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.


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.”

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.

Communicating Complexity

In his 2001 song, Mississippi, Bob Dylan sang, “You can always go back but you can’t go back all the way.” Bob Dylan is famously a lot of things to a lot of people, but who knew he was a science translator? In this one sentence, Dylan captured the essence of the science of early childhood development.

Working on translating the science of development for the last 10 years, we at FrameWorks have come to see that one of the most difficult things to accomplish in translating the science of development is to help people hold in mind, simultaneously, the notion that early matters and the idea that our brains can change — the idea of plasticity.

The idea that early experiences fundamentally shape the developing brain in ways that have long term (even life-long) implications for learning and health seems irreconcilable with the fact that our biology can change based on the quality and content of our experiences. We have observed, across our work on early childhood, adolescence, mental health and addiction that this tension is alive and well in the minds of Americans. The problem is that people tend to engage this tension by either thinking deterministically about the importance of early childhood from an “it’s too late” understanding, or through an unbridled, wide-open and optimistic sense that change is always possible.

So how do we have our cake and eat it too? How do we help people understand the importance of focusing resources on improving experiences for young children and help them see the importance of supporting services and programs that focus on children and adults who have moved out of the earliest stages in life?

The challenge here is helping people see that both perspectives are true at the same time.

FrameWorks has been working on communicating the “early matters…but so does later” perspective that Dylan seized so eloquently. We have developed metaphors like Brain Architecture and The Resilience Scale that use familiar systems to illustrate the importance of early experiences while remaining open to change. In this work we aim to communicate complexity, which is an important driving force behind successful science translation work.

All too often the assumption is that science translation is about “simplifying” or “dumbing down” science and reducing its complexity. But any translation attempt that eliminates the complexity of early matters…but so does later is poor science translation. This “both at the same time” principle is the basic kernel of many more specific developmental concepts—from resilience to epigenetics, and mental health to executive function.

For these reasons, we argue that the work of science translation is not about reducing complexity, but instead about encouraging the understanding of it. And this is why science translation is, itself, complex.

Stress—Its’ Not That Simple

NPR recently ran a weeklong series on stress. It was a concentrated dose of a broader public conversation that’s been going on about the science of stress. The series mentioned, but could have done more to emphasize, that not all stress is created equal.

I want to pause and consider the issue from a communications angle. The science of stress is an important body of cross-disciplinary research with lessons to teach us about designing better programs and policies. But the ability the science of stress has to actually improve outcomes is about more than neuro-biology and developmental psychology—it’s about how this science is communicated and about how people understand stress.

Even with the most immediate and direct programmatic applications, good science will stay among a small circle of scientists without good communications. The way people understand stress influences the ability of the science of stress to be translated into policy and practice.

So how do people understand “stress”? And how does this affect the ability of science principles to inform our public policies? FrameWorks has been studying how people understand stress and how these understandings can be shifted, channeled and expanded to make room for science messages. We have found that people have and work with two dueling models of stress. The first, and decidedly more dominant model in American culture is the Nietzsche-ism that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This way of thinking leads people to view stress as a compulsory part of strength-building—the stuff we have to fight against in order to build character. It’s from this perspective that calls to reduce stress in the lives of children appear just one more counter-productive form of the modern coddle: “I had stress and I turned out fine.”

The other flavor of stress is decidedly more recessive but still part of the mix of American culture. This is the opposite understanding—that stress is bad for you; that it distracts, pushes down on and otherwise impinges on our ability to do well.

The problem is that there is truth in both of these models. But neither one is right when applied in isolation, which is exactly how people like to apply them. People say that stress is either good or it’s bad. The science of stress, on the other hand, is all about shades of grey— different kinds of stress can be good or bad.

From this perspective, the job of communicating the science is not about making things simple, but in making complexity understandable. Communications must find a way of helping people hold, organize and apply both of their models of stress at the same time. And this is what FrameWorks has been doing with metaphor. Over the last 10 years we have found that exposure to the Toxic Stress metaphor helps people bring both the good and bad of stress thinking together such that the science of stress and its complexities and nuances make sense.

There are three main kinds of stress that children can experience—there’s positive stress, tolerable stress, and toxic stress.

Positive stress is the types of challenges that can actually help children develop—like facing a challenging social situation or preparing for a really hard test.

Tolerable stress is things that could damage development, but that are buffered by having supportive positive relationships—like having strong family support when a loved one dies.

And then there is Toxic Stress. Toxic Stress happens when a child experiences severe and ongoing stress—like extreme poverty, abuse, or violence in the community—without consistent supportive relationships. Toxic stress affects the way that the brain develops and can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health.

Our research has shown that presenting people with a taxonomy of stress, with places for both of their existing models, is an effective tool in translating the science of stress. The answer is not simplifying thinking, but rather making cognitive space for complexity.

Instead of Arguing About Whether Climate Change is Real, Change the Story

In a recent Bill Moyers interview, David Suzuki talked about how he was able to bridge the divide between environmentalists and loggers on the issue of climate change. Instead of arguing about whether climate change is real, Suzuki explained that environmental communicators need to change the story by starting from a common ground — that we all care about the long-term protection of the planet for the benefit of future generations.

We couldn’t agree more that a different kind of story is needed on this issue. The story that’s currently being told often starts like this: “In a world where human-caused climate change is a reality we all face…” The problem with this kind of opening is that it automatically excludes everyone who doesn’t accept this reality. Forty-one percent of Americans still think climate change isn’t happening, according to a recent poll conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. The survey report states that Americans continue to doubt the source of global warming, with a third believing that it is a result of natural causes.

The FrameWorks Institute’s ongoing investigation looking into the ways Americans think about climate change adds to the understanding of these findings. Our research revealed a robust pattern of reasoning among Americans that climate change is part of the earth’s natural cycle, and, therefore, it is self-correcting. This way of thinking prevents Americans from understanding that climate change is caused by the rampant carbon dioxide emitted through the burning of fossil fuels, which acts as a heat-trapping blanket around the earth’s atmosphere.

“If you don’t believe me,” the typical climate change story continues, “then what about the 97 percent of climate scientists who do?” A common idea among environmental communicators is that acceptance of the scientific consensus is a “gateway belief” influencing other viewpoints seen to underlie support for action (i.e., global warming is happening, human caused, a serious problem and solvable). But, appealing to scientific consensus doesn’t seem to improve Americans’ willingness to accept that climate change is real. According to the Yale poll, only one in 10 Americans knows that over 90 percent of scientists have reached consensus that human-caused global warming is happening. Our research shows that, even when they are made aware of this fact, Americans are likely to reason from conflicting models of science when presented with information about scientific consensus. Sometimes scientists are seen as authorities, and at other times they are viewed with suspicion.

With this in mind, it may be more productive to avoid appeals to scientific authority in an attempt to persuade, and, instead, focus more on trying to explain the science behind climate change.

Researchers at FrameWorks conducted a series of experiments to test existing and new “gateways” for talking about climate change. We found that appealing to a core value for “protection” improved respondents’ attitudes towards climate change and increased support for policy to address this issue — an effect that held across political party identification. We also tested people’s responses to appeals to scientific authority, and found that these messages had a wide range of negative effects on public opinion. Our research confirmed what David Suzuki intuited — that climate communicators need to stop arguing about the science of climate change, and come together through a shared story about protection.




Just as the loggers could agree that the forest needs protection so that their children and grandchildren could enjoy a good life, the story being told about climate change needs to resonate with people’s everyday lives. The Yale poll found that 85 percent of Americans aren’t “very worried” about climate change because, the authors suggest, few Americans think they will be personally harmed by it. According to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication blog, “Of those Americans who are ‘very’ worried, about eight in ten (78%) think it will cause harm to them personally. By contrast, of those who are ‘somewhat’ worried, half (51%) think it will harm them personally. Of those who are ‘not very’ worried, only 18% think global warming will harm them personally, and a mere 3% of those ‘not at all’ worried believe it will harm them personally.”

Environmental communicators often advocate personalizing the issue of climate change by presenting it in terms of a human health frame. The Yale poll showed that Americans do not yet understand the threat that climate change poses to human health, with only 18-32 percent of Americans correctly answering that “thousands” or “millions” of people would die, or be made ill or injured, either now or 50 years from now as a result of climate change. These findings can be easily interpreted as suggesting that, if only Americans had this information, they would be more willing to engage with the issue. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. We tested people’s responses to providing information on human health outcomes and found that merely providing Americans information about the health impacts did not shift their attitudes towards climate change or increase policy support. However, when paired with the value of protection, health descriptions improved Americans’ attitudes to climate change and what can be done to solve it. Notably, these messages increased support for policies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions — the cause of climate change — regardless of “belief” that it is real! It appears that, just like the loggers, Americans would rather hedge their bets to protect themselves and future generations from potential negative outcomes, even if they don’t believe the science.

The Yale report states that, if people agree about global warming, they will talk about it more. While we are waiting for people to come to consensus about climate change, communicators should start these conversations with something Americans do agree upon: that we all care about protecting the planet for future generations, especially when it comes to safeguarding human health.

The FrameWorks Institute’s research for communicating about climate change can be seen on our website.

Click here for our research report Just the Earth Doing Its Own Thing (2013), which describes the cultural models Americans hold around the issue of climate change and oceans, and compares them to expert knowledge of the issue to identify gaps in public understanding.

Click here for our research report The Value of Explanation: Using Values and Causal Explanations to Reframe Climate and Ocean Change (2014), which details the results of an experimental survey of more than 7,000 registered U.S. voters that explores the extent to which values-based messages and explanatory statements affect attitudes about climate and ocean change, and support for relevant policies.