(see about page for links)


The framing discussions and advice in these short articles are relevant to nearly any issue area.

budget squeeze

Two Narrative Strategies for Engaging on Race

As daunting as the challenges are, committed communicators across the country are working hard to address racism in order to create progress. A number of researchers, scholars and practitioners around the country have done great work identifying helpful strategies for different objectives. To this body of work, Topos is adding two additional research-based approaches designed to advance a policy agenda centered on the well-being of people of color.


budget squeeze

Making the Case for Federal Aid to the States

House Democrats’ HEROES Act proposal puts state fiscal relief in the spotlight. This document is intended to serve as a brief primer on how to make the case for federal aid to states.



Critiquing Without Undermining

How can we expect the public to recognize the value of government when we keep running against it? This post discusses how to critique government without inadvertently undermining its importance, an especially crucial lesson now when the federal government is run by an Administration that is dismantling our democratic institutions.


Feeling your power

Empowering Perspectives

When it comes to COVID, but also many other topics, it is easy for us to see problems as daunting or overwhelming, as though we are at the mercy of events way beyond our power to make a difference. But other perspectives help us recognize that we are active participants, making the world better through our choices and actions. We feel strong and uplifted when we recognize how our actions matter. 


Money tree

Will COVID-19 Kill Trickle-Down Economics?

Trickle down…Bootstraps…these flawed mental models of the economy – most often used by those speaking from a conservative point of view – might, at long last, show signs of weakness, providing an opening for progressive models of the economy. Communicators can use this quick review of economic models to win arguments for progressive economic policies now, as well as lay a foundation for public understanding that will last beyond the current crisis.


News microphones

Catastrophic Skepticism: Addressing a Public Trained Not to Trust Media or Experts

To some of us, it is baffling how some Americans have dismissed COVID-19 as a “hoax” or a story exaggerated to hurt a politician’s election chance. Attitudes towards science are part of the story. Topos research (in 2017 for the Union of Concerned Scientists) found that it is extremely easy to trigger skepticism about any given scientific topic, because of widespread perceptions that “scientific” pronouncements are actually driven by political, economic or personal agendas. To counter, Topos’ research and experience suggest several lessons to promote the importance of science.


A nurse cares for a girl

Eat healthy. Exercise. Wash your hands. We have learned a lot of lessons about health and healthcare, and are learning new lessons now from the current crisis. But many of these lessons still feed into the deeply entrenched American assumption that health outcomes are all about the decisions we make as individuals. Topos research (even more relevant now) demonstrates that pointing out a simple lesson – that all of us inevitably encounter health challenges, and public policies should help make those challenges manageable – builds broad public understanding and support for policy action on topics from opioids to Medicare to paid leave.



Voting rights advocates are moving quickly to advance a range of reforms that will protect and improve voting rights in light of COVID-19. As the specific policy agenda is taking shape, Topos research provides guidance in how to think about the narrative challenge.


engine that could

Storytelling in the COVID-19 Moment

The stories people learn in this moment will shape the Cultural Common Sense, with implications for all of our policies and policy battles going forward. We need stories that teach truth, create civic engagement, and provide hope. It’s on us to tell the stories of success advocates are having. This isn’t about ego. It’s about a teachable moment when Americans can see that people working together accomplish great and important things.


lily pad

There is no issue area where the case for the public sector is starker than it is for water​—essential to life and to civil society. And yet, lack of investments to modernize our water systems, the drive for cost savings, and lack of transparent, democratic decision-making around rate-setting processes create openings for private-sector entities looking to capitalize on vulnerable water systems and the communities where they are located.


Framing Science Brief 2: Metaphors

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.


Framing Science Brief 1: Negating Doesn’t – The Downsides of Refutation

Negating or refuting a statement is less effective than we think – and it can even end up reinforcing exactly the wrong perspectives. This Framing Science Brief focuses on the insight that it can be unhelpful to repeat an opposition point, even if to refute it.


By Michelle Munyikwa and Joe Grady
TOPOS Framing Science Briefs help communicators understand the social and cognitive science principles relevant to effective framing, and point them to academic sources where they can read more.

NEGATING DOESN’T: The downsides of refutation
In an experiment on how people understand advertising copy, different groups of subjects read that a toothpaste dispenser was either “not easy to use” or “not dif cult to use” (Grant et al. 2004). Evaluating the product should be a no-brainer, right? We want the one that’s “not dif cult.” The experiment showed, though, that unless subjects had just the right circumstances for focusing on the statements (enough time, highlighted position), they evaluated the “not easy” product more highly! What’s going on?
The short answer, according to the researchers, is that processing negative statements is more complex than processing positive ones, and it’s easy to mishear or misremember them—leading to interpretations that are exactly the opposite of what’s intended.
This Framing Science Brief focuses on the implications of this kind of research for issue advocacy—and more speci cally, the insight that it can be unhelpful to repeat an opposition point, even if to refute it. The overall gist of the research discussed here is that negation often produces some undesirable effects: longer processing times, errors in recall (in particular, the replacement in memory of the negative with the positive), decreased comprehension and even rejection of the statement.

One of the most basic questions for communicators on public interest issues concerns how and whether to explicitly engage an opponent’s arguments. Constructing effective discourse can involve a delicate dance: To what extent should messaging address the viewpoints, arguments and “lenses” of the opposition—or, on the other hand, ignore them? It is often tempting, and can even seem obligatory, to explicitly refute opposition points (“Social Security is not insolvent!” “Welfare recipients are not lazy.”). But is it really effective to refute the language of your opponents—in the process repeating it—or is it better to build alternative frames for issues, sidestepping alternative framings altogether?
In his popular book on political communication, Don’t Think of an Elephant, linguist George Lakoff advises that,
“When we negate a frame, we evoke the frame”
and offers Richard Nixon as an example:
“He stood before the nation and said, ‘I am not a crook.’ And everybody thought about him as a crook.”
(Lakoff 2014, p.1).
As on other topics related to framing, there is substantial research to consider on the effects of explicitly refuting or denying an opponent’s point, and we next turn to cognitive science ndings related to negation—stating that something isn’t true.
Numerous researchers have investigated how we process negation: How do human brains make sense of negative statements? Surprisingly, per- haps, the research suggests that processing negated concepts is very different from, and cognitively more complex than, dealing with af rmative ones (e.g. Giora 2006). More speci cally, there is evidence of several particular ways in which negation can impede strong, clear communica- tion.

Memory: Various studies suggest that negation can impact memory of what was said, in several different ways. For instance, researchers may nd that what lingers in memory is (a positive version of) the content that was supposedly negated. To use an example from a provocative article on this effect, a person might hear or read the phrase “not a dead Arab,” yet what lingers in their mind isn’t “an alive Arab,”
but “a dead Arab,” the opposite of what was said (Giora 2007).
In another study (Fiedler et al. 1996), participants had false memories of seeing objects in a video, particularly if they themselves had previ- ously stated that the given object was not there. The act of thinking about and denying the presence of an object reinforced a mental image and made them recall having “seen” it.
In terms of a commonly used cognitive science concept, a negative statement may nonetheless be activating (in the mind/brain) the image that one is trying to deny, which means the concept may be reinforced and remembered.
Applied to issue or political discourse, it is clear that negating an opponent’s statements may have the paradoxical effect of strengthen- ing the opposing side’s viewpoint in the minds of the audience, rather than combating it.
Other studies suggest that negation may impair memory of a statement overall:
For example, after seeing someone drink a glass of white wine, answering “no” to “was it red wine?” may lead one to greater memory loss of the individual drinking wine at all compared with answering “yes” to “was it white wine?”
(Mayo et al. 2014, emphasis added).
In other words, something about negative language can inhibit the process of remembering and internalizing a statement, even a statement about something one saw with one’s own eyes.
Cognitive complexity: Some of the memory effects just discussed are known to happen even when people show correct understanding of the original (negative) statement. For instance, the participants in the toothpaste dispenser experiment sometimes made the “wrong” evalu- ations even when there was evidence they had initially understood the statement—they just remembered it wrong later.
But negations do lead to misunderstanding more easily than af rma- tive statements do. In various experiments, one of the measures is simply how often people interpret a negative statement accurately. Mayo et al. (2004) found that people misinterpret negative statements more often than positive ones—e.g. they see “Tom is not talented” but read it as “Tom is talented.” This is not a matter of misremembering later, since the results are based on immediate responses, measured in times between one and two seconds. Misinterpretation suggests that there is something cognitively challenging going on (at least, slightly more challenging than processing af rmative statements), and the researchers also found additional evidence of this complexity: It takes people longer to understand negative statements than positive ones.
Further reinforcing the idea that processing of negative statements may not be straightforward, researchers have found that strongly worded negations about the risks of vaccines can back re: “Paradoxically, messages strongly indicating that there is ‘no risk’ [from a given vaccine] led to a higher perceived vaccination risk than weak negations,” seemingly because the stronger negations triggered greater mistrust (Betsch and Sachse 2013). In other words, negation can back re to the extent the message or source is viewed with skepticism in the first place.

Negation and refutation aren’t exactly the same—it is possible to refute a statement without using a negative:
“They claim this measure will hurt our community, but we say they are wrong.”
“The stereotype of ‘poor’ people who are not working is false and misleading.”
But the research reviewed in this Framing Science Brief still has import- ant implications for communicators, and probably applies to ways of refuting beyond over-reliance on sentences that include “not.” (And by the way, there is at least some research showing that the kinds of effects discussed here occur even when “negation” is conveyed by other means, such as showing a statement against a certain color background—Mayo et al. 2004.)
Most basically, it is usually a mistake for communicators to rely on refuting, debunking and so forth as a primary rhetorical approach, since in the process they may be making their points harder to understand and remember—and worse, they may well be reinforcing the points they are trying to knock down.
Instead, communicators should focus on identifying the schema (frame, narrative, argument, etc.) that they want to positively promote, that offers a different way of understanding the issue—a point emphasized by Schul (2011) in a consideration of how to frame topics effectively.1
As Lakoff (2010) points out, “[O]ne cannot avoid framing. The only question is, whose frames are being activated—and hence strength- ened—in the brains of the public.” New frames can be made especially effective through tools like hyperbole and metaphor, which may be both compelling and challenging to refute (Burgers, Konijn, and Steen 2016). In the end, while there are exceptions to any guideline, attention to strong, clear, memorable ways of establishing one’s own perspective is likely to pay off much more than explicitly refuting opposing points of view.
1 “Consider a defense attorney who is trying to exonerate a client accused of a murder. The message
‘he is not a murderer’ would be less persuasive than the complementary claim by the prosecution ‘he is a murderer,’ because… the seeds of believing in X are implemented by arguing that someone is not X …
To cope with such a handicap, the defense must provide an alternative schema [emphasis added] for interpreting the testimonies and summarizing the evidence. One useful strategy involves the introduc- tion of the ‘He was framed’ schema.”

Betsch, Cornelia and Katharina Sachse. 2013. Debunking vaccination myths: Strong risk negations can increase perceived vaccination risks. Health Psychology (32): 146-155.
Burgers, Christian, Elly A. Konijn, and Gerard J. Steen. 2016. Figurative Framing: Shaping Public Discourse Through Metaphor, Hyperbole, and Irony. Communication Theory 26 (4):410–30. https://doi.org/10.1111/ comt.12096.
Fiedler, Klaus, Eva Walther, Thomas Armbruster, Doris Fay, and Uwe Naumann. 1996. Do you really know what you have seen? Intrusion errors and presuppositions effects on constructive memory. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (32)484–511.
Giora, Rachel. 2007. A Good Arab Is Not a Dead Arab—a Racist Incitement: On the Accessibility of Negated Concepts. Explorations in Pragmatics: Linguistic, Cognitive and Intercultural Aspects, 129–162.
Giora, Rachel. 2006. Anything Negatives Can Do Af rmatives Can Do Just as Well, except for Some Metaphors. Journal of Pragmatics 38 (7):981–1014. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2005.12.006.
Grant, Susan Jung, Prashant Malaviya, and Brian Sternthal. 2004. The In uence of Negation on Product Evaluations. Journal of Consumer Research (31).
Lakoff, George. 2014. The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know your Values and Frame the Debate. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Lakoff, George. 2010. Why It Matters How We Frame the Environment. Environmental Communication 4 (1):70–81. https://doi. org/10.1080/17524030903529749.
Mayo, Ruth, Yaacov Schul, and Eugene Burnstein. 2004. “I am not guilty” vs “I am innocent”: Successful negation may depend on the schema used for its encoding Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (40): 433–449.
Mayo, Ruth, Yaacov Schul, and Meytal Rosenthal. 2014. “If You Negate, You May Forget: Negated Repetitions Impair Memory Compared with Af rmative Repetitions.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143 (4):1541–52. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0036122.
Schul, Yaacov. 2011. “Alive or Not Dead: Implications for Framing from Research on Negations.” Perspectives on Framing, 157–176.

Topos on Framing

This short paper 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.


on framing
The Topos Partnership was founded in 2007 by experienced message strategists Axel Aubrun Ph.D., Meg Bostrom, MA, and Joe Grady, Ph.D., and works to help advocacy organizations develop communications that successfully engage action and support.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 the paper 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 short paper 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.
Nuclear Weapons
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”
Te 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.
✴ Etc.
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.).
Everything Counts
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.
Image Credits
Big Dipper, istockphoto.com
Ursa Major, istockphoto.com
Watershed, freephoto.com
River Valley, istockphoto.com
Cox & Forkum cartoon, http://www.coxandforkum.com/archives/2004_10.html
Topos Partnership, July 2010
Founded by veteran communications strategists Axel Aubrun and Joe Grady of Cultural Logic, and Meg Bostrom of Public Knowledge,Topos has as its mission to explore and ultimately transform the landscape of public understanding where public interest issues play out. Our approach is based on the premise that while it is possible to achieve short-term victories on issues through a variety of strategies, real change depends on a fundamental shift in public understanding. Topos was created to bring together the range of expertise needed to
understand existing issue dynamics, explore possibilities for creating new issue understanding, develop a proven course of action, and arm advocates with new communications tools to win support. For more information: www.topospartnership.com

Topos on Explanations

The work of the Topos principals over the last 10 years suggests that the current emphasis on values-based advocacy is actually an overcorrection away from the traditional reliance on facts as persuasive tools. While values matter, simple explanations of how a problem or solution “works” are essential because they empower people to take action.


Values vs. Explanations in Advocacy
The Topos Partnership was founded in 2007 by experienced message strategists Axel Aubrun Ph.D., Meg Bostrom, MA, and Joe Grady, Ph.D., and works to help advocacy organizations develop communications that successfully engage action and support.Topos’ unique and innovative approach synthesizes expertise from the cognitive and social sciences as well as public opinion.
Issues & Values
Progressive advocates increasingly accept what Conservatives have long recognized – that issue advocacy is often a competition between opposing value systems. Following on Thomas Kuhn’s groundbreaking work on paradigms, George Lakoff’s influential Moral Politics, for example, argued forcefully that conservatives and progressives inhabit radically different but equally coherent moral worlds, and that their views on any given issue emerge from deeply held values and about who we are and how the world should be. In other words, it’s not as simple as saying that “we’ve got the facts on our side and they don’t.”
Take almost any contentious issue: Abortion rights, the death penalty, gay marriage, immigration, environmental protections, taxes, gun control, charter schools, nuclear disarmament, health insurance, government regulations. People’s stands on these issues are related to a
sense of moral identity, and are not matters of objective truth. As it
happens, many of the disagreements on particular issues come down to a basic moral distinction: whether we think of ourselves as fundamentally about collective responsibility or self-reliance – what Jared Bernstein has dubbed the WITT (“we’re in this together”) and YOYO (“you’re on your own”) positions.
It is clear that when issues are rooted in deeply held values, change and
progress is difficult to achieve. A belief about the importance of personal responsibility is much harder to change than an opinion about whether one car gets better mileage than another car. In general terms, disagreements about “who we are” or “right and wrong” are trickier than disagreements about “how things work.” In philosophical terms, we are dealing with the very difficult problem of moral relativism, according to which there is not necessarily an objectively right or wrong stand.
Issues & Explanations
The work of the Topos principals over the last 10 years suggests that the current emphasis on values- based advocacy is actually an overcorrection away from the traditional reliance on facts as persuasive tools. Recognizing that facts actually are not enough, current communications often overemphasize appeals to moral identity and values, relying too much on reminding the audience that “we” (Americans, Chicagoans, etc.) are the kind of people who: respect individual rights, care about our neighbors, love our country,” and so forth. In identity-based communications, you need to know your audience – how they talk, who they listen to, and so forth – in order to appeal effectively to their sense of who they are.
And given that most of us are a mix of all of these values, artfully connecting issues to identity becomes the name of the communications game.
What has been deemphasized is the kind of communications that is not based on our sense of who we are – namely, explanation-based advocacy.
Explanation-based advocacy worries less about values and more about how the world works. (Note that effective explanations are very different from bare facts.) The fundamental assumption of this approach is that as people come to understand how an issue works – how cause and effect play out – they tend to converge on generally sensible policy choices, regardless of politics (or identity). Much research by the Topos principals over the last decade on a variety of issue areas has repeatedly demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach.
Consider the following issue areas, where progress has come along with increased understanding:
Ozone hole
While the problem is not yet solved, very substantial steps have been taken to address it. Not coincidentally, a high proportion of Americans know that aerosols and CFCs have a destructive effect on the ozone layer, and that the resulting “hole” allows sunlight to penetrate the atmosphere in harmful ways.The very concrete language (and images) of the ozone hole—which seems like a hole in our metaphorical “roof”—have certainly been factors in helping American society grasp and take responsibility for the problem.
Mental health
There is still a great deal of progress to be made in educating Americans about mental health, but there has also been an undeniable change for the better on the levels of both attitudes and policy. Behind this change is the growing understanding that brain chemistry and anatomy as well as developmental experience contribute to behaviors that used to seem simply “crazy” or “bad.” Various nonprofits have helped promote messages about “brain disorders” for instance. Even if only understood in a simplistic way, these biological explanations for behavior have had the virtue of concreteness, and have opened the door to entirely new ways of understanding familiar problems.
The history of the tobacco issue is very complex – and has included important moral dimensions – but explanation is certainly one of the factors that has led to more restrictions on the use of tobacco products. For instance, people now recognize, as they did not a generation ago, that cigarette smoke contains chemicals that are physically addictive, and that second-hand smoke has health consequences for nonsmokers.
In each of these cases, the public has been offered a concrete explanation involving cause and effect, and the result has been that parts of people’s minds that would otherwise not have been engaged – the descriptive, practical,“how the world works” parts – have helped them view the problem in new ways.
Part of the appeal of explanations-based communications is that it offers the possibility of fundamental and even irreversible change in how people think about an issue. Once people understand the basic idea of second-hand smoke, it is hard for them to unlearn that idea, no matter what kind of values-based appeals are made. The issue moves forward. Contrast that with the perpetual oscillation between
communitarian and individual values that America is famous for – each Great Society program eventually provokes a backlash insistence on individual responsibility, and vice versa.
The practical implication of this perspective on communications is that advocates should be on the lookout for areas where the public fails to understand the mechanics of an issue, and not only its moral/ political underpinnings.
Interestingly, even the fundamental opposition between WITT and YOYO perspectives, often seen as a matter of (moral) identity, is actually also a question of objective understanding of how the world works. In other words, it’s fair to ask – and to communicate about – which view is a more accurate description of how the world actually works. This is particularly important when these views serve as guides to our actions, as they do on any issue where laws and public policies come into play.
Consider just a few cases:
✴ Flu epidemics (How can we ensure there are adequate supplies of vaccine, or that the right vaccine exists at all?)
✴ Pollution (How can we ensure that industries control toxic waste, or even that we know what the toxins are and how they should be handled?)
✴ Unemployment/underemployment (In periods of massive layoffs and downsizing, what are the most effective steps to bring back thousands of jobs?)
✴ Monopolies (How can we be sure that a single company, or alliance of companies, doesn’t gain control of an important type of product, and overcharge for it or reduce its quality?)
Could anyone argue seriously that individual effort can deal with these issues, that the YOYO approach can solve the problem?
Despite much of the rhetoric, the current mortgage and credit crisis is another problem that can only be solved by a WITT approach. In fact the problem itself begins with the deregulation of the lending industry – an example of YOYO-ism at work. Rather than taking the WITT perspective that the mortgage and credit systems are an important pillar of overall prosperity, and that all Americans have a collective interest in preserving the strength and integrity of the system, the deregulators chose an approach that said to borrowers,You’re on your own when it comes to choosing reasonable mortgages, and to lenders, You’re on your own when it comes to managing your risks and warning lenders (or not) about the chances they’re taking.
As a matter of morality, there’s room to argue about lenders’ responsibility to borrowers, and about whether they should be in the business of “protecting us from ourselves.” (There certainly are, or used to be, American bankers who would not think it right to make loans that many borrowers don’t really understand and are likely to default on.) From the perspective of the country’s practical interests, though, there’s really no question which of the YOYO or WITT perspectives offers the clearer picture. The lending practices that became popular following deregulation have led to a significant recession. Markets and industries are so deeply and multiply interconnected that we truly are all in it together, whether it suits our moral leanings or not.
And by the way, while deregulation has recently been largely a Republican project, no-one should believe that the YOYO – WITT divide is inherently a partisan one. Republicans have taken a WITT perspective on a wide variety of issues, from California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposals for universal health care (on both moral and practical grounds) to traditional Republican support for sacrifice and service in defense of the country, to the environmental efforts of Republican presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Nixon and various Republicans currently or recently in Congress (particularly in the New England delegations). Even if hyper-individualism is a hallmark of a certain popular type of contemporary conservatism, the WITT perspective is too fundamentally true to be the property of one party or the other.
If the YOYO vs.WITT clash plays out in important moral debates, it may be even more significant as a conceptual clash.These fundamentally different stances guide our perception of the world and how it works.They help us see certain things and obscure others. One reveals that our neighbor’s mortgage problems affect us, the other blinds us to that fact.
Image Credits
Conflict, istockphoto.com
Hooked on tobacco, istockphoto.com Mortgage cartoon, Glasbergen.com
Topos Partnership, September 2010
Founded by veteran communications strategists Axel Aubrun and Joe Grady of Cultural Logic, and Meg Bostrom of Public Knowledge,Topos has as its mission to explore and ultimately transform the landscape of public understanding where public interest issues play out. Our approach is based on the premise that while it is possible to achieve short-term victories on issues through a variety of strategies, real change depends on a fundamental shift in public understanding. Topos was created to bring together the range of expertise needed to
understand existing issue dynamics, explore possibilities for creating new issue understanding, develop a proven course of action, and arm advocates with new communications tools to win support. For more information: www.topospartnership.com

Beyond Winning – Change the Culture

When we at Topos are asked what distinguishes our approach from how others develop communications strategy, the answer is simple: We focus on creating tools for changing the culture.


Culture Change vs. “A Win”
Q: When is a “win” not a win?
A: When it makes future wins harder.
Fighting the culture
When we at Topos are asked what distinguishes our approach from the various communications strategy and research groups around the country, the answer is simple: We focus on creating tools that change the culture.
On issue after issue, advocates for important causes must contend with cultural patterns that work against their goals. Despite these communicators’ passion, wisdom and hard work, progress is often frustratingly slow because broadly shared patterns of thought and understanding are preventing progress and engagement.
Consider the issue of “job quality” – which encompasses how workers are paid, whether they receive basic benefits, whether they are given reasonable schedules, et cetera. Our research experience tells us that regardless of the specific policy in question, there are several stubborn cultural patterns that get in the way of improving outcomes for workers. Most if not all Americans share default perspectives like the following:
If you don’t like your job you can always leave.
If you want a better job, work to improve yourself (through additional education, etc.).
There’s no such thing as a bad job – a job is what you make of it.
Regardless of party identification, education level or other individual differences, Americans recognize these perspectives, and typically default to them at one time or another during a conversation about jobs.
These perspectives
reflect deep cultural
narratives about
work, jobs and
business. As
Americans, we
value our
“freedom” to move
one from job to
another, we value
individual initiative
and responsibility to “improve” ourselves, we value a strong work ethic, we respect people who create a successful business and we regard it as theirs to run as they see fit, and so forth. While we may also take other viewpoints at times, these ideas are so familiar and natural that they can seem like the whole truth – basic common sense that isn’t even questioned.
Most of us are blind to the notion that the job itself could be improved.
We share a cultural story that we each make our own way in the economic world, making the best of our circumstances, prospering the best we can given our abilities, character and luck. We navigate this terrain, we don’t shape it.
And the patterns of thinking we are up against on other issues are equally daunting – from default perspectives telling us that the family (as opposed to community or society) is all that really matters for a child’s development and outcomes, to the universally shared idea that we (including our governments) should “live within our means,” to ones that tell us that the gradual degradation of nature is the inevitable byproduct of “progress.”
Winning the battle, losing the war
Communicators often know or sense – whether through research, instinct or experience – that they are up against stubborn patterns like these. So what to do?
Unfortunately, one all-too-common approach is to work “with” current attitudes rather than against them. For instance, communicators are advised to “beat up on government” before advancing their own proposals. They are told that referring to government’s shortcomings or failures is a way to “connect” with the public, to show they “get it.”
But what happens when this advice is followed? One result is predictable: further reinforcement of the attitudes that stand in our way. So even a “win” ends up making future victories more difficult, and may in any case be reversed or undermined by the next vote.
In this way communicators can end up winning a battle while losing the war – because they haven’t worked towards changing the culture, towards the kind of change that lasts.
To take another example, we have tested messages that take a “get tough” stance towards “illegal immigrants”, before bridging to policies that are actually about amnesty and legalization. (“Let’s make them all learn English and get drivers licenses.”) The result? Even if such messages trigger enthusiastic agreement and seem to promote the right policies, they actually (and predictably) end up reinforcing anti-immigrant attitudes. In fact, the part that listeners are most likely to hear, remember and respond to is the part about getting tough – the part that echoes and reinforces current cultural dynamics, that “meets people where they are”.
Wins achieved through messaging like this do not pave the way for other victories. They simply make the next battle just as tough or even tougher.
The Conservative Example
Since the beginnings of the modern conservative movement in the 1950s (William F. Buckley’s establishment of the National Review etc.), one of the movement’s strengths, and one of the important reasons for its impact, is that it has focused so much attention on asserting core ideas, as opposed to achieving individual victories by whatever means. In short, it has succeeded by not focusing on “what works” in a tactical sense.
Conservatives of that era, along with those who have followed in their footsteps, grasped that real success depended on changing the culture – not “working with it.”
Consider the following:
The American Enterprise Institute’s founding mission was to promote “greater public knowledge and understanding of the social and economic advantages accruing to the American people through the maintenance of the system of free, competitive enterprise.” (AEI.org/about/history)
“There is a major cultural schism developing in America. … The new divide centers on free enterprise – the principle at the core of American culture.” (Arthur C. Brooks, “The Real Culture War Is Over Capitalism,”online.wsj.com, April 30, 2009)
“Our political economy and our high-energy industry run on large, general principles, on ideas….” (From William F. Buckley’s mission statement for the National Review, 1955)
These are not the thoughts of communicators eager for any immediate victory. Rather they are reflections of the fact that the larger struggles at stake will determine the meaning of all the smaller struggles along the way.
In effect, visionary conservatives have, for decades, played offense rather than defense. Instead of focusing on ways to achieve victories in spite of prevailing attitudes, they have looked for, and created, opportunities to make the broader case for smaller government, lower taxes, and so forth – understanding that by shifting the culture in their direction, they make all battles more winnable in the long haul.
Whether on the broadest questions that shape our society – such as the proper balance between individual and collective responsibility – or on more particular issues such as job quality, communicators can learn an important lesson from the conservative movement about the importance of taking the culture head-on.
Building/assessing the tools
How do communicators know whether they have the kinds of messages that help change the culture?1
From our perspective, informed by social and cognitive science, a message must meet several critical criteria in order to have a chance of succeeding at this level:
Agreement/enthusiasm: Naturally, people who hear the idea – or at least, a lot of them – must find it persuasive and compelling.
Clarity: The idea must be easily and accurately understood.
Memorability: If an idea doesn’t stick with people, it has little chance of entering or changing the culture.
Repeatability: Likewise, if the idea isn’t one that average people can convey themselves, it has no chance of shaping the culture – since “the culture” is all about our shared ideas and assumptions, which we convey to each other in any number of ways.
The first of these points is a basic starting point for all message testing. It is a relatively easy task to find out whether people like or agree with a statement, find it more compelling than other statements, are excited or lukewarm about it. But agreement is insufficient. If the goal is culture change, the bar for success needs to be far higher.
What if people are agreeing with a statement while not understanding it as intended? Unfortunately, this is much more common than most communicators realize. Recall the “get tough” immigration messages that, despite communicators’ real intentions, are understood mainly as admonitions to get even tougher. We encounter the same dynamic across all issue areas: Audiences often
give thumbs up to a message while not und erstanding or interpreting it the way insiders think they will.
And what if an idea sounds clear and compelling, but people can’t remember or talk about it five minutes after finishing a phone survey? Everyone can express the idea that we should live within our means, whether in these words or others. To become part of culture, an idea has to feel natural coming from regular people, not just experts or professional communicators.
1 Good messages/ideas may not be sufficient to change culture – which can also require frequent repetition from compelling sources, changes in actual experience, and so forth. But they are necessary almost by definition.
Much of the art and science of developing a communications strategy depends on developing new tools to assess these properties of an idea or message. The evolving set of approaches used by Topos – from ethnographic field work to “Talkback” testing of individual messages, to “Virtual Community Forums” to longitudinal testing – reflects a commitment not to particular methods, but to getting at the potential of a message to help with the critical job of changing the culture, in large or small ways.
Lasting, not necessarily long-term
When people first think about the challenge of “changing the culture” they may assume that the timeline is measured in years, decades or even generations. And to be fair, it did take the visionary conservatives this amount of time to truly shift American culture in their direction.
But it is important to bear in mind that the same ideas that can ultimately change the culture can also engage people immediately to create to short-term victories. For instance, the idea that Americans have collectively built systems and structures that have helped create prosperity and quality of life can immediately launch a constructive, engaged and aspirational conversation that leads to greater support for smart tax approaches and public investments. This sticky and compelling idea can help in the short run, while also shifting the culture in a constructive direction over time, making many future conversations easier even before they happen.
A “new common sense”
Ultimately, our goal when working with communicators and advocates is to shift the culture so that a “new common sense” can take hold, or at least compete with ideas that are currently so familiar and accepted that they become the only reasonable way to see the world.
What if “living within our means” didn’t seem like the only reasonable way to think about public budgets, and smart investments in the foundations of our prosperity (including public systems) became a no-brainer?
What if reasonable people hardly questioned the idea that workers have the right to stick together at work to speak with a more formidable voice about their needs, rather than repeating the old saw that unions put companies at risk?
What if the idea that the economy prospers best when average workers have enough money to spend, and enough security to be comfortable spending it, were a commonplace notion, reflected in casual conversation and TV plots, rather than just in press releases?
Those are culture changes worth fighting for.
Founded by veteran communications strategists Axel Aubrun and Joe Grady of Cultural Logic, and Meg Bostrom of Public Knowledge, Topos has as its mission to explore and
ultimately transform the landscape of public understanding where public interest issues play out. Our approach is based on the premise that while it is possible to achieve short-term victories on issues through a variety of strategies, real change depends on a fundamental shift in public understanding. Topos was created to bring together the range of expertise needed to understand existing issue dynamics, explore possibilities for creating new issue
understanding, develop a proven course of action, and arm advocates with new communications tools to win support. For more information: www.topospartnership.com

Focus on Personal Stories

In this short memo, we explore how and why “putting a face on the story” can go wrong – from diverting attention away from systemic factors, to inviting the wrong questions and judgments – and suggest the kinds of stories that are more likely to lead to constructive engagement.


Close Up vs. Big Picture Stories
The Role of Individual Examples in Advocacy Communications
Research and real-life experience, plus perspectives from the social and cognitive sciences, tell us that “putting the face on the story” can often backfire. In this memo, we explore the reasons why this approach can go so wrong – from diverting attention away from systemic factors, to inviting the wrong questions and judgments – and suggest other kinds of stories that are more likely to lead to constructive engagement.
The Power of Stories
Effective communicators are essentially great storytellers. People can absorb and remember a great story far longer than lists of statistics, and the right story can even help people hold onto facts and figures that otherwise wouldn’t stick. Most important, the right kinds of stories convey a broader narrative that can help bring about lasting social change.
However, communicators often limit themselves to one particular type of story, one that can do more harm than good – a close-up portrait of a struggling individual:
✴ the mom who can’t stay home with a sick child,
✴ the child who is facing obesity-related health
✴ the father of four who can’t get a job and is about to be evicted, and so on.
When we show these faces and tell these stories, we hope that audiences will engage with our issues in a new way, and care about them as they haven’t before. We hope that they will step up to support a policy, write a check or volunteer their time.
And our assumption that these stories are bound to work is even bolstered by “proof.” We ourselves are drawn in by these narratives – of suffering, of injustice, of redemption, of triumph. We know that journalists want to “put a face on the story,” and that our fellow advocates feel this is important.
For all these reasons, communicators are often surprised when these stories backfire, when a listener offers responses such as:
✴ I don’t get paid if I don’t work – why should she?
✴ That kid’s parents better stop feeding him/her junk food.
✴ That’s sad, but what can you do when times are so tough for everyone?
One reaction to these responses might be to decry the state of American culture – how can people be so uncaring? Another might be to look for a more “sympathetic” individual to feature, assuming that racism or classism might be getting in the way of people’s true sympathetic nature.
What we should be doing, though, is questioning the very structure of the story. The fact is that close-up portraits of individuals are a type of story that, when treated as a main focus of communications, almost always works against building support for progressive policy change.
Why “Close Ups” are Ineffective Stories
The idea that “putting a face on the story” is an effective communications approach can seem so intuitive as to be unquestionable. But in reality, there are very important reasons to question it. In truth, this kind of story can make it difficult or impossible to convey the big picture ideas we are trying to get across. Why?
Human stories can naturally seem like the WHOLE story. It is so easy and natural to focus on a face, and on the drama of an individual life, that attention to this dimension of an issue can totally block out the broader, systemic factors – factors that we know are real, critical, and typically unknown to our audience. A face on the story can make it even harder to focus on these broader factors, resulting in no appreciation for why structural, policy interventions are needed.
We have seen over and over in our research that participants tend to focus exclusively on individual stories once they hear them, and to forget or disregard the broader factors that a communication is trying to convey.
Once people focus on the drama of the individual story, they can easily arrive at conclusions that are the opposite of what we’re trying to convey. When we tell a “Close Up” story, we invite audiences to focus on a very narrow picture of individual choices, abilities, good or bad luck, and so forth. That’s what individual stories are made of. The result can be condemnation of the very individuals we are trying to help. The mom who is struggling to provide for her family “shouldn’t have had so many kids,” “shouldn’t have moved to that neighborhood,” “should have gotten more schooling so she’d have more options” etc. Time and again we have seen research participants react in these ways to an individual who struck us as so obviously sympathetic. The “face on the story” is a double-edged sword. It gets attention and is memorable, but easily leads to the wrong takeaway.
What to do?
It is easy to feel that we are damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Individual stories and images engage attention, but often lead thinking down the wrong paths. So what to do?
The conclusion we at Topos have reached is that communicators must take on the challenge of finding vivid, compelling ways of telling the “big picture” story. How do we take the complex causality, the statistical patterns, the interventions that we know are so important, and convey them in ways our audiences can grasp and relate to?
One way or another, we need to make the wide shot come alive (to use a movie-making analogy), rather than quickly resorting to the close-up on an individual. Here are some suggestions for ways to tell compelling stories without the pitfalls of the individual close-up.
Stories of Place
We have found in many cases that it is helpful to talk about problems and solutions in terms of place. For instance, public investment in the arts makes sense because it creates more vibrant and prosperous neighborhoods – which is vivid and compelling, but without some of the pitfalls of a focus on individual plights.
Photo Credit: Scott Beseler
Solutions Stories
Stories that focus on solutions – successful programs, effective interventions, etc. – can be very powerful because they convey optimism and belief in the power of collective action. They suggest to people that social problems are perhaps not so intractable after all. For instance, a story about successful dropout prevention efforts at a struggling high school, featuring a volunteer who explains why this solution matters, would be a compelling story likely to encourage others to support the program. This story could even include 2 or 3 quotes from students, as long as the story stays focused on the solution.
Big Picture, with Faces
Once the big picture points have been established, then it can be helpful to offer individual stories in order to flesh out the point. For example, in research we have done on low wage jobs, we have found that it is helpful to first convey a big-picture idea like “X industry has lobbied to keep wages down for decades” or “wages are so low that full time workers qualify for food stamps”, etc. Once the big picture is established, then individuals (more than one) can effectively support the idea with their own experiences – as long as their story stays on frame.
The bottom line: We can’t and shouldn’t eliminate people from our communications – it’s a question of emphasis and ordering. While it would be nice if effective communication were as easy as “putting a face on the issue,” communicators need to take on the challenge of making other factors just as compelling as the individual human interest stories we are all tempted to focus on. When we do this, we stand a better chance of building public support for lasting change.
Founded by veteran communications strategists Axel Aubrun and Joe Grady of Cultural Logic, and Meg Bostrom of Public Knowledge, Topos has as its mission to explore and
ultimately transform the landscape of public understanding where public interest issues play out. Our approach is based on the premise that while it is possible to achieve short-term victories on issues through a variety of strategies, real change depends on a fundamental shift in public understanding. Topos was created to bring together the range of expertise needed to understand existing issue dynamics, explore possibilities for creating new issue
understanding, develop a proven course of action, and arm advocates with new communications tools to win support. For more information: www.topospartnership.com

The Role of Nonprofits – How to Explain the Issues to Media and Others

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.


Nonprofits need democracy to bring about long-term solutions, often through policy changes; and democracy in turn depends on nonprofits to educate the public about the important and critical issues that face us.
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be. Thomas Jefferson
People’s inability to understand basic scientific concepts undermines their ability to take part in the democratic process.
Jon D. Miller, director of the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University Medical School (NYTimes.com “Scientific Savvy? In U.S., Not Much”).
The Explanation Gap:
How Democracy Depends on Nonprofit Organizations
by Joseph Grady, Ph.D. and Axel Aubrun, Ph.D.
Well-informed laymen make up the foundation of a healthy society.
ADVOCATES OFTEN DEFAULT TO A COMMU- nications approach that can work in the short run, but whose effectiveness is very limited over the long haul. A strategy based on “gaining mind-
share,” “breaking through the communications clutter,” and so forth, can certainly succeed in bringing an issue “top of mind,” but it is also very likely to leave the public in the dark about the big picture surrounding an issue. This trade- off severely limits the impact that nonprofits can have on the most important challenges that face our society, because it ignores the critical rela- tionship between nonprofits and democracy. Put simply, nonprofits need democracy to bring about long-term solutions, often through policy changes; and democracy in turn depends on
JOSEPH GRADY, Ph.D. and AXEL AUBRUN, Ph.D. are prin- cipals and co-founders of Cultural Logic, LLC, an applied cognitive and social science research group.
Charles Schulz
nonprofits to educate the public about the important and critical issues that face us.
Americans from Thomas Jefferson to Charles Schulz have affirmed one of the basic principles of American democracy: Government by the people requires that the people actually under- stand the issues, situations, and decisions with which they are faced. The alternative, they warn, is all too often manipulation of the people by those who do understand.
In fact, as advocates at nonprofit organiza- tions realize all too well, the public often under- stands frighteningly little about critically important issues. Too few Americans, for example, understand that Social Security taxes are not directly repaid to us when we retire; that the current economic disparities among differ- ent ethnic groups were partly created by the his- torical distribution of opportunities like the G.I. Bill; that global warming is caused by a layer of carbon dioxide that is accumulating in the

nonprofits have a key—and too-often neglected—role to play in our democracy, in helping people understand the basics of an public- interest issue, the steps that can be taken to fix it, and the role that citizens can play.
atmosphere and trapping in heat; that current commercial fishing techniques (unrelated to pollution) inevitably disrupt vital ecosystems; that early maltreatment of children (including neglect and emotional abuse) can affect the development of brain architecture; and so forth.1 Without this basic understanding, the American people often aren’t prepared to make the informed decisions that are central to the dem- ocratic system. And in the absence of public understanding, the democratic machinery typi- cally fails to engage, and does little to provide real solutions to these collective challenges.
In short, nonprofits have a key—and too- often neglected—role to play in our democracy, in helping people understand the basics of a public-interest issue, the steps that can be taken to fix it, and the role that citizens can play. In this article, we discuss recent advances in addressing the challenge of educating the public—one that is based on providing simple and effective explanations of complex or abstract issues.
Who Informs the Public?
There are two sectors of society that are widely understood to have a role in creating the edu- cated public that democracy depends on: first, schools are supposed to equip us with the basic skills and knowledge that allow us to assimilate new facts—in a word, literacy. Second, journal- ism’s role is to inform us about the particular issues and situations that are currently facing us. But schools, even at their best, obviously can’t prepare Americans to reason effectively about all the important issues we must contend with, if only because the world and our under- standing of it are constantly and rapidly evolv- ing—many important contemporary issues were simply not on the radar when current voters were ten years old.
Nor can the news media be counted on to provide the public with the kinds of explana- tions that can help us make truly informed judg- ments. In part, this is because of often- discussed biases toward sensationalized cover- age, “status quo” sources, easily gathered mate- rial, stories that don’t threaten corporate sponsors, etc. A more fundamental problem is that journalism’s inherent emphasis on facts means that explanations—of causality, of bigger-picture contexts, etc.—take second place
at best. (Political scientist Shanto Iyengar has discussed a closely related problem with TV news in particular—the predominance of “episodic” coverage, about specific incidents, and a near-absence of “thematic” coverage, about trends and contexts.2) The inadequacy of media coverage by itself is evidenced by the fact that decades of information about global warming in the news (e.g., the rise in average temperatures, the potential for ice cap melting), has not resulted in widespread understanding of how the phenomenon works, even on the sim- plest level.
In short, American democracy is diminished by what we call an explanation gap in the public discourse. The consequences of this gap should not be underestimated. Effective explanations not only increase awareness of particular issues, they also allow the public to understand the choices that face us as a society. Ultimately, they make democracy possible.
The role of a third sector in American society in helping the public understand issues is less widely recognized. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out a century and a half ago, organiza- tions that are neither commercial nor govern- mental play a critical role in the American democratic process. By identifying and promot- ing public interest issues, he argued, “voluntary associations” allow the public to make collective choices about issues that would otherwise have escaped the democratic process. They feed the machine of democracy.
As society, science, and technology become more complex, it becomes increasingly apparent that a key part of “identifying and promoting” the issues is explaining them, and so a more specific role has emerged for nonprofits: namely, to help bridge the explanatory gap. Nonprofits are well- positioned for the role, since they have the expert- ise and the means to introduce issue-explanations into the national conversation, by passing expla- nations along to the media when their issue “hits the news,” for example. Importantly, this role tran- scends particular issues—it concerns the health of American democracy as a whole.
Explanations that Work 3
Crafting good explanations, however, is not always as easy as it seems, and there are a number of ways in which explanations can (and often do) “misfire.”
Going over people’s heads. One reason that advocates and experts go over people’s heads is that they are so deeply involved in an issue that it can be very difficult for them to see past their own assumptions about what people know and understand. An explanation that seems ridicu- lously simplistic to an insider can still be too technical and jargon-filled for a layperson to understand. Consider these two issue explana- tions presented (by nonprofit organizations) with broad general audiences in mind:
Global warming: Solar radiation passes through the clear atmosphere. Most radiation is absorbed by the earth’s surface and warms it. Some solar radiation is reflected by the earth and the atmosphere. Some of the infrared radi- ation passes through the atmosphere, and some is absorbed and re-emitted in all directions by greenhouse gas molecules. The effect of this is to warm the earth’s surface and the lower atmosphere.
Biomagnification: The most dangerous traits of the organochlorines are their persist- ence—that is, their tendency to remain chemi- cally active for a long time—and their solubility in fat, which means they become stored in fatty tissues within organisms and can accumulate over time. Because of these two traits, contam- inant levels become more concentrated with each step up in a food chain—a process known as biomagnification.
Many readers would be puzzled by the lan- guage in these passages, and many more would simply ignore the text altogether, since it seems to be written for “someone else”—that is, people with special scientific knowledge. This prose
might be suitable for people interested in “digging deeper” to understand more about the problem, but not for people who are learning about it for the first time, and who do not already have a special interest in the topic.
Reinforcing the wrong ideas. Besides going over people’s heads, another common trap advo- cates fall into is to reinforce ideas that work directly against the goals of a communication. For example, when a rural advocacy group tells readers, without further context, that “fewer than 15% of rural residents receive any federal housing help,” this can easily sound like good news—confirmation of the common view that rural people live simpler, more self-sufficient (and therefore better) lives than those of us in urban America.
And when an organization offers the follow- ing explanation of risk factors for diabetes among African Americans, it practically ensures that readers will blame the individuals for their behavior, rather than learning something about public health and the contexts that lead to disease:
Being overweight or obese, not getting regular physical activity, and not eating enough fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods are linked to increased risk of developing diabetes. On average, African American adults and ado- lescents have very high rates of overweight and obesity as well as low rates of meeting physical activity and fruit and vegetable intake recom- mendations.
Facts vs. explanations. Each of the last two examples illustrates another, even more funda- mental problem in many advocates’ communica- tions—the emphasis on statements of fact rather than explanations that provide new understanding. These are often treated as inter- changeable, but in terms of the effects they have on people’s thinking, they are anything but. At this point, it is worth considering a bit more deeply what it really means to inform people.
Engaging the “Responsible Mind”
The findings from decades of research into how people think offer some important lessons for communicators who are interested in helping people reason more effectively about issues and become more engaged with them (the two
One reason that advocates and experts go over people’s heads is that they are so deeply involved in an issue that it can be very difficult for them to see past their own assumptions . . .

The mind works most easily and naturally with simple, concrete images.
typically go together). Here are two basic prin- ciples that emerge from the cognitive and social sciences.
Cognition is not organized around facts, but around what researchers call frames, schemas, models, scripts, scenarios, etc.
Unless explained properly, facts can tell a very different story from the one that is intended (and true). This is because facts are only under- stood in terms of the richer mental models within which they fit. A fact like “poverty has doubled in the county over the past five years” can mean many different things depending on the particular mental models of poverty that are guiding people’s reasoning. Although poverty can be defined quantitatively in terms of income and assets, these definitions don’t capture how laypeople actually understand the term. People’s models or frames for poverty involve ideas about why people are poor (e.g., “they don’t work hard” or “they’re born into a set of disadvantages”), ideas about what the day-to- day experience of poverty is like (e.g., images of violent urban housing projects, or of rustic family scenes), and so forth. To really help people understand a point about poverty—and especially, to change their current understand- ing—communicators need to offer true explana- tions, involving cause and effect, for example, rather than just numbers and static images.
The mind works most easily and naturally with simple, concrete images.
This is a straightforward point, but one that advocates often ignore or don’t fully appreciate. Explanations should be as concrete as possible, even if this means providing metaphors and analogies for topics that are inherently abstract. (After all, much of people’s everyday thinking and language uses metaphors as simple as “heavy workload,” “approaching completion,” etc.). Even a highly educated audience grasps concrete ideas much more quickly and effectively.
When explanations follow these principles, they are much more likely to help change thinking.
Issue Examples
Consider the following issue areas, where progress has come along with increased under- standing:
Ozone hole. While the problem is not yet solved, very substantial steps have been taken to address it. Not coincidentally, a high propor- tion of Americans know that aerosols and CFCs have a destructive effect on the ozone layer,4 and that the resulting “hole” allows sunlight to pen- etrate the atmosphere in harmful ways. The very concrete language (and images) of the ozone hole—which seems like a hole in our metaphor- ical “roof”—have certainly been factors in helping American society grasp and take responsibility for the problem.
Mental health. There is still a great deal of progress to be made in educating Americans about mental health, but there has also been an undeniable change for the better on the levels of both attitudes and policy. Behind this change is the growing understanding that brain chemistry and anatomy contribute to behaviors that used to seem simply “crazy” or “bad.” Various non- profits have helped promote messages about “brain disorders” and “chemical imbalances,” for instance. Even if only understood in a sim- plistic way, these biological explanations for behavior have had the virtue of concreteness, and have opened the door to entirely new ways of understanding familiar problems.
Tobacco. The history of the tobacco issue is very complex, but explanation is certainly one of the factors that has led to more restrictions on the use of tobacco products. For instance, people now recognize, as they did not a genera- tion ago, that cigarette smoke contains chemi- cals that are physically addictive, and that second-hand smoke has health consequences for nonsmokers.
In each of these cases, the public has been offered a concrete explanation involving cause and effect, and the result has been that parts of people’s minds that would otherwise not have

been engaged have helped them view the problem in new ways. (For further discussion of these principles of explanation, see the e-zines on “simplifying models” and “causal sequences,” authored by Cultural Logic for the FrameWorks Institute—www.frameworksinstitute.org /products/kids.shtml.)
Does an explanation really work? Jour- nalists and experts (e.g. economists, biologists) sometimes hit on an explanation that works well with the public. The term “ozone hole,” for instance, was coined by a chemist, Sherwood Rowland, and publicized by Walter Sullivan of the New York Times. (Note, by the way, that the idea of a “hole” in the ozone layer is an effective metaphorical explanatory concept—there is no literal hole, but only a diminished density in a particular region.)
But getting an explanation right is so impor- tant that it probably shouldn’t be left to chance, especially given that many explanations that sound promising actually prove to be startlingly ineffective. The history of the global warming issue is sobering and instructive here. The term “greenhouse effect” was coined in 1896 by Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius. Even though this seemingly clear explanatory model has been widely publicized for many years, it has not entered the minds of the American public. In Cul- tural Logic’s experience talking with several hundred laypeople about the issue of global warming, we found that virtually none used the term “greenhouse” when trying to explain how global warming works—not coincidentally, vir- tually none were are aware of the basic heat-trap- ping mechanism behind global warming, which the greenhouse analogy is supposed to convey.
In short, even when it seems like an explana- tion has the right qualities, it is well worth doing research to determine whether it actually works with “real people”—or is doomed by the fact that people have little experience with greenhouses, for example, and aren’t truly conscious of how they trap the sun’s heat. And nonprofits are the actors who are the most likely to invest time and resources in making sure. Journalists’ deadlines generally call for an instinctive approach to expressing ideas, and in any case, empirical com- munications research is certainly not part of their job description. Nor do social and physical scien- tists typically see communication as a critical part of their mission. In effect, one of the impor-
tant roles for nonprofits is to serve as transla- tors—finding effective ways of expressing expert findings in forms that journalists can dissemi- nate for the purpose of true public information.
The Place of Explanation in Communications
This article has focused on explanation as one of the chief purposes of nonprofit communica- tion, and now it will be helpful to place this approach in a somewhat broader context.
A complement to moral and emotional appeals. Explanation is certainly not a replace- ment for appeals to “do the right thing,” but rather a critical complement to it. It is right to help suffering children, to make sure that all Americans have access to healthcare, to prevent the unnecessary extinction of species—and it is both appropriate and effective (to an extent) to make moral appeals on behalf of these causes. But explanation is a dimension of communica- tion that is often given much less attention, with the result that additional sources and dimen- sions of motivation are left untapped (not to mention the fact that democratic public dis- course is also being diminished).
Organizations have also been told that they must appeal to potential funders and supporters by tapping into people’s pity, fear, or guilt, by putting a (pathetic) “face” on an issue, and so forth. In fact, many advocates recognize at some point in the history of their issue that this approach can produce early success but then lead to a “dead end,” as sympathy and altruism are tapped out, or problems begin to seem over- whelming. Once again, a lack of understanding can essentially put a ceiling on how far support will go.
A counterbalance to personal responsi- bility. Importantly, explanations help advo- cates overcome one of the chief obstacles they typically face—the idea that all problems can be solved by (or are caused by lack of) personal responsibility. People in poverty can “work harder to get out of poverty.” People without health insurance should “earn more so they can afford decent coverage.” Child abuse would stop if “bad parents would learn to control them- selves.” Racial disparities (if they exist at all) “are the fault of minorities who blame everyone but themselves for their problems.” The empha- sis on individual responsibility is characteristic of American thinking in general, but is also pro-
One of the important roles for nonprofits is to serve as translators— finding effective ways of expressing expert findings in forms that journalists can disseminate for the purpose of true public information.
Nonprofits have a special opportunity, and responsibility, to help provide [explanations]. In effect, it is often up to nonprofit communicators to “teach” the issues of the day.
moted by an advertising culture that encourages people to think like individual consumers, as well as by some conservative communicators, who put a near-exclusive emphasis on individ- ual responsibility for either ideological or strate- gic reasons. (This position obscures the role of corporate responsibility, for instance.) Overall, nonprofits working to make change are often fighting uphill against patterns of thinking that are very easy for people to fall into. This is all the more reason why nonprofits must work hard to provide explanations that effectively open people’s eyes to the big picture.
Explanation and “framing.” Explanation is only one aspect of effective communications that nonprofits produce in order to create progress on their issues and an informed envi- ronment for democratic deliberation. There are various other critical aspects of communication that complement and reinforce effective expla- nation, such as the careful choice of messengers (e.g., businesspeople who can credibly explain the practical value of a particular after-school program); association of an issue with the core values it relates to; emphasis on available, effec- tive solutions, rather than just problems and
“symptoms”; expansion of the scope of any issue beyond affected individuals to the community context; and so forth. (See the FrameWorks Institute’s Web site www.frameworksinstitute.org for discussion of a comprehensive, empirically based, interdisciplinary approach to strategic framing as a whole). Within this broader picture of communications, effective explanation is one key component that works in tandem with all the others.
Nonprofits work on the hard issues—the ones where progress is difficult by definition, or there wouldn’t be organizations devoted to working on them. These are also the kinds of issues for which we need democracy, where collective action or informed pressure on policymakers can yield positive outcomes for many citizens and for society as a whole. But in order for the democratic process to function as it supposed to on difficult issues, explanations are critical. And nonprofits have a special opportunity, and responsibility, to help provide them. In effect, it is often up to nonprofit communicators to “teach” the issues of the day.
As one important indicator of the current place of explanation in an organization’s com- munications approach, we suggest a simple test: Examine the organization’s Web site. Does it offer an explanation of the core ideas at the heart of the issue? Or does it assume that anyone worth reaching already “gets it”? If an organization works on “community reinvest- ment,” on “single-payer” health coverage, or “food security,” does the site explain what the term means, for the benefit of the many individ- uals who might be helpful to the cause but who do not fully understand the phrase? Here are some other basic questions:
If there is an explanation, is it effective (and what evidence might there be about this)?
How prominently is the explanation placed? Is it “buried” in a late paragraph or a deep, inter- nal link?
Answers to these questions say something important about how an organization sees its role—and the role of an informed public—in a democratic society.
1. Here and elsewhere throughout the article, we refer
to findings from research conducted by Cultural Logic on behalf of various nonprofit organizations across the country, usually in partnership with the Frame- Works Institute.
2. Iyengar, Shanto. Is Anyone Responsible?: How Tele- vision Frames Political Issues. 1991. Chicago: Univer- sity of Chicago Press.
3. Many of the examples of effective and ineffective communication in this section are drawn from our own work with nonprofit organizations throughout the country (often in partnership with the FrameWorks Institute). We offer no identifying information about the organizations in these cases, which are not intended as individual critiques but rather as illustra- tions of widespread patterns in advocacy.
4. In fact, Cultural Logic researchers were startled to find, in conversations with hundreds of Americans about global warming, how many mentioned CFCs specifically (even if erroneously) in connection with the issue.
Let’s Talk!
Does [the organization’s Web site] assume that anyone worth reaching already “gets it”?
Let’s move this topic forward! Any ideas or arguments you’d like to share with the authors and editors? Send us an email, referring to this article at: feedback@nonprofitquarterly.org.
Copyright 2005. All rights reserved by Third Sector New England, Boston, MA. (Volume 12, Issue 3). The Nonprofit Quarterly features innovative thinking and management practices in the nonprofit sector. For reprint permission or subscription information please go to www.nonprofitquarterly.org /subscriptions.

Talking Inequality

Choosing the right idea to focus on can be crucial for effective advocacy. In this essay the authors discuss the power and pitfalls of inequality as an organizing idea for communications.


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An occasional paper series from the Social Equity and Opportunity Forum of the College of Urban and Public Affairs
April 2008
Provoking Thought, Changing Talk: Discussing Inequality
Joseph Grady, Ph.D. Cultural Logic LLC Axel Aubrun, Ph.D., Cultural Logic LLC
Provoking Thought, Changing Talk: Putting it into Practice
Lori Dorfman, Dr.P.H., Berkeley Media Studies Group Lawrence Wallack, Dr.P.H., Portland State University

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Provoking Thought, Changing Talk: Discussing Inequality
Joseph Grady, Ph.D. and Axel Aubrun, Ph.D.*
Inequality as an organizing idea
Advocates on any number of social issues find it natural, even necessary, to raise the subject of Inequality. Whether the topic is economic opportunity, criminal justice, immigrants’ rights, health outcomes, environmental justice or educational attainment, the theme of Inequality is often front and center, providing the organizing anchor for the discussion.
From one point of view, this focus on Inequality is justified and even morally essential. What could be more important than trying to address the many areas in American society where one group is disadvantaged relative to others? Observations about Inequality aren’t just true, they’re also at the heart of many people’s motivation to become involved. Much of the passion that drives activism and advocacy springs from people’s instinctive rejection of Inequality, and their commitment to working against it.
BUT, does a commitment to reducing Inequality mean that we know how to talk about Inequality? Years of research on how Americans understand and talk about social issues suggest that, depending on the audience, discussions of Inequality must overcome important and complex challenges. In fact, the findings show clearly that when we talk directly about Inequality, listeners often take away a message that is the opposite of
* The authors thank Lawrence Wallack, Dean of the College of Urban and Public Affairs at Portland State University, and Lori Dorfman (Berkeley Media Studies Group) for their helpful comments on earlier drafts.
what we intended, and despite our skill and our good intentions, the discussion can end up doing more harm than good. While there are certainly some audiences that respond exactly as hoped, communications that are targeted at “the general public” can often fall on deaf ears, or worse, when they focus on this theme.
The reasons have partly to do with American assumptions and values – and at an even deeper level, with the (universal) nature of “everyday thinking,” and the mental tools people everywhere use to think about the world.
In this essay, we explore a number of reasons it is difficult to have a productive conversation about Inequality. These observations arise from both the experience of communicators and communications researchers on a wide range of issues, and from insights from the cognitive and social sciences.
1. Unequal outcomes don’t indicate a problem
From advocates’ perspective, measurable differences in life chances among different groups are smoking guns. When different segments of the population have predictably different life outcomes – whether separated by race, zip code, or other demographic factors – this by itself demonstrates the existence of a problem that needs addressing. If black children are more likely to live and die in poverty, if women have lower odds than men of being business owners, the idea of Inequality is evoked, and methods of redress are sought.
The result of this mindset is that advocates often feel that demonstrating unequal outcomes is sufficient to motivate action.
But this type of communication typically does not work well with average people, partly because they often see differences in outcomes as natural and expected, and even as evidence of a society that is
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working as it should. While advocates on various issues tend to see outcome disparities as evidence of external forces at work (i.e. forces acting on people who are essentially the same), other people are more likely to shift their attention to how those people got themselves into those bad situations:
You talk about outcomes, they ask how people got themselves there.
Put briefly, all of advocates’ hard work in vividly demonstrating Inequality of outcomes is wasted if their audience sees those disparities as the inevitable (if unfortunate) results of the different ways in which people lead their own lives.
In the remainder of the discussion we will have a chance to consider more closely why this response is so natural, and why it is so hard to overcome.
2. Individual Responsibility as a deeply ingrained value
It doesn’t come as news that Americans of all backgrounds and political leanings tend strongly to believe in Individual (i.e. personal) Responsibility as a guiding principle for how we should live our lives. Whether the topic is “Just Saying No” to drugs, “getting off welfare,” making smart buying and borrowing decisions, or any number of others, Americans swim in a sea of cues (in advertising, popular entertainment, political rhetoric, etc.) about the importance and power of Individual Responsibility in our lives.
Many of us even understand Individual Responsibility as a defining feature of American culture, and of American Exceptionalism. According to this common view, our society wouldn’t have the success and prosperity we have if not for Americans’ “rugged individualism,” and our cultural emphasis on this core value.
This is one important reason why any discussion of unequal outcomes is immediately met with questions (or assumptions) about what people could and should have done to improve their outcomes.
3. Cognitive “blindness” to systemic factors
Setting aside the moral emphasis on personal 4
responsibility – which may be especially strong in American culture – there are also more universal reasons why people tend to focus on individuals and to “blame the victim”: It is simply more difficult, in a cognitive sense, to grapple with systemic problems. Even for a sympathetic person, they are harder to see1.
It is helpful here to consider for a moment the nature of “Everyday Thinking” – that is, the kind of thinking that we are (all) best equipped for and find most natural, most of the time. The human mind evolved mostly to deal with physical and social situations at a human scale – not microscopic or miles wide, not milliseconds or centuries. It evolved to deal with concrete things and events rather than abstractions. It naturally looks for simple cause-and-effect relationships. While we also have the capacity to develop subtle philosophies and intricate theories, the Everyday Thinking mode is always the most natural, and this helps explain why concrete analogies are so pervasive even in the most sophisticated writing and thinking.
Closely related to the idea of Everyday Thinking is the idea of default patterns of thinking, on any given topic: People can “know better” in some sense, and yet still habitually revert to particular ways of thinking about an issue (often because the default perspectives are a better fit with Everyday Thinking). For instance, people can “know” that the federal government consists of many thousands of people in many different agencies, located throughout the country – yet the default understanding of the federal government, which they easily slip into, is the elected officials in Washington. (This view is a better fit with Everyday Thinking – it involves a manageable number of individuals, located in a particular place, engaged in recognizable activities like arguing and making decisions, etc.) Likewise, people can realize, on an intellectual level, that it is possible for human activities to have effects on weather and the atmosphere – yet their strong default understandings make it seem as though the climate is something beyond our control, that we
1 This pattern is closely related to what social scientists sometimes call the “Fundamental Attribution Error” – the tendency to attribute other people’s actions to their character, while recognizing that our own actions are largely based on our situation.

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simply adapt to.
Returning to the subject at hand, Everyday Thinking tends to effectively “blind” us to Inequality. It predisposes us to think in terms of anecdotes rather than statistics – and anecdotes about people from all backgrounds achieving success in the world (from neighbors to music stars to Condoleezza Rice) are vivid and easily remembered “counterexamples” to any statements about Inequalities of opportunity. Statistical claims about the life chances of particular groups are much more difficult to understand or focus on, since they don’t fit well with Everyday Thinking.
To take one important example, when Americans think about racism, it is far easier for them to envision scenarios of “Personal Racism” – i.e. one person responding negatively to another due to a racial bias – than to understand the idea of “structural racism.” But while the word “racism” may call to mind images that most Americans find deeply distasteful, these images do not necessarily help them think about (broad, systemic, institutional) Inequality in the way advocates would like. After all, racism at this level “cuts both ways,” and many people have direct experience of this fact.2
In short, whatever the moral weight of the issue, there is an abstract dimension to the notion of Inequality that makes the topic harder to grapple with than advocates might recognize. When people are in default mode, as most of us are, most of the time, on most topics, understandings of differential outcomes tend to boil down to assumptions about the choices and actions of individuals that might have led them to an unfortunate place in life.
2 And for that matter, given common understandings of “reverse discrimination,” the entire phenomenon of race- based “unfairness” can easily seem to cut against Whites, and in favor of others. For further discussion of Personal Racism and related topics, see “Thinking About Race: Findings From Cognitive Elicitations,” Cultural Logic, 2004, commissioned by the FrameWorks Institute for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, as part of the Framing Race in America Project, also supported by the JEHT Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
4. Historical perspectives offer little help
Americans are notoriously indifferent to things that happened “a hundred years ago,” and communications experience on a wide range of issues shows that historical observations and arguments tend to be disappointingly ineffective with average people.
Furthermore, most Americans believe that there has been a steady movement away from various forms of Inequality and discrimination, and that the process may even be complete. Many different pieces of anecdotal evidence demonstrate for them that the situation for minorities, for instance, is “much better than it used to be” (again, see Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, etc.). And facts such as the increasing rates of inter-marriage reinforce the idea that Personal Racism is steadily declining, and make it easy for people to conclude, erroneously, that Inequality is no longer a problem in our culture.
Given most Americans’ ahistorical perspectives, and the widespread perception that discrimination is largely a thing of the past – or on its way out simply due to the passage of time – historical arguments end up carrying very little weight with nonexperts.
(Of course, historical arguments can carry a different kind of weight with advocates themselves, as Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Group points out: It is inspiring to recognize the kind of cultural shifts that can happen over time – think of current perceptions of the tobacco industry or of all things “green” compared to a generation ago.)
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5. Us/them thinking
Yet another important reason why conversations about Inequality may not have the desired effects is that they can reinforce the divide between “us” and “them.”
Stories about Inequality, by definition, group people into distinct categories. While this kind of categorization is essential from a policy perspective – for instance, it is critical to an understanding of health patterns, and what to do about them – it is problematic from a communications perspective. Dividing people into distinct groups can have the effect of reinforcing the sense of distance between the groups. We are all naturally inclined to identify most closely with people more like us, and rather than helping bridge the differences between people, discussions of Inequality inevitably reinforce the sense of difference. To the degree that distance is salient in people’s thinking, it is hard to imagine all of us being “in the same boat” – a key pillar of support for many social welfare programs (e.g., Medicare, Social Security).
6. Inequality and “rhetorical mode”
One more factor that makes it difficult to talk productively about Inequality relates to what can be called “Reasonable Mode” and “Rhetorical Mode” in people’s thinking and communication.
In reasonable mode, people are open to new information, focused on practical understanding and problem-solving. Rhetorical mode, on the other hand, is characterized by a focus on opposition, defense of my position against yours, identity-based thinking, and resistance to new ideas. In rhetorical mode there are winners and losers; in reasonable mode, everyone in the conversation is working towards the same goal.
By definition, the topic of Inequality is about contrasting one group against another. And while it is possible to have a reasonable mode discussion of why one group isn’t faring as well as others, and what to do about it, it is also very easy for the topic to provoke rhetorical mode, as people instinctively line up on one “side” or the other of the issue. People may dig in rather than opening
up, they may get defensive rather than constructive.
Specific language choices make a difference here, too. A term like “disparity” is a relatively objective way of referring to differences in outcomes. “Inequities,” on the other hand, are about fairness. All things being equal, there are “costs and benefits” to either approach, based partly on the differences between reasonable and rhetorical modes of thought and communication3.
7. Guilt and denial
In a closely related dynamic, Inequality is a topic that those at the “more equal” end of the comparison may be especially uncomfortable talking or even thinking about. Advocates can sometimes underestimate people’s power to deny a truth that seems to implicate them or their way of life in a serious way.
Guilt and denial are natural triggers for Rhetorical Mode, as people look for ways of arguing away their discomfort: “That’s an exaggeration.” “Well that certainly hasn’t been my experience.” “I never denied anyone their rights.” “What we really need to do is stop focusing on our differences, and just get along.” “If anything, I/we are the ones who get shafted.”
Just as damagingly, people may simply become uncomfortable and avoid the topic.
8. “Compassion fatigue”
Any American who follows the news or public affairs at all hears frequent accounts of groups that are not doing well, individuals that are suffering, communities in need of assistance – not to mention whole nations in trouble on the other side of one ocean or another. Even sympathetic people have only finite reserves of energy and of attention, only so much time in the day to think about the seemingly infinite numbers of their fellow human beings who are in trouble. Discussions of Inequality often end up sounding
3 For a detailed semantic analysis of the terms “disparity” and “inequity” in the health context, see “Health Disparities – A Cognitive and Linguistic Analysis,” by Real Reason for the Berkeley Media Studies Group, 2007.
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like yet another plea to “help,” and may take their place in a long line of issues that people wish they could do something about.
9. Powerlessness
Finally, since Inequality, by definition, relates to large groups – differences between the life chances of whole segments of the population – it is easy for average Americans to feel they themselves can do little or nothing about the problem, even if they believe it is real and shouldn’t be tolerated, in principle …
A focus on the problem, rather than on possible solutions, can easily leave people feeling there are no (workable) solutions.
Implications: What happens when you talk about Inequality?
Of course, the problems discussed in this essay don’t mean that it’s impossible to have a productive discussion about Inequality. People are capable of seeing beyond category differences between people, and of responding sympathetically to people in other categories. They are capable of transcending the Everyday Thinking bias towards stories about individuals, and of focusing on history at least for a while.
But, like systemic discrimination itself, the patterns discussed here are all about tendencies to respond in counterproductive ways, which add up, and cumulatively produce a terrain that is very difficult for advocates to navigate.
Certainly, anyone who has tried to talk about Inequality with a range of different audiences has encountered dismissal (flat out rejection that there is Inequality in the country or in their community, fatalism (the sense that the problem is too big or stubborn to be addressed), confusion (not really sure what you’re talking about), denial (emotionally- charged insistence that “it’s not like that”), and other counterproductive responses.
More subtly, and probably more often, they have encountered audiences who seem to nod in agreement, but whose subsequent thinking and actions show no real signs of change, and who are
likely to lapse into the default patterns described earlier.
Even with audiences that are by no means hostile, it is easy to provoke reactions like these:
You say: People who live in zip code X are three times as likely to be victims of crime, or to get sick from toxins in the environment.
They hear: People living in neighborhood X have made some bad choices that have landed them in that neighborhood. (And why don’t they get it together and organize neighborhood watches or NIMBY associations – or simply leave?)
You say: Group X suffers from higher rates of sickness than Group Y.
They hear: Group X needs to change its habits and lifestyle.
You say: Group X makes less money than Group Y.
They hear: Group X needs to work harder. More broadly, Group X needs to take a hard look at itself and figure out how to “play the game” more like Group Y.
You say: Group X faces long-standing barriers to success.
They hear: Group X is trying to cash in on “history” to avoid taking responsibility for itself.
You say: Group X is facing systematic discrimination.
They hear: Group X is trying to blame their problems on other people, rather than taking responsibility.
You say: Group X’s problems are created by their circumstances.
They hear: Group X is not (but should be)
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fully autonomous individuals capable of creating their own destinies.
Even when (or especially when) such reactions are unspoken or even unconscious, they can derail any chance of a constructive conversation.
So, what to do?…
There are sure to be advocates who feel that, no matter what the challenges, it would simply be wrong to sidestep the issue of Inequality. If it is one of the greatest wrongs in our society, then it must be addressed squarely and forcefully – anything else would be at best an abdication of responsibility, and at worst dishonest.
What this essay has highlighted is some of the communications “traps” that advocates can encounter as they try to do just that. What the discussion implies is not that advocates should stop talking about Inequalities (and certainly not that they should stop working to eliminate them!). What it does mean is that they need to be very careful in how they talk about them, and should also think hard about whether they might be able to achieve their purposes –including combating inequalities – without taking about them directly. (This will depend both on the issue area in question and on advocates’ differing goals, priorities and commitments.)
The following are a few ways advocates can work towards the goals they care about, and that can help them avoid the unfortunate traps related to the topic of Inequality:
! Highlight practical steps that can be taken (“solutions,” rather than just “the problem”). Take advantage of people’s interest in good news about programs/ideas that work.
! Find ways of linking the issue to “all of us.” If public transportation can reduce a particular Inequality, then maybe there are ways that the entire community will benefit, even if less directly.
! Talk about the harms of Inequality itself – i.e. ways in which “gaps” (whether in wealth, health or other domains) are inherently corrosive of overall wellbeing.
! Be as careful as possible to explain the causes of the Inequality, in ways that are hard to tie to individual choices and behavior.
! When illustrating a given social problem, depict the affected parties in language and pictures that help audiences identify with them, rather than creating distance between them.
Each of these may sound like common sense, but each is also much easier said than done, given American culture and the nature of Everyday Thinking. For advocates looking for a challenge, there can be few greater than the task of moving the public conversation forward in ways that constructively deal with Inequality.