“But how could empathy be bad?”: The frequently counterintuitive nature of reframing

“Oh crap! You know all that stuff you guys just said about what detracts from policy support? That’s exactly what I’ve been doing!”

Such was the response of an audience member following a recent presentation of a series of FrameWorks reframing studies on addiction. The reason for telling this story is not to add further fodder to FrameWorks’ reputation as “skunks at the garden party,” as our president has been known to say–trust me, we’ve got plenty of that–but rather to make two points:

1) that the “evidence” in “evidence-based communications research” is pretty darn important and

2) that cognition is an integral consideration in crafting effective and strategic communications.

We have frequently found that strategies that make logical, intuitive, or rational sense frequently don’t work to increase support for policy solutions.

We have found this on the issue of  health care where we’ve heard things like, “If I want to increase understanding of and support for policies that create a sustainable health care system, I should start my communications with a value of sustainability, right?” WRONG! Such a dynamic has also revealed itself on the issue of race, where our research has shown that taking race on explicitly at the top of a message actually depresses people’s support for policies designed to address disparities in outcomes like education.

This is also the case on the issue of addiction.

We recently conducted several experiments to test the effects of certain values on moving public support in Alberta for programs that treat addiction. Of the four values we tested, three (Prevention, Interdependence and Ingenuity) proved highly effective in reframing the issue of addiction. These values increased, in a statistically significant way, respondents’ support for policy and programmatic measures suggested by the science as effective ways of preventing and treating addiction.

However, and this “however” is why I brought this finding up in the first place, there was one value that depressed support across all of the policies and attitudes we looked at–empathy. And this is what the woman who came up to me after the presentation (and many others over the course of the day following our presentation) was responding to.

How could empathy, a powerful value, make people less supportive of public solutions designed to address addiction?

Well, the answer is complicated and I would encourage you all to read the report, but let me try to lay it out in a couple of sentences (a challenge given the 40 page research papers I get to write at FrameWorks).

Answering this question requires that I go back to one of the basic findings from our descriptive work on how Albertans think about addiction. Addiction is seen as the result of individuals not having the willpower or discipline to control their behaviors. As an issue, addiction exists for Albertans on the hyper-individual end of the causal and remedial spectrum – individuals are assumed responsible for “falling” into addiction (cause) and for “getting themselves out” (solution).

Now along come the three values that worked – each of which provides a strong dose of collective and social responsibility. Low and behold, a collectivist lens flipped the orientation and allowed people to see addiction in a new light – as a social issue. But when empathy dropped into the viewfinder, with its strong and inherent sense of individualism (that I should feel for and empathize with you), the dominant individualist orientation got a steroid-like injection and actually became more dominant as a lens through which to see addiction. From this amped-up perceptual orientation, people saw addiction as even more of an individual level issue and became less supportive of public level solutions to the issue.

And this is why we test this stuff – empathy sure sounds salient and powerful, but when you actually provide it as the lens through which to think about addiction, you awaken the monster of the foundational cultural model of individualism. Trust us (or pick any report on our website if you need to see the proof), you desperately want to avoid the individualist model if your goal is to make people see social problems as social and public policies as the solution.


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