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"People don't like having privilege imposed upon them"

How often do you consider neuroscience when designing comms strategies and campaigns? Becky Slack, Agenda's co-director, shares a few key insights to help us understand and influence how people think

“You can’t think without a brain.” 

This statement from George Lakoff, the cognitive scientist, may sound obvious but how many of us social impact communicators consider how the brain works when designing strategies and campaigns?  

When it comes to our daily work,

  • How often have we got frustrated because people just aren’t accepting the facts or aren’t behaving in ways that meet their best interests?

  • How many of us have grappled with tackling the bias in the media and political discourse that harms our ability to create social impact? 

Here at Agenda we believe that if we want to create even more effective communications, if we are truly to influence how people think and act, then we need to understand what makes them tick - and that starts with the brain.  

We've taken our learning about how people think into our new Comms Lab.

Here, we look for new ways to solve some of society's knotty challenges by joining science and academic rigour together with best comms practice and people's lived experience. 

How to talk to charity supporters about racism in the aid sector, how to humanise public narratives about Palestinian people, and how perceptions of social class impact on attitudes towards education and employment opportunities are just a few of the topics we’ve explored recently.  

Understanding how people’s brains work has formed a key part of this research, including how stereotypes, bias and cognitive dissonance influence the success of communications. A few of the key themes that have emerged include:  

Insight 1: People don’t like having privilege imposed upon them  

One of the running themes through many of the Comms Lab projects has been on how we dismantle the structural barriers that prevent individuals and communities from fulfilling their potential – be that racism, misogyny, classism or any of the other many isms that harm people.  

What we’ve learnt is that most of us recognise that structural barriers exist. However, we don’t necessarily appreciate or acknowledge the extent of those barriers or the way our personal circumstances allow us to navigate them, wherever our starting point may be.  

The reasons for this are mixed. In some instances, it's down to a failure to join the dots; in others it’s the brain rejecting the information because it doesn’t fit with currently held beliefs; in others it is because pride gets in the way.  

For example, our research has shown that, in the main, people don’t want to be seen as privileged. They want to believe that their success is down to their hard work and skill, not because of wealth, their skin colour, or the social networks of their parents. 

Claiming an upward trajectory from ‘humble origins’ may increasingly function as a way of telling a meritocratically legitimate story, of agentic achievement against the odds, write Sam Friedman, Dave O’Brien and Ian McDonald in Deflecting Privilege: Class Identity and the Intergenerational Self. 

Imposing privilege on someone - such as by telling them they’ve had it easy compared to others - can result in them feeling defensive. Which in itself isn’t a successful communications tactic as it’s more likely to result in entrenched views than it is to change their minds or behaviours. 

Insight no 2: Perception of threat informs attitudes and behaviours 

Putting people on the defensive, making them feel as if they are being attacked, criticised or shamed hinders effective communications because it activates the brain’s fight-or-flight response.

This is an unconscious and automatic reaction to perceived danger that takes place regardless of any rational explanation as to why it shouldn’t.  

“When people interpret disagreement as personal attacks, their cognitive function is impaired, in two principled ways. First, they become rigid in their thinking, clinging to the first position they choose, even when it is shown to be wrong. Second, they engage in ‘biased information process’: new information is only absorbed insofar as it fortifies their position”, writes Ian Leslie in his book, Conflicted: Why arguments are tearing us apart and how they can bring us together.

Similarly, people are less supportive of ideas or policies that they believe represent a threat to their own security or status, as outlined in What’s in it for me: self-interest and political difference, by Thomas Prosser, professor of European Political Economy at Cardiff Business School. (I explore this in more detail in this blog here).  

What this means for social justice communicators is that we need to think carefully about the way in which we frame conversations to ensure they motivate people rather than make them feel like they are being attacked or criticised.  

Take conversations about the need to decolonise aid as an example. Putting to one side the fact that few members of the public understand what the phrase means, focusing on the myriad of ways in which the aid sector is racist and harms local communities, while true, may not land well with those people who have previously donated to aid agencies. Being told their previous donations have contributed to racism at the very worst implies they too are racist and at best will leave them feeling like their donations have little value, neither of which are conditions for repeat giving.  

An alternative approach is one that focuses more on raising the voices and agency of others and less on blaming and criticising those who currently hold power. This may help tap into all the right neurons without watering down the overall mission - serving the dual role of elevating and centering local communities while at the same time giving supporters something to get behind and feel good about. 

Insight 3: The most effective frames work with people not against them 

Our audiences are diverse, non-homogenous groups of people whose attitudes, beliefs and understanding of the world are complex, nuanced and based on a multitude of experiences and interactions from across our lifetimes. A word or phrase can mean something very different to one person to what it does to another.  

It's important to consider the deeply rooted and often subconscious views that people hold. 

Class is prime example of this – people define class using a variety of measures ranging from salary to profession to cultural capital, or all of the above; and their views are influenced by everything from family history to personal experience to what they see in popular culture. What I deem as working class may be very different to your definition.  

Clusters of these beliefs, feelings and ideas are called schemata. The most effective frames are those that match new information to the schemata someone already holds as this can tell people what to think, how to feel and what action to take, as Robert M. Entman, professor of communication and political science at North Carolina State University, explains in his book, Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy. 

Returning to the theme of decolonisation of aid as an example: the phrase “decolonisation” is likely to conjour up images of the British Empire, the Royal family, Commonwealth countries, and if you’re of a certain age, school history lessons where the focus was less on the barbarity and pillaging and more on the dominance of Britain on the global stage.  

Depending on the life experiences and loyalty to the Royal family of the individual in question, evoking images of the British empire could serve to reinforce positive attitudes towards British history and make the job of persuading them to get on board all the more difficult.  

Organisations wanting to decolonise aid may want to avoid using the phrase ‘decolonise’ (particularly among consumer audiences) and instead find ways to align this work to their audience’s own moral codes and identities while helping them understand their role in delivering the organisation’s vision for a better future. 

And on the subject of framing comms to deliver a better future... 
Here at Agenda, we want to see a world where social impact communicators have the insight, skills and confidence to achieve ambitious goals. Sharing our knowledge and that of our network on topics such as those discussed in this blog is an important part of that mission. Hence our special event that takes place on 12 June in London.  

Changing hearts and minds: The science and best practice of reframing challenging narratives combines insight and ideas from experts as well as participatory exercises to help organisations like yours to create evidence-based communications strategies and narratives.   

The first part of the day will focus on thinking about important issues such as framing, neuroscience, and how to use emotion in comms (among other things).  

The second part of the day will focus on doing with delegates being split into groups and putting the morning's learning into practice using scenarios based on those that our sector is grappling with today, such as increased polarisation and hostile media and online environments.  

We have a stellar line-up of speakers including:

  • Leading expert on polarisation, Alison Goldsworthy on why people turn against each other and how can we bring them together.

  • Director of communications at the National Trust, Celia Richardson, on how to prepare for reputational crises.

  • LGBTQI activist and a Time 100 Most Influential Person, Ailbhe Smyth on how Together for Yes mobilised emotions to persuade the Irish public to say yes to abortion rights.

  • Neuroscientist and change expert, David Bovis, on why facts alone don’t change minds.

  • Neuroscientist and writer, Dr Daniel Glaser, on the way in which prejudice and expectation influence our behaviour.

Overall, attendees will leave with a wealth of important insights, an enhanced network and some new ideas as to how to take their own communications to the next level. Places are limited to just 60 to enhance the learning experience.  

Will we see you there? 

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