It can’t be stated too many times that if people don’t have a simple grasp of how an issue works, they have little chance of engaging with it constructively. Insiders know this on some level, but often fall short when it comes to offering audiences a clear, common sense picture of the important dynamics at work on a given issue. The leaded gasoline story is a great illustration of how understanding the story that links A to B to C makes all the difference. Not only would understanding of this connection have made a difference in the 1950s, it is a critical connection to communicate now. As Mother Jones points out, the inability to see the big picture and connect the dots between issues is a significant obstacle to moving forward on dealing with continuing lead exposure.
An ounce of prevention
Policymakers are famously short-term in their thinking. They focus on today’s crisis, the current economy, this year’s budget. However, on issue after issue, we know that an investment today will yield significant rewards later. This story has the potential to remind policymakers of this important lesson.
It’s the environment, stupid
Americans of whatever political stripe find it easy to put “environmental” topics near the bottom of their list of concerns. Even if Americans are generally sympathetic to environmental perspectives, they often think of them as being about plants and animals – somehow disconnected from human urgency.
While it is obvious to insiders and professionals that “the environment” relates to everything from our own health to food output levels to property damage and even loss of life from storms, this is simply not the default perspective of average people.
Advocates face an important challenge in helping the public focus on the infinite ways in which our own wellbeing depends on our physical surroundings including natural systems. What could illustrate this point more viscerally than the connection between the kind of gasoline we burn in our cars and our own odds of being mugged or murdered? Not to mention the fates of the kids whose own lives were derailed by lead exposure, and the significant costs to society related to imprisonment, special education, lost productivity, and so on.
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Topos is going global. Co-founder Joe Grady, an internationally recognized expert on metaphor, just returned from a lecture tour in Japan, including a presentation on metaphor and the public interest at Keio University, a lecture on scientific explanation at a food systems workshop at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, and an address on crosslinguistic (“primary”) metaphor patterns at Kobe University.
And on another continent, Senior Fellow Margy Waller was in Cape Town speaking at the international conference convened by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) about reframing poverty policy and research.
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The frenzy of commentary following last week’s presidential debate shape up to three broad takeaways, all with framing implications.
Eyes: Everyone noticed stylistic differences between the two candidates. Governor Romney seemed high energy and was looking at the camera, the President, and the moderator most of the time. President Obama spent more time looking down, something picked up by the writers for Saturday Night Live. (You knew it would happen.) These differences left many with the impression that Romney was more engaged, interested and confident than the President. We were all reminded that it’s not just the message – the messenger (and presentation style) matters too.
Weeds: Despite a few notable attempts at memorable terms (trickle down government, economy tax), many commentators noted that both of the debaters went deep into the weeds about the issues – particularly when it came to taxes and deficit reduction. Frankly, there were a lot of numbers, and that got hard to follow, not to mention ~ boring. (President Clinton does it much better.) President Obama spent a lot of time focused on arguing the facts about Romney’s proposals without changing the frame. Facts vs. facts in your opponent’s frame will not change minds. Moreover, the debate focus on taxes reinforced a favorite conservative theme: cutting taxes is the best solution to budget problems. Maintaining this focus meant Obama missed a couple open invitations to shift the conversation to jobs.
Big Bird: A substantive takeaway – both serious and humorous – was Governor Romney’s threat to kill Big Bird (and to fire Jim Lehrer sitting right in front of him!) by eliminating funding for public television.
But Romney wasn’t really attacking Big Bird. He was making a point about his view on the role of government. When proponents of small government attack public funding of arts + culture, they do so understanding that they are tapping into a widely held default belief that the arts are a private matter and a low public priority. (For more on this, see our research and recommendations for advocates of broad public support of the arts.) We’re not sure why Romney chose such a popular example though. And we’re watching to see how that turns out!
Big Bird was the enduring meme of the debate (as we kinda predicted!) and launched a flurry of funny commentary. We added one of our favs above.
The Twitterverse identified all these points real-time during the debate, along with insights about social math, sticky terms, and framing decisions.
What will happen tomorrow? Join us on Twitter as we watch and learn together.
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We’re excited about debate season! Yes, we’re political and policy communication nerds — and this is like the Olympics of framing.
Kennedy and Nixon Debate 1960
This year’s debates are sure to offer some great lessons in contrasting frames. In fact, the winner of any debate is likely to be the candidate who more compellingly frames the fundamental issues.
For example, look at the competing visions of the American Experience that each candidate outlined in his convention speech:
Individual Freedom, Individual Success
That very optimism is uniquely American.
It is what brought us to America. We are a nation of immigrants. We are the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the ones who wanted a better life, the driven ones, the ones who woke up at night hearing that voice telling them that life in that place called America could be better.
They came not just in pursuit of the riches of this world but for the richness of this life. Freedom. Freedom of religion. Freedom to speak their mind.
Freedom to build a life. And yes, freedom to build a business. With their own hands.
This is the essence of the American experience.
Shared Responsibility, Shared Success
But we also believe in something called citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.
We believe that when a CEO pays his autoworkers enough to buy the cars that they build, the whole company does better.
We believe that when a family can no longer be tricked into signing a mortgage they can’t afford, that family is protected, but so is the value of other people’s homes, and so is the entire economy…
As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.
The debate frame clashes are likely to be even more obvious since the candidates will be seeking to highlight contrasts.
During the October 3rd debate we’ll be watching for framing moments — watch this space for some thoughts about the most interesting ones. (Want to share your thoughts? We’ll be on Twitter and Facebook for the debate!)
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Topos’ unique and innovative approach synthesizes expertise from the cognitive and social sciences as well as public opinion. Most of the insights and examples in this post emerged from the research Topos principals have conducted for a wide range of organizations over the past 10 or more years.
Framing is a term that has become popular in political circles over the past ten years, but it is used in such different ways that it risks losing all meaning and becoming just a trendy word for communications.
We hope that this post will be a useful resource to help advocates, funders, and consumers of framing research understand the gist of framing, and why it can make the difference between effective and ineffective communications.
Frankly, many organizations are currently playing catch-up – talking about framing while continuing to operate mainly within the traditional and limited frames that they have long defaulted to – or, worse yet, the frames opponents define.
Obviously this is not due to a lack of desire to communicate effectively. Instead, we believe that it is largely due to lack of framing expertise and capacity across the community.
Frames organize information. Consider a familiar constellation, like the Big Dipper. Cultures throughout human history have seen patterns like this one in the sky.
Constellations are simple, familiar pictures that impose sense and meaning on the random scatter of stars above us. Without them, our eyes would still register all of the bright dots that make them up, but a random scatter of points is utterly different from a simple, coherent, “user friendly” chunk that we can remember, point to and talk about. In short, constellations are organizing ideas that allow us to see and remember things we otherwise couldn’t.
The same process plays out as people think about any topic; thinking and perception are guided by simple organizing ideas. When they are thinking about gun control, for instance, people’s perception may be guided by a simple organizing idea like Freedom: People should be free to make their own choices.
Importantly, there can be alternative ideas that organize the same information differently and give it a different meaning. The Big Dipper, for instance, is also known as the Plough (in England), and makes up just one part of the Great Bear (Ursa Major) known to classical civilizations. Likewise, there are always choices when it comes to framing public interest issues. Rather than freedom, for instance, gun control can be thought about in terms of self-protection, or tragic accidents that kill kids. Obviously, different organizing ideas can have very different implications – a point we will return to below.
Note that many messaging discussions end up focusing on variants of a single theme, rather than really exploring new organizing ideas. For example, the message “people who work hard should make a fair wage” may be more or less effective than the message “working people deserve an income that supports a family” but both use the same organizing lens of one group and their needs, rather than, for example, exploring a big picture perspective on how the overall economy benefits when working people have higher incomes.
Without a clear organizing idea, people confronted with “information” about an issue can sometimes feel like they’re looking at a random scatter rather than a meaningful picture – for instance when they hear lots of facts and figures about a topic that they basically don’t understand. This lack of a clear picture either leaves people confused and disengaged, or allows them to default to an unintended organizing idea that backfires on communicators.
Organizing Ideas & Public Interest Issues
Let’s consider some concrete examples of how organizing ideas figure in our thinking about public interest issues – and in particular, how shifting to a different organizing idea can lead to very different thinking.
Topos research in New England found that most people don’t know what a watershed is, so there is a real risk of the “random scatter” problem when advocates communicate. On the other hand, there is also a strong default idea that often rushes in to fill the vacuum.
Strong default organizing idea: The WATER itself – thinking tends to focus on everything that directly affects a body of water, such as garbage or sewage dumped right into the river. Consequently, the policy conversation ends up narrowly focusing on water pollution.
More constructive organizing idea: Watersheds are like a BASIN, with water (and other material) flowing from everywhere in the region to the bodies of water at the “bottom.” When people shift to this perspective they see that all land is part of a watershed and everything that happens on land has widespread consequences. With this idea shaping their thinking, people immediately recognize the relevance of zoning, agricultural policy and so on.
Even a seemingly non-contentious issue like the arts can be undermined by problematic organizing ideas.
Strong default organizing idea: Arts as entertainment – people may have strong and positive feelings about the arts, while seeing them through the lens of personal entertainment. In this view, entertainment is a “luxury,” and the “market” will determine which arts offerings survive, based on people’s tastes as consumers of entertainment. Consequently, public support for the arts makes little sense, particularly when public funds are scarce.
More constructive organizing idea: The arts create ripple effects of benefits, such as vibrant, thriving neighborhoods where we all want to live and work. This is not only compelling, but it also sets an expectation for public responsibility for the arts.
A number of leading experts and public officials of both political parties advocate for a nuclear-free world. However, the public is largely unconvinced so far.
Strong default organizing idea: Nukes keep us safe – Nuclear weapons are often viewed as simply our most destructive weapon, therefore our biggest and best tool for self-protection, essentially a shield. In this frame, disarmament sounds like we are voluntarily giving up our security, or (“cutting off our arm” as the cartoon at right suggests) and advocates sound naïvely idealistic at best.
More constructive organizing idea: Nukes create risk in today’s world, rather than reduce it – Nuclear weapons are a liability, because they don’t help with current risks. You can’t nuke terrorists, but terrorists could get their hands on nukes. And the sheer volume means there is a lot of opportunity for accident or theft, leading to destruction that affects us all. In this view, nukes (including our own) are like a ticking bomb in the basement.
In all these cases, shifting to a new organizing idea means arriving at new conclusions about important questions such as:
Who are the relevant players?
What’s at stake?
What solutions make sense?
Leading vs. Following
Unfortunately, effective communication often isn’t as simple as helping people shift to a different, familiar perspective. It can be very hard work developing and promoting what is essentially a new organizing idea – and it often means moving outside an organization’s comfort zone.
In an important sense, much advocacy is currently defensive – working within Americans’ existing, default understandings. For instance, advocates may feel obligated to sound “tough” on security or immigration – even if these stances don’t fit the policies they promote – or to avoid discussing unpopular or complicated positions (such as nuclear disarmament or carbon limits). And strategists often reinforce this instinct by viewing public opinion as a constraint on discourse – politicians either “can” or “can’t” take certain positions based on the popular views measured in surveys, for instance.
But real change often isn’t possible unless advocates make an effective case for a position that is currently unpopular or poorly understood. While daunting, it is critical to go on the offense and work to fundamentally reshape how people think about an issue. An effective organizing idea should not only “win” in the short-term, but also set the right dynamic in motion for long-term policy.
For example, a focus on the physical and organizational “public structures” that underlie American prosperity creates the foundation for a new kind of conversation. It helps people recognize the value and importance of the public sector, and helps them transcend knee-jerk dismissal of government.
Of course, identifying organizing ideas with this potential is usually not easy. But developing them can make the difference between creating the space for real change, and simply making the best of what we perceive as unfortunate limits on progress.
“New Common Sense”
To be truly effective, an organizing idea must strike people as common sense when they hear it.
In nearly every issue area, advocates are likely to be competing with ways of thinking about the topic that work against their goals, yet feel like common sense to many:
The government is inefficient, beset by bickering, made up of self-interested politicians, etc.
Poor people are largely responsible for their own fate – didn’t the rest of us work hard to earn what we’ve got?
Regulations make it harder for businesses to prosper.
To compete in a terrain populated with strong and stubborn “common sense” ideas like these, a new organizing idea must have the qualities that make it also sound like common sense: It must be clear and concrete, easy to remember and talk about, and must reflect how the world really works (as opposed to wishful thinking or ideological proselytizing).
It must also strike people as a new take on a familiar topic. In most issue areas, people feel they have heard the same old ideas a million times – but a new insight has a chance of standing out, sticking around, and reshaping thought and discourse.
What About Values and Emotion?
People often assume that framing is about “highlighting values.” While connecting to relevant values is important, it is usually insufficient by itself. It is just as important for people to understand how an issue and a value are connected.
Consider different approaches to taxation. Critics of a particular tax that disproportionately affects poor and working class people – such as a grocery tax – are naturally inclined to argue that this kind of tax is “unfair.” The trouble is that the word “fair” is interpreted in wildly different ways and can be used to support almost any approach to taxes – is it “fair” for 5% of the population to pay 50% of the taxes? Isn’t a flat tax the “fairest” approach of all?
Rather than simply demanding a “fair” approach to taxes, advocates of a particular approach must help audiences understand how the approach they oppose can be seen as unfair. For example, our work in Alabama suggests the following core idea is effective at helping people rethink the state’s approach to taxes: “Alabama struggles to get things done due to its Upside Down tax system, in which average families pay 10% of their income in taxes, while the wealthiest families pay less than 5%.” The organizing idea of an “upside down system” effectively turns the “common sense” view that the wealthy pay more taxes on its head.
Similarly, appeals to emotion often have a limited effect, or can even backfire, if people are looking at the issue through a lens (organizing idea) that obscures important parts of the story, or that leads to an unintended interpretation (blame the victim, etc.).
Once we have identified the organizing idea that gives us the best chance of moving conversation in a constructive direction, how do we promote it?
The key is to repeat the organizing idea often and in a variety of ways. It should guide choices about all elements of a communication, such as:
The points we do and do not include (Some arguments might be valid, but work against the chosen frame.)
The messengers we use (Messengers can evoke, or clash with, frames – e.g. a farmer taking about watersheds can help evoke the idea that all land use decisions ultimately have consequences that flow to bodies of water.)
Images (Obviously, images can be helpful tools for promoting an organizing idea – an arts organization might show photos of vibrant neighborhoods rather than virtuoso performers, for instance.)
Supporting facts and examples – some of which will work for and others against a particular organizing idea.
Conclusion: A Tough but Critical Effort
It’s never easy to change common sense. By definition it has been established through repetition, the media, and so forth over time. In addition, we as humans tend to seek confirmation of what we already know, which means that “new” information tends to be re/misinterpreted as confirmation of what we already believe.
Learning and following general framing principles (sticking to a coherent frame, using social math, offering explanations, etc.) will go a long way toward improving organizations’ communications. However, it is also critical to investigate the issue-specific dynamics that build or undermine support in a particular issue area. Since we all carry frames around with us, it can be particularly challenging to see our own issues in new ways. In the end, there is often no substitute for framing research that employs a variety of cognitive methods to uncover the effects of frames on thinking over time, and to develop the new frames that will create a lasting foundation of support for solutions, helping us get beyond the “plateaus” of awareness and support where too many issues have lingered for decades.
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