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.

Do We Need Different Messages for Influencing Policy Makers?

Influencing policy makers is essential for social change. Do we need different messages for policy makers? Do policy makers have different cultural models?

Recently, in response to a presentation of the first stage of our descriptive research on Environmental Health, this question was sent from experts in the field to our research associates, Nat Kendall-Taylor and Eric Lindland.

Nat and Eric respond:

“There are two answers to this question. The first answer is that public understandings and media discourse profoundly influence policy makers and shape the policies they make. The second answer is that policy makers are people too.

Let’s take on these answers in turn and drill down a little deeper.

1)  Public understandings and media discourse profoundly influence policy makers and shape the policies they make.

By conducting research on public understandings and dominant media frames around social issues, we identify the common drivers for shaping public opinion that influence policy maker perspectives.

In our work, we typically look for informants who are active in community organizations, who have expressed an opinion on a social issue to an elected official, and who are highly attentive to the news media. These people who are the “first responders” to ideas in their communities and are likely to be those who convey and shape these ideas within their communities and to their elected leaders.

We conduct research with these people because they are essential to elevating an issue in public discourse and building the public will to engage policymakers. We think that policy making and policy makers are strongly influenced by how these people understand social issues and the viability of policy solutions.

We also conduct media content analyses of all the major media outlets (both online and print) that are most influential for shaping the public conversation on these issues. We map out the dominant media storylines and assess how they reinforce or challenge the public’s cultural models for thinking about these issues. These media outlets are the same ones that policymakers use to gauge public opinion and inform their decisions.

2) Policy makers are people too.

We often forget that alongside their policy positions, professional cultures, educational backgrounds, and the dictates of their jobs, policy makers are nonetheless members of the very same culture that shapes public understanding more broadly. They typically share in the same deep assumptions and dominant cultural models that inform that culture. This is why our response to this frequently asked question is, “Believe it or not, policy makers are people too.”

We say this because we have conducted research across several social issues that shows policy makers employ the same deep, underlying and implicit understandings as the public of how the world works. This is not to say that they don’t have their own unique perspectives on issues derived from the experiences that they share with their fellow policy makers. But culture is not a zero sum game.

People can have understandings that are shaped by common experience at many levels. In this way, policy makers share American cultural models because of their membership in American culture, while simultaneously drawing on more specialized and specific understandings that are the result of their membership in policymaking bodies.

We find Roger Keesing particularly helpful on this point in his discussion of how scientists are people too. He writes:

“The physical sciences has progressively penetrated through and beyond everyday, common-sense models of experienced “reality.” Yet the physicist leaves subatomic particles behind, the mathematician non-Euclidean geometry, as they enter the parking lot and drive home through a world of seemingly solid objects, flat surfaces, and straight lines. Moreover, conventional metaphors and common sense cannot be expunged from the natural languages to which the most precise scientists must have recourse. Disengaging what passes for behavioral science from “folk” models and conventional metaphors is hopeless: Most of psychology reflects common-sense cultural models of mind and reified metaphors.” (1987, p. 374-375).

What this means is that communications strategies that are built around shared cultural models are likely to affect all of those individuals who belong to that group. Communications strategies designed and tested to work at the level of American cultural understandings should affect individuals who belong to this general cultural group, regardless of their more specific memberships and allegiances.

FAQs on Environmental Health: Do Ethnic Minorities Share the Same Cultural Models?

Recently, in response to a presentation of the first stage of our descriptive research on Environmental Health, three questions were sent from experts in the field to our research associates, Nat Kendall-Taylor and Eric Lindland. All three are critically important questions that we have encountered in other areas of research, and our responses pertain both specifically to our work on Environmental Health and to our research more broadly. Over the next two weeks, we are posting our answers to these three important questions.

This week our second featured question is in regards to ethnic minority perspectives:

Do minority populations share the cultural models described in FrameWorks’ research on environmental health?

Nat and Eric respond:

“Answering this question is neither simple nor straightforward!  The short answer to the question is ‘yes,’ based on the level at which we do our analysis, but it is a ‘yes’ that requires elaboration.

Continue reading

FAQs on Framing Environmental Health: Indigenous Perspectives

First Nations Inuit Health Logo

Recently, in response to a presentation of the first stage of our descriptive research on Environmental Health, three questions were sent from experts in the field to our research associates, Nat Kendall-Taylor and Eric Lindland. All three are critically important questions that we have encountered in other areas of research, and our responses pertain both specifically to our work on Environmental Health and to our research more broadly. Over the next two weeks, we will post our answers to these three important questions.

This week our featured question is in regards to indigenous perspectives:

Does FrameWorks research on environmental health help us to understand how Native American/First Nation populations think about these issues and do our recommendations hold for these populations?

Nat and Eric respond:

“The short answer to this question is we don’t know.

We are often asked about Native populations, whether and how our research accounts for the cultural models held by these groups and if our recommended reframes are effective in communicating with members of these groups. These questions have become particularly frequent in our work on addiction in the Canadian province of Alberta, which has a sizable Aboriginal population. Our answer thus far in Alberta has been uniformly, “we don’t know, so don’t assume that it does.”  At this point, we have to give the same response here in the U.S., as our research has not yet sampled a sufficient number of Native Americans to make any generalizations about the range and strength of cultural models in circulation among members of that heterogenous community. This response is premised in the assumption that Native American cultures are in some important ways different from the national culture of American society writ-large.  This is not to say that the two cultural systems do not overlap, as they most certainly do, but only that Native beliefs and understandings are grounded in cultural heritages and lineages that can and should be distinguished from those that have come to dominate in the larger American cultural arena.

In the case of both our research on Environmental Health in the U.S. and our Addiction research in Alberta, we sampled a diversity of citizens from a broad range of ethnic heritages in order to identify those underlying and shared assumptions that structure people’s understanding amidst and across that diversity.  It is notable that such shared assumptions – what we call “cultural models” – can in fact be identified, suggesting that membership and participation in the U.S. national and Albertan provincial cultures does result in broadly shared patterns of understanding, patterns that exist alongside the substantial variation of belief and understanding that is also evident. Considering the historical distinctiveness of Native American experiences in both the Albertan and U.S. contexts, however, we would predict that a somewhat different constellation of cultural models are operative in shaping how members of these communities understand the issues at hand. But we simply do not know! While a small number of Native American informants have been included in our research sample in both locations, there have been far too few from which to draw any conclusions about a distinctiveness of perspective in Native populations.

What we do know is that cultural differences matter a great deal in creating effective communications, and our interactions with scientists, advocates and practitioners, both in Alberta as well as here in the U.S., suggest the need to better account for the distinctiveness of Native American perspectives. FrameWorks researchers would welcome the opportunity to focus our methodology on this need.”


Framing Tools: How To Translate the Science of Child Mental Health?

Photo Credit: Creative Commons on Flikr, Anantal

In 2008, FrameWorks began a multi-year study of American thinking about child and family mental health.  Building on a decade of research on public perceptions of children’s issues, this research was designed to compare expert understanding with public patterns of thinking and to use framing research to close the conceptual gap.

We have a full suite of framing tools available for advocates that are on the frontline of communicating this important issue.  The tools help child mental health advocates tell a “core story” of child and family mental health, using framing techniques to plug the cognitive holes in lay understanding of this critical issue.

Among those tools include:

  • Talking Points
 A reminder of the core elements of the children’s mental health frame for use in preparation for media interviews, editorial board visits, or other public communications.
  • Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
 Common questions about children’s mental health, with examples of effective and less-effective responses to each question.
  • Sample Op-Ed
 This is an example of how to apply the framing strategies on children’s mental health to the format of a guest editorial in a newspaper.

They also include these key framing guides:

  • Navigating the Swamp. A graphic representation of the swamp of dominant patterns of thinking about children’s mental health. This can serve as a reminder of the themes in public thinking that your communications should avoid.
  • You Say…They Think. 
 An analysis of a series frame clashes – you say one thing and the public thinks another – which shows how certain ways of framing children’s mental health can get eaten in the swamp.
  • Basic Message Template. The outline of a new frame for communicating about children’s mental health. The talking points, FAQs, and Sample Op-Ed in this toolkit show a variety of ways to apply this basic template.
  • Notes on Leveling. Some additional considerations about using the Leveling simplifying model.

How are you incorporating the core story on child mental health? Let us know and we will feature your organization in an upcoming post!

Support for FrameWorks’ research and message development on child and family mental health was largely provided by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, supplemented by initial funding from the Endowment for Health (NH).

Why is Storytelling Important? Vonnegut Tells Us Why

How does the public make sense of incoming information? Through stories.

What kinds of stories help the public make sense of information on social issues? Thematic stories.

People process new information best through narrative structure. Kurt Vonnegut, the famous American novelist of  Slaughterhouse-five and Cat’s Cradle, knows this well. Watch this entertaining lecture as he lays the basic outline for three types of narrative structures.

What does this mean for those of us in the non-profit communications field?

As you can see, these narrative patterns queue familiar stories. While Vonnegut only briefly mentions key pieces of the story, like “a glass shoe” or a “girl in a hole,” we are able to fill in the rest to provide meaning to his construction. The pattern of the story and his added detail helps us create pictures in our head of what the stories are supposed to be and how they should play out.

Similarly, this is how people understand social issues. When experts and advocates use narrative structure to tell a meaningful story about social issues, they help the public more easily make sense of and take action on those issues.

It is important to distinguish, however, between narrative structure and narrative content. In Vonnegut’s lecture, he uses the specific narrative of Cinderella to explain the structure of the story. We, of course, do not want to tell stories of individuals facing challenges in their personal lives. This would be an episodic story that we know tends to individualize an issue.

To maximize public support, we want to use narrative structure to tell thematic stories that share the experiences of groups and communities facing challenges that they can surmount together. If you’d like to learn more about thematic vs. episodic stories, see our Framing Essentials pdf entitled, “Telling Thematic Stories.”

How can your organization use narrative structure and thematic content to better frame your issue?


Framing FAQs: Why Shouldn't I Tell Personal Stories?

Question: “Why shouldn’t I tell personal stories?  The media wants them, legislators love them, and I think they can really touch people’s hearts.”

Answer: This is a question we are often asked by organizations that are new to framing. Public relations experts commonly advise advocates to communicate their messages through vivid personal stories. These stories are often about the heroic struggles of individuals who have triumphed in the face of great odds. They are usually accompanied by pictures that depict the hopeful faces of the downtrodden and neglected in organizational materials.

Scientific research shows that, if this technique works at all, it probably doesn’t work the way advocates think it does. There are three primary reasons why this kind of storytelling doesn’t work to promote policy solutions to social problems.

1- “Not all examples are good examples” — distortion effects.  People tend to generalize from the example you present, and to overestimate the extent to which the specific situation portrayed occurs in the overall population.

2- “Can’t see the forest for the trees” — episodic framing. Episodic frames are those that focus on discrete events happening to specific people at particular places and times. The more vivid the examples, the more likely they are to draw the audience to miss structural and environmental causes and conditions. In contrast, we are trying to get people to understand social issues in a “thematic” way, focusing on the trends, context, and broader societal forces that underlie the problem.

3- The “Cosby Effect” — invigorating global stereotypes. Advocates must be extremely careful not to activate a global and/or negative stereotype when utilizing examples of individual successes.  In other words, when people see a successful depiction counter to the prevailing stereotype (such as a successful, middle-class African-American family like the one shown in the popular 80’s television show about the Cosby family), it does not map onto their thinking about other members of the group.  On the contrary, research shows that people are left wondering what’s wrong with those who do not live up to the example, and the existing stereotypes are actually reinforced.

Three questions to ask before you use a vivid case example are:

1.  Is the case I would choose likely to result in a distortion of my broader policy goals?

2.  Is the case likely to narrow the discussion away from themes and systems to individual characteristics of particular people, or likely to set up a charity response?

3.  Is the case connected in any way to global stereotypes associated with the issue, and thus, likely to backfire?

This doesn’t mean that you can’t tell stories about people.  There are many powerful stories of cause and effect, environmental conditions, and policy solutions that are often neglected in the focus on vivid case examples. Much of FrameWorks material is devoted to teaching about how to tell stories that will actually accomplish your goals and change how people think about your issue.  This kind of storytelling is more difficult to do at first, but will ultimately result in the communications outcomes we seek.

For more information on framing essentials, visit our FrameWorks Product and Tools page. This article has been adapted from Framing FAQ’s Ezine.