Fear and Flight vs. Exercising Mental Muscles: How Electoral Campaigning Differs from Strategic Frame Analysis®

FrameWorks gets asked repeatedly to explain why we don’t use tactics from electoral campaigning as part of our “big tent” strategy. There are many reasons. In this blog-post, FrameWorks Senior Researcher Adam Simon, author of two books on campaign communication and persuasion, sorts out some of those reasons.

Elections are intrinsically all or nothing, zero sum games. They have a clear end point, namely Election Day, where the winner gets all the rewards and the loser goes home with nothing or less than nothing, because their political future is diminished.

Winning campaigns, thus, rely on a short but intense burst of very expensive messaging. Not only does this mean that candidates’ interests are irrevocably tied to donors and fundraising, it also means that a sort of scorched earth messaging strategy is the sole route to success. Campaign messages focus on immediate change; nothing is to be gained by dissenting or otherwise supporting minority held views. These messages also tend to rely on emotional appeals, especially fear and other negatives.

Tactically, elections are all about defining the electorate. The aim is to identify the persuadable, the roughly twenty percent of the electorate who swing between parties. These voters are the only ones amenable to short term persuasion. Because elections are won by getting just one more vote than an opponent in a decision arena, candidates’ only option is to bore in on individual targets in swing districts. Candidates want to turn off voters who are inclined toward the other side, either hoping or actively pursuing ways to get them to not vote. Put simply, a vote lost to your opponent is just as good as a vote won for yourself. Not surprisingly, again, candidates often resort to negative advertising to drive up their opponent’s dislikes and reduce the electorate.

The upshot is that campaign effects tend to burn out quickly, after the election leaves citizens overwhelmed, exhausted and disinterested. Further, it takes little knowledge to vote, a decision that has come to depend on heuristics or rules of thumb about candidate likability, one big issue, or party affiliation. Such a strategy does not build a base for sweeping political action; for example in the 2012 Presidential race, Obama won the election handily but he didn’t capture the House of Representatives as a broader strategy might have. Likewise, he took a “shellacking” in 2014. In fact, this reality underlies contemporary political dysfunction, short-term lurches and long-term gridlock.

Strategic Frame Analysis®

The SFA approach has far different goals, means and results.

Here, messaging is about long-term political change, and there is no end date, rather a constantly evolving attempt to better society and solve political problems. In this process, losers are not sent home; rather persuasion attempts to bring them into the fold as part of the solution. The focus on incremental change and bringing everyone to the table turns politics into an inclusive, positive sum game.

A winning SFA campaign is based on a small but steady stream of messages that work through accretion to recreate the cognitive base of the public’s decision making. The net cost is much lower than an equivalent electoral campaign though the effect may be much greater.

SFA is an educative process that depends on building and sustaining interest for the long haul. Necessarily, this rules out a message strategy based on negative appeals. At the same time, it opens up the space for dissent and the pressing of minority held views that are necessary for democracy. SFA effects tend to cumulate over time, slowly building an avalanche of citizen interest. The act of support is based on acquired knowledge and forms a much stronger base for long-term action.

SFA is an open game, which assumes that most people are reasonable and open to any effective messages. FrameWorks strategy expects messages to exert effects on Republicans, Democrats and Independents. In short, SFA tries to persuade everyone save the most extreme five or so percent. When we look for movement in our survey experiments, we look to see whether exposure to a frame moves multiple audiences, helping them distinguish between meaningful and disproven policies. When we see movement across the board, we know that the frames are movement-builders. These frames become the core of the “big tent” communications strategy that serves to invite people to get smarter about the issues of our time and to consider solutions using what Daniel Kahneman has called their “system two” faculties: the deliberate, effortful and orderly thinking that supports a robust democracy.




Andrews, K.T., & Edwards, B. (2004). Advocacy organizations in the U.S. political process. Annual Review of Sociology, 30, 481.

Benford, R., & Snow, D.A. (2000). Framing processes and social movements: An overview and assessment, Annual Review of Sociology, 26 611-639.

Carmines, Edward G. and Stimson ,James A. (1989) Issue Evolution: Race and the Transformation of American Politics. Princeton University Press.

Downs, Anthony (1957). An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper.

Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Schattschneider, Elmer E. (1975) The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America Wadsworth Publishing.

Simon, A. (2002). The Winning Message: Candidate Behavior, Campaign Discourse and Democracy. Cambridge University Press.

Sundquist, James L. (1983) Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States. Brookings Institution Press.

The Social Analysis and the Communications Analysis: Inequality and Immigration

FrameWorks has long argued for recognizing the duality of social issues, by which we mean the difference between the social science of a particular problem’s dynamics and what communications science can help us understand about how people conceptualize that same social problem. Put simply, while it is imperative that we understand what causes and contributes to a social problem, that knowledge is insufficient to resolve the expectations and associations people have developed of how that problem works.

I offer up here two case studies of that duality.

First, in a new article for the Nonprofit Quartlerly, I lay out what we would need to know in order to explain income inequality to the American public.   As this issue rises on the agendas of the media and policymakers, it is imperative that those who engage the public have the translational tools they will need to help people understand how the economy works, how wealth is generated and how systems of inequity get built into multiple infrastructures over time, from housing to education. Without these translational strategies, FrameWorks’ research suggests that we run the risk of reifying foundational models of individualism and willpower that are at odds with experts’ views and will, at best, result in little policy thinking.

Second, an epiphany in one arena does not convey to the other. That is, figuring out how to talk about a problem does not mean you can solve it and vice versa. In this excellent enumeration of the economic case for comprehensive immigration reform, Adam Davidson underscores the faulty zero-sum economic thinking that impedes public policy in the country’s best interests. But again, knowing what you are up against does not equate to how to get out of that hole.   Here, FrameWorks offers up some answers squarely in line with the expert analysis. In a new MesssageMemo and Toolkit supported by the MacArthur Foundation, we show how specific values and metaphors can overcome zero-sum thinking and succeed in making a strong case for a wide array of immigration policies.

There is a science of cognition that can help us take the next step in enacting meaningful social reforms. But only if we recognize that knowing what it is we want to communicate is not sufficient to the challenge of public explanation and engagement.


Susan Nall Bales

Widening the Lens

Susan Nall Bales, A Framer Reads the News

In a recent article in the New York Times,[i] economist Justin Wolfers called attention to the rise of economics as the “queen of the social sciences” – by which he meant, the go-to discipline for answers to most of the questions that most Americans ask most of the time. In an analysis of the entire Times archive, Wolfers found “around one in 100 articles mentions the term ‘economist’” while a similar search of the Congressional Record over the past 25 years “finds the term ‘economist’ most likely to be mentioned, followed by historians and psychologists.”

So ingrained in our culture is the economic perspective that it seems almost strange to question its relevance. But, as Wolfers points out, we could just as easily have adopted a sociological lens from which to view our society.  And he offers up his own theory about why this might be so: “Of course, sociologists, whose comparative advantage is in offering structural explanations, might point to the fact that their field has no equivalent of the business pages, that the president does not receive advice from a Council of Sociological Advisors, and that there’s little demand from Wall Street for sociological insights.” And, like a good economist, Wolfers concludes with an explanation of why this imbalance is so prevalent: “our popularity reflects the discerning tastes of our audience in the marketplace of ideas.” In all fairness, this may be Wolfer’s humor, as he offers a vigorous defense of what is lost when a sociological perspective is drowned out by the singular economic explanation.

FrameWorks sees evidence of this imbalance every time we engage Americans in thinking about social issues. The economic explanation is pervasive, but its real significance is in the way that it invites people to default to their most familiar ways of understanding the world—individualism. Seeing the world through a lens of individualism, outcomes are understood as the product of individual choices based on rational assessments of the costs and benefits of a given decision, multiplied by willpower and perseverance.

This imbalance between economic explanations and sociological ones should come as no surprise. It is built into our culture – a highly, individualistic culture in which securing goods and choosing wisely are promoted everywhere as the stepping stones to success. Those structural forces – embedded with impediments particular to race, age, class, gender, etc. – are largely invisible.  People aren’t just making this stuff up. It is reinforced by their mediated experience – the way that everyday discourse and news media tell them what social issues are about and how to interpret them. Systematic analyses of media coverage conducted by FrameWorks make clear that social problems are interpreted as resulting from individual acts far more often than they are attributed to societal forces. Obesity? A story about lack of willpower. Addiction? Ditto. Poverty? Bad pluck, bad luck. Poverty in old age? If you had saved and made the right financial decisions, you would be on a cruise by now.

There are profound consequences for our society from this imbalance of perspective.   Exposed to a daily diet of “news you can use” to improve your economic lot and your willpower, we are predisposed to use these explanatory tools to explain a wide range of socio-political phenomena. Borrowing C. Wright Mills’ terminology, Americans become quick to see all social problems as the result of “troubles” – or problems that occur within the character of the individual – and blind to “issues” or what he described as “public matters” because they have to do with the organization of society as a whole.

Reflecting what we know from an ever-expanding array of scholarly literature that demonstrates that the solutions people choose to address problems are tightly bounded by their problem definition, the vast majority of FrameWorks’ informants would prescribe individual behavior change to address everything from climate change to educational inequities and biases in the criminal justice system.

What is to be done to help people see sociologically? Many years ago, the Berkeley Media Studies Center began to draw a distinction between narratives that were constructed as “portraits” vs. “landscapes.” FrameWorks has attempted to make this distinction a part of experts’ and advocates’ storytelling repertoire by creating an online tool – Wide Angle Lens – that dissects just exactly how our habits of storytelling return again and again to the individual portrait – and what can be done to counter this tendency. Getting more context into the story is not easy – but it can be done. Showing how people are affected by environments, how as the California Endowment puts it “what surrounds us shapes us” is all about redressing the imbalance that our highly individualistic culture promotes. Try it on for size and see if your stories don’t fare better in evoking more systemic observations from your fellow citizens.

Keynes got it right: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” By widening the lens, we can preserve the insights particular to economics but leaven them with observations from across the social sciences suitable to actually understanding how social problems work.

[i] Wolfers, Justin. January 27, 2015. How Economists Came to Dominate the Conversation. New York: New York Times.

Valuing the Science of Climate Change

There is a troubling line of thinking popping up in climate change circles—a suspicion that explaining the science of climate change may not be very important. This assertion is attributed to recent studies which have found that people’s opinions about climate change are driven by underlying factors such as value dispositions and worldview rather than by level of scientific knowledge. While this may seem to suggest that translating and explaining climate science is pointless, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

To fully debunk this new assertion, we need to go back to the evolution of climate change messaging. Early efforts relied on a naïve view of science communication. Assuming that people are empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge, these efforts trotted out scientists to give people “just the facts,” thinking this would automatically lead to greater concern about climate change. As in many other disciplines where this strategy has been tried (see for example Michael Della Carpini’s revelations about political literacy and its imperviousness to factual persuasion), “just the facts” didn’t work very well on climate change.

A new generation of climate change communications research (see Willet Kempton’s work) has complicated this naïve view, demonstrating how underlying cultural ideas shape people’s reception of climate change messages. As social scientists have long known, people aren’t empty vessels but, rather, they process new information by filtering it through heuristics and cultural assumptions. That’s why letting the facts speak for themselves is a bad strategy. The challenge lies in finding the right way to engage with people’s existing cultural assumptions.

A recent study by Dan Kahan and his colleagues raises important questions about how to approach deeply held cultural assumptions. In this study, Kahan and colleagues compare worldviews and scientific literacy as predictors of concern about climate change. They find that high levels of scientific literacy are associated with slightly lower levels of concern with climate change than lower levels science knowledge. In short, having an understanding of basic science (e.g., what an electron is) doesn’t correlate with higher levels of concern about climate change. Instead, the study finds that a person’s worldview is a more powerful predictor of their attitudes toward climate change. Egalitarian communitarians, who see social disparities as the result of differences in wealth and power between groups, are likely to see climate change as posing a greater risk than do hierarchical individualists, whose primary concern lies in not restricting industry or interfering in free markets. Given the primacy of worldview in shaping people’s opinions about climate change, Kahan and his colleagues suggest that “a communication strategy that focuses only on transmission of sound scientific information” is unlikely to work.

Kahan and his colleagues are right that focusing only on transmission of scientific information is a mistake. But it would also be a mistake to conclude that generating understanding of climate science is impossible or pointless.

The deep cultural assumptions that people bring to the issue of climate change make science translation harder, as they can easily derail attempts to explain the science. But with strategic reframing, cognitive obstacles can be overcome. FrameWorks researchers, for example, have been able to demonstrate that explanatory metaphors like Heat-Trapping Blanket and Climate Heart enable the public to move past problematic default assumptions to an accurate understanding of climate science.

But why is science translation important at all? Won’t people fall back on their value dispositions and worldviews when deciding what policies to support? Explaining the science is not the only part of an effective reframing effort, but it is a vital part. In a recent experimental survey, FrameWorks found that including information about the health effects of climate change within a values-based message boosts public support for effective policies and increases concern about climate change and collective efficacy. This information is ineffective on its own—to be valuable, it must be framed with the right value—but including it helps the public understand what is happening and, in turn, helps people identify effective solutions. Similarly, in work we conducted on criminal justice reform, we were able to show how facts alone did little to advance support but framed facts, that is those contextualized by a values proposition, dramatically increased support for progressive policies.

Values matter, but it’s also vital to approach values in the right way. Kahan and his colleagues suggest that “communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values.” In other words, they encourage communicators to avoid challenging people’s assumptions, but rather to try to fit their message to them.

FrameWorks researchers feel that the interpretation of this finding isn’t this simple. Affirming unproductive values like individualism is a self-defeating strategy in the long-term. The only effective solutions to climate change are collective and systemic, so appealing to individualism in an effort to engage people will ultimately backfire. Strategic reframing must adopt a long-term perspective. The goal must be to draw forward productive ways of thinking and background unproductive assumptions while giving the public the cognitive resources necessary to think about climate change in scientifically accurate ways. A comprehensive communication strategy that uses careful explanation, productive values, trusted messengers and that leverages depoliticized contexts to deliver messages takes advantage of the cognitive, sociological and cultural aspects of how people understand and act on social issues. This type of an approach is our best chance at helping people understand climate science and building a durable transformation of social discourse that supports effective solutions.

In the end, it may turn out that Exploratorium Founder Frank Oppenheimer was right when he asserted, “The whole point (of the Exploratorium) is to make it possible for people to believe they can understand the world around them. I think a lot of people have given up trying to comprehend things, and when they give up with the physical world, they give up with the social and political world as well. If we give up trying to understand things, I think we’ll all be sunk.”

Problems Need Solutions

When framing is in the news, everyone (and our mothers) emails us about it. This happened last week as our in-boxes filled up with “did you hear this” emails about how we “had to read” Shankar Vadantam’s report for NPR of recent work conducted by University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic and his colleagues.

The NPR piece reports on one interesting Slovic finding in particular—that problem appeals framed at the individual level (about one individual’s problem) are more effective in increasing donations than appeals that show the same problem at a larger population scope (talking about how this is a problem from which many people suffer). But the finding is not that simple, especially for those attempting to use this research to inform their communications practice.

There several critical points about for those communicating about social issues.

  1. Outcomes Matter: As a communicator, it’s important to realize that different communications goals require different communications strategies in the same way that you don’t make a three layered chocolate cake and a cassoulet using the same recipe or ingredients. The outcome of interest in the Slovic study was donations—the study asks, are individual- or population-level problem frames more effective in motivating respondents to donate money? It’s important to realize that affecting outcomes like public understanding, policy support or attitudes may require different strategies than those that are effective in motivating someone to make a one-time financial donation.

For example, the individual-level problem frame that was effective in making people donate in Slovic’s study may not be an effective frame if your goal is to change public understanding of a problem or create support for public policies that would be effective in addressing the issue. Put more directly, the same strategy that increases donation amounts may be ineffective (or even counter-productive) in communicating for social change.

One reason why different goals require different communications strategies is because there tends to be a correlation between people’s sense of the scope of a problem and their perception of effective solutions. Small, individual-level solutions seem silly next to big problems. This is in fact what Slovic’s study so elegantly shows. When the problem is framed at the individual level, people are more likely to give money because they feel that their donation can fix the individual’s problem. On the other hand, when told about a population-level problem, the idea of making a small donation is suddenly out of whack with the scope of the problem. This depresses peoples’ sense that they can do anything to address the problem.

The point to understand here is that, when thinking about framing strategies, it is essential that you start with your goal and make sure that your communications strategies align with this goal. The same strategy that works to increase the amount of a donation may not prove effective in making someone smarter about how an issue works or in helping them see what kinds of actions, ultimately, are required for meaningful change. Ideally, we would want to find a communications strategy that both increased people’s understanding of a social problem AND enhanced their support for meaningful solutions that they also felt they could effect. Is that possible? FrameWorks believes it is, but it requires both a more theoretical approach to engagement and recognition of these two discrete outcomes.

  1. Efficacy (and Urgency): Working toward better theories of engagement, Slovic acknowledges the importance of efficacy in the study’s findings. Efficacy is at the heart of the communication implications of this work. In the word’s of social psychologist and FrameWorks Fellow Ezra Markowitz, “Efficacy refers to individuals’ subjective perceptions of their own and others’ ability to achieve personal and/or social goals...” (Markowitz, E. [2013]. Efficacy: A Brief Overview with an Eye Towards Implications and Measurements.) Put another way, efficacy is a person’s sense that something can be done about a problem.

So why is efficacy so important in understanding Slovic’s finding? As Slovic explains, the lack of efficacy created when people hear about a huge whopper of a social problem without having a solution that works at this scale, is key. In a hallmark paper, Kim Witte (1992) reviews the literature on the relationship between three concepts: urgency (“fear” in the literature), efficacy, and message acceptance. The basic relationship between these concepts is summarized in the following schematic:

When presented with a population level problem, people may have high levels of perceived urgency, but low levels of efficacy—they feel that the problem is big and bad, but simultaneously that the action that is being asked of them is out of whack with the level of the problem and thus unlikely to meaningfully affect the situation. The result is less willingness to donate. This is all to say that, for the communications practitioner, providing large helpings of urgency by emphasizing the immensity of a problem will only be effective when such frames are accompanied by strong, clear explanations that these problems are addressable (i.e. efficacy). Solutions are key…which brings us to one final point.

  1. There’s More To The Story Than That: The messages tested in Slovic’s work are problem statements, which are certainly part of a framing strategy, but not the entirety. As the work of Witte and others shows us, effective framing requires more than a vivid problem statement. This is especially true when the problems being described are at the population level or systemic in nature. Effectively communicating about these types of problems requires strong explanatory and solutions message components.

Explanations of how a situation works and how a given intervention affects this process are highly effective tools in adding the all-important efficacy component. For the communicator, it is vital to keep in mind that effective messages tell stories and effective stories are about problems, but they are also about change over time via some action or intervention. We encourage communicators to harness the potential productivity of urgent messages by pairing them with clearly explained causal mechanisms and appropriately scoped solutions.

In sum, the recommendation that emerges from Slovic’s work is not that advocates working on systems change need to tell individual stories, but rather that they must challenge themselves to create stories in which the scope of problem aligns with a similarly-sized solution. The study and it’s finding are more complex than, “tell individual stories; don’t tell population or systems ones.” If we’re after systems change, what we need to do is tell better systems stories. And if we do this well, we may indeed find, as FrameWorks has, that they generate both political will and donations.

Language Learning is Weaving a Rope

Attempts by educators and policy makers to increase foreign language enrollments and change attitudes about foreign language learning in the US haven’t been very effective because they don’t know how to reframe the conversation, asserts Michael Erard in this Blog post. Meanwhile, language teachers are overly eager to dismiss the role that language aptitude plays in language learning outcomes because they don’t have a way to talk about how aptitude, motivation, and resources have to work together. One way to start resolving these impasses in the public conversation is through the use of one of FrameWorks’ powerful educational metaphors: that of learning a language as weaving a rope. Michael Erard, previously a Senior Researcher with FrameWorks, wrote this editorial for Schwa Fire, a new digital publication featuring long-form journalism about language and life.

The Power of (Finding) a Story

Values and metaphors get all the love.

As a communications researcher who works with experts and advocates on framing I have learned that people love metaphors. They love to hear about them, think about them, use them, and yes, critique them. FrameWorks’ explanatory metaphors frequently steal the show and overshadow the importance of the messages that we are trying to communicate. Values, as a frame element, are also subject to this same “shiny thing” problem. And I guess that all of this focus on the mechanism—the how in the translation process—isn’t a bad thing. These tools and recommendations do, after all, represent the culmination of the communication process. It’s good that they get so much love because this frequently translates into people using them.

But I want to rewind for a second and tell you about the most important (and frequently most difficult) part of communications research—synthesizing and distilling the information that needs to be translated. It is, after all, impossible for a piece of translational work to be effective without something to translate.

Distilling the “untranslated story” (the object that frames seek to “pass” to the public) is the beginning of the iterative process of Strategic Frame Analysis™. During this work, FrameWorks researchers interview experts, attend meetings, read literature and feed data back to experts for checks, refinements, and consensus. The result of this process is a set of messages that experts and advocates want people to be able to understand and have access to as they go about their daily lives and make decisions as citizens. I want to argue that this untranslated story is the unsung hero of our communications research and deserves a little more love.


I have spent the past week distilling an untranslated story with a group of leading scientists, practitioners, and organizational thinkers who work on issues of mental health and well-being in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany. They are doctors, therapists, nurses and managers who work at the Pfalzklinikum fuer Psychiatrie und Neurologie—a mental health clinic and community service provider in a largely rural (and unbelievably beautiful) German state. Over the course of the week, and the months that preceded it, this group has been reading, thinking, debating, and composing a story about the power of prevention which they want members of the public and their policy makers to be able to understand and use. The goal of their work is to shift the focus and resources of systems, programs, and policies from remedial and reactive approaches of dealing with illness, to preventative approaches that deal in wellness. Their story positions building resilience, at individual, organizational, and systems levels as the lever through which to achieve this reorientation. This is complex stuff, but the team, after much debate, has managed to synthesize a wide range of literatures and perspectives into a set of 10 core messages—a story to be translated through the design and testing of those coveted metaphors and values.