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


Public Safety: The Pictures in Their Heads

Public Safety is finally starting to get the time it deserves in the public conversation; but with an issue so complex and fraught with controversy, it’s easy for messages to get swallowed in the “swamp” of cultural models.

In partnership with the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University’s Law School and Behind the Cycle, and with support from the Ford Foundation, FrameWorks Institute is conducting new research on how advocates can talk about Public Safety to move towards effective policy-based reform.

A new video explains the cultural models that Americans employ when thinking and talking about Public Safety, and explores the gaps between those models and the ways that experts understand those same issues.

Stay tuned for more as we move on through the next stages of our research process.

Framing in the Field: The Power of Afterschool Learning

Screen Shot 2013-02-06 at 10.28.06 AM“It is now broadly understood that expanded learning programs can and must be much more than ‘graham crackers and basketball’ – that is, they can play a critical role in young people’s lives. But what does a real mind shift look like?”

This is the question Michael Levine (Executive Director, Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Street Workshop) and Rafi Santo (Graduate Research Assistant, Indiana University) ask in a recent blog post, “Upgrading Afterschool: Common Sense Shifts in Expanded Learning for a Digital Age.”

Levine and Santo discuss the importance of a “mind shift” to encompass a “life-long, life-wide, and life-deep” approach to learning. They lay out key principles and specific recommendations for shaping afterschool programs in a way that builds upon what we know from the learning sciences about how best to create learning experiences for children in the 21st century.

Moreover, Levine and Santo use several tested framing elements, including the values of progress and pragmatism, to introduce their principles for designing afterschool learning programs. This is a key way to build larger support in the education field and help decision-makers see the value of integrating digital learning in afterschool programs. Consider the following statement:

“In a digital age in which technology is a central part of kids’ lives, leaders in the expanded learning-time movement need to embrace a “mind shift” so that the United States can make dramatic progress by building a system of expanded digital learning, one based on pragmatic changes that acknowledge the ways learning is happening in the 21st century.”

For advocates and practitioners involved in the digital learning movement, the article is well worth a read – both for the content and for modeling how to talk about digital learning in way that leads to wide-scale adoption.

For additional research on framing discussions on “anytime learning,” see the FrameWorks Institute’s recent report on “Mapping the Gaps on Where and When Learning Takes Place.”

Video Games and Organic Chocolate Milk: Thoughts from a Learning Game Designer

The following guest post is from Dylan Arena, Ph.D., a former FrameWorks Summer Fellow and Chief Learning Officer at Kidaptive.

Digital games have been a part of our media landscape for over three decades, and the discourse around them has always been primarily focused on whether or not they were harmful. According to dominant public thinking, video arcades might be dens of depravity, first-person-shooter games might be training a generation of lone gunmen, and kids today might be obese because they spend too much time indoors playing games.

Framing the question this way is different, of course, from asking whether (or in what ways) games are helpful – a question that many scholars have tried to answer in the past decade.  Some of these scholars have even tried to explain the positive features of games to a broader audience with trade books, such as:

Yet despite this abundance of offerings, FrameWorks’ recent research suggests that most people still do not think of games as anything more than a (possibly somewhat harmful) diversion–a form of digital junk food.

Compounding this problem is the fact that the commercial games industry continues to outproduce and outsell most new learning games based on sound pedagogy.  Although it may be true that some well-designed entertainment games (including games such as World of Warcraft and The Sims) offer rich learning experiences, have immense expressive power, create vibrant ecologies, serve as potential models for the best features of good education, and may even make their players better people, it is also true that the vast majority of games in existence today do few or none of these things.

So, in addition to reframing our message to expand people’s understandings that games are actually helpful, those of us in the games industry might do well to ask ourselves: how are our games helpful, and what can we do to make them more so?

The average commercial game today is designed for the sole purpose of providing users with an engaging experience.  Giving people a few (or many) hours of enjoyment is certainly a good thing, but in deciding whether games do more harm than good, that enjoyment must be weighed against the (purported, perceived, and actual) downsides of gaming, such as addiction, sedentary lifestyle, increased aggression, and most basically “wasting time.”

What if game designers set the added goal for themselves of folding a little edifying nugget or two into their games?  It needn’t be much: a few interesting facts or a veridical simulation of some interesting phenomenon for players to interact with would be fine.  If enough game designers enriched their games with little touches intended to help players in their lives outside the game, the masses would notice.  And over time, their impression of games might shift a bit, from satisfying but sinful junk food to–well, if not locally-sourced organic produce, maybe at least a nice glass of calcium- and protein-rich chocolate milk.

What do you think?  If you’re a commercial game designer, have you ever built games with an eye toward edifying your player in some small (or large) way?  If you’re a gamer, can you think of “non-serious” games you’ve played that have improved your life outside the game in some way?

FrameWorks Featured in the NYT: Framing Climate Change for Zoos and Aquariums

As part of our commitment to effective science translation, the FrameWorks Institute is working with zoos and aquariums across the country to reframe climate change discussions for the American public.

Recently, our work was  featured in the New York Times article, “Intriguing Habitats and Careful Discussions of Climate Change.”

Below is an excerpt from the article:

Word choices matter, research showed. The FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies how people process abstract concepts, found the phrase “greenhouse gas effect” perplexed people. “They think it is a nice place for plants to grow,” said FrameWorks’ president, Susan Bales. So her group advised substituting “heat-trapping blanket” to describe the accumulation of gases in the atmosphere.

Since 2010,  we have trained education specialists and interpreters in major informal science institutions to integrate the “heat-trapping blanket” metaphor and related communications tools in their exhibits and live demonstrations. Through this training, interpreters learn framing skills that enable visitors to think like “citizens” when it comes to addressing climate changes in the ocean.

Working with marine scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, we have learned that climate effects on the ocean, including water temperature changes and ocean acidification, are having a significant impact on marine animals and the ocean ecosystem. As we move forward, we have plans to continue working with our partners (including the National Network of Climate Change Interpreters and the New England Aquarium) to translate these and other concepts so that the American public is informed and empowered to act.

To learn more about our current research and recommendations, see our issue page on communicating climate change effects on the ocean. And stay tuned for our research updates in the coming year!

Deliberative Democracy Events: Broad Consensus or One-Off Failures?

On the surface, attempts at “deliberative democracy” events look impressive. These are events that bring together large groups of everyday Americans to talk about the problems facing our country.

Certainly a lot of work goes into making deliberative democracy events happen: creating briefing materials, recruiting the participants, handling all the logistics and, not trivially, footing the multi-million dollar bill.

But what does deliberative democracy actually accomplish?

We can all agree that educated citizens should decide the course of government, but is packaging this process into a singular staged event the right way to ensure democracy?

In my book Mass Informed Consent, I argue that deliberation can only achieve lasting success when power is vested in the participants. Simply put, when the deliberators actually make decisions, the process works; when they act in an “advisory” capacity—absent real stakes—the process is more gimmick than governance.

The productive role public deliberative processes can play in local government has yet to be fully explored, though the people at Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute  are off to a good start. They work with municipal governments to create opportunities for citizens to make decisions on local issues. In this era, for example, they work with communities to allocate cuts in order to balance local budgets.

The prospects for public deliberation at the national level are much bleaker. Let me focus on an event I attended:  the AmericaSpeaks’ deliberations on the federal budget that occurred on June 26, 2010.

This process aimed at addressing the budget deficit with public input. Given the fact public opinion is often dismissed for being ill informed, AmericaSpeaks concentrated on bringing people together to educate and discuss before rendering judgment.

The tradeoff in this process is that the organizers concentrated on thousands, rather than the hundreds of millions, who are American citizens. For this reason, while we can acknowledge a direct effect on the participants themselves, the net political impact that AmericaSpeaks expects must be realized through publicity in the form of elected officials’ and pundits’ reactions.

The endgame of this process has power players swayed by the moral force of the conclusions (that may well be the result of selected Americans learning and talking about a certain way about the issues). To assess this critical part of their strategy, let us imagine the reactions of a Congressional representative, the player at the focal point of AmericaSpeaks’ efforts.

We start when a glossy report lands on their desk (assuming it passes staffer’s rigorous screening).  Skimming the report reveals its promise to overcome gridlock and solve a thorny public problem –  in this case, the federal deficit. It goes on to detail the carefully orchestrated procedures, offering common sense solutions that have been endorsed by informed citizens.

As it turns out, the conclusions are not so different from those offered by the Simpson-Bowles bipartisan commission. Now consider what might happen in the most favorable case, that is when the report’s recommendations agree with the member’s own position. It seems likely that the member of Congress would want to use the results to bolster their argument. But before taking this step, they have to make a simple calculation—do they think the report adds value or is it going to be more trouble than it is worth? They must anticipate what critics will say if they tout the report.

We can envision several potential responses from those who have a stake in disagreeing with the findings:

Response #1: Ignore

Public discourse is filled with proposals for solving problem that opponents can overlook as another piece of defective ammunition.

Response #2: Dismiss

Another likely stance has opponents rejecting the findings as the residue of propaganda. AmericaSpeaks emphasizes their practice of educating panelists in the course of their deliberations; indeed, that is the centerpiece of their process. But no briefing is without bias, especially in an age when even the most scientifically rigorous conclusions (consider global warming) can be maligned. Such bias can be taken as evidence of indoctrination that could deceive citizens into supporting proposals they “really” don’t want.

In short, opponents might as well say “let me prepare the briefing materials, and they will reach my conclusions.” To see an example of this kind of argument, take a look at the Center for Economic and Political Research’s “America Speaks’ Misguided Federal Budget 101.” By rejecting the notion that framing is inherent in all materials and debates, and by ignoring the fact that this framing does not have to be conscious or intentional, the deliberative discussions are based on a false premise, namely that “bald” facts can be digested in an unbiased manner so long as participants seek some resolution.

Response #3: Rebut

Opponents may also use the circumstances surrounding the deliberation to challenge the veracity of the conclusions. For example, the striking thing about these events is that they are fun. They combine the best features of a political convention with a neighborhood picnic. In this festival atmosphere, participants are flattered, treated to lunch, encouraged to see themselves as patriotic Americans and pointedly seated with others who share this loyalty (although they may amiably disagree about the particulars). The atmosphere prioritizes reasonableness and compromise.

At my table, for instance, a senior citizen eagerly agreed to trim social security benefits in exchange for a tea partier’s support for increasing certain taxes. If only government were so easy.

This zero stakes process is open to all sorts of charges, ranging from the mundane—that the recommendations are illegal, to the universal, namely that the daily grind of partisan politics admits no such compromise. While the others and I were happy to engage in the hypothetical discussion, we had to park our personal attachments, like partisanship or my political science training, at the door when we bought into the event’s premise.

In retrospect, it seems that the force of these critiques would make it difficult for a prudent representative to embrace the deliberative democracy process, if only because it makes it so easy for those who disagree with the conclusions to dismiss or contest them. Hence, the attempt to short cut the politics of governance runs into a dead end. Put more obviously, the work of governance—persuading a majority of the “rightness” of an idea —is hard.  Confusing a one-day event for the arduous task of citizen participation does not help us achieve this goal.

At FrameWorks we specialize in one aspect of this challenge –  the careful preparation and testing of message frames that are designed to incrementally build public support. The heavy lifting comes as advocates wield these reframes over and over with their colleagues and fellow citizens, in direct contact as well as in social and mass media. This steady hammering makes new policy directions easier to envision over time and can bring about real and lasting change.

We readily acknowledge that the promise of a “silver bullet,” a one-time investment in framing or citizen participation is false. Ultimately, we recommend the tried and true approach of issue advocacy, creating winning messages that can steadily build networks and change minds from the ground up. In this process, designing frames, messages, and arguments that can be strategically injected at crucial points of leverage is instrumental to public rethinking. Reframing, then, is a key and critical tool for advocates to build a legitimate and broad-based consensus among Americans across social issues.

Framing in the Field: How to Build Support for Funding Children's Programs

How can child advocates communicate a strong message to legislators to avoid the upcoming budget sequestration cuts to children’s programs?

At a recent joint conference in D.C. sponsored by Kids Count and Voices for America’s Children, the FrameWorks Institute presented a hands-on workshop to help child advocates in this endeavor.

The majority of the advocates in attendance were members of non-profit organizations who work to ensure that all of America’s children are healthy and educated. As such, these advocates need to be able to effectively communicate the importance of children’s programs to decision makers so that these policies remain a top priority for government funding.

To help these and other child advocates, we draw upon communication insights from our latest toolkit that integrates messaging on budgets and education. This toolkit includes our research and recommendations for telling a core story that enables the public and lawmakers to understand why investing in children’s programs is a smart move for our country.

We provide a basic outline of this story below:

1. Why Care About Funding Children’s Programs?

Prevention Values:

“We need to take steps today to prevent the problems that we know will affect the long-term prosperity of our state and country. This means investing our resources today in children’s programs to enable children to grow into a strong generation of achievers.”

Prosperity and Ingenuity Values:

In order to keep America prosperous now and in the future, we need to remember that child development is the foundation for our economic development. Together, we have the ingenuity and resources to implement innovative policies to help today’s children contribute to a prosperous society tomorrow.”

2. How Does Public Funding for Children’s Programs Benefit Society?

Forward Exchange Metaphor:

“A good public budget is one that plans for the future by accounting for the needs of children today. As citizens, we pay taxes forward, not for the immediate exchange of public goods, but so we can have the prosperous and healthy society we need in the future.

It is our responsibility to make sure children’s programs figure high on our budget priority. These programs are an investment in our country’s economic development. They are the most important way we can ensure that our all children develop the skills they need to become future productive citizens in our communities.”

 3. How Do Early Childhood Developments Programs Benefit Children and Society?

“Brain science has shown development during the early years of life affect the architecture of the maturing brain. The quality of brain architecture establishes either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for all of the development and behavior that follows—and getting things right the first time is easier than trying to fix them later when the child is older or an adult. To do so, we need to ensure that adequate funding for early childhood development programming and resources is available today to help prevent problems from developing down the road.”

4. How Do Specific Children’s Programs Benefit Society? After including the above values and metaphors in your story, discuss specific children’s programs as solutions. Those programs may include:

Children’s Health Programs                                                      Child Protective Services

Children’s Education Programs                                                Child Care Programs

Children’s Nutrition Programs                                                  Child Tax Credit

How are you using the core story on funding children’s programs in your organization? Let us know and we will feature your organization in an upcoming post!