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.




Facts, Frames, and the Fight Over Immigration

A recent article in the Washington Post details results from a Gallup poll which found a statistically distinguishable seven percent drop in Americans’ support for increasing immigration. Crucially, the article shows that this drop is not attributable to changes in the number of immigrants in the United States or the U.S. unemployment rate.[i] So what does explain this change in public support?

Looking at FrameWorks’ investigations into the way Americans think about immigration provides a potential explanation for the gap between opinion and reality.

The key to understanding this gap is the fact that public opinion is not governed exclusively or even directly by the facts present in the public discourse, like the rate of immigration or unemployment, but rather by the way they are framed. Put simply, opinion comes from our experiences of the world around us filtered through a set of cultural perceptions. It is this mediating function of culture that explains the paradox in the Washington Post’s analysis.

When it comes to immigration, FrameWorks’ research has found that Americans’ opinions and perceptions are heavily influenced by whether they see immigrants as similar to or as different from themselves—whether immigrants are understood as “us” or “them.”[ii] In fact, our research shows that when people see themselves in immigrants or see immigration as a potential part of the “American” community, their support for a whole host of progressive immigration policies increases.

Thus, while actual immigration or employment numbers don’t seem to influence public support for immigration, the us/them dichotomy does play a key role in shaping this support.

So what influences where the line between “us” and “them” is drawn? Our research suggests that the cultural models of immigrants (whether we perceive them as us or them) that emerge when respondents answer a pollster’s question plays the central role in shaping their answers. In other words, the frames present in the media and public discourse at the time of the survey determines which of these models has the greatest likelihood of activation when people think about immigration.

In this sense, the dynamics of our political/media system exert more influence over opinions than one might expect; and understanding these dynamics, which have worked against immigration of late, are a key to understanding public opinion in general and, more specifically, of explaining the drop in support revealed in the Gallup poll.

The important takeaway for immigration advocates is that effectively framing public discussions can exert more influence on peoples’ attitudes than unframed, actual facts about the world.[iii] Put simply, frames matter.




[i] Bump, Philip (2014) Americans turn against immigration — but, as always, it’s complicated, The Washington Post, 6/27; retrieved 6/28/2014

[ii] Baran,M., Kendall-Taylor, N., Lindland, E., O’Neil, M.,& Haydon, A. (2014). Getting toWe: Mapping the gaps between expert and public understandings of immigration and immigration reform. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.

[iii]Simon, A. & Gilliam, Frank, Jr. (2013).  Don’t Stay on Message: What 8,000 respondents say about using strategic framing to move the public discourse on immigration. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.


Bringing the "Science of Communication" to Criminal Justice Advocacy

When criminal justice advocates gather in Martha’s Vineyard this August to reflect on the progress of, and challenges to, their advocacy, they will have the benefit of new communications science research. For the last four years I have been part of a group of social scientists, lawyers and practitioners – led by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law and the FrameWorks Institute (and funded by the Ford and Rosenberg Foundations) – who have applied the “science of communications” to the issue of criminal justice reform.

This effort is distinctive in some important ways. First, we have been highly engaged with the criminal justice field. For instance, we have convened several meetings (large and small, at both the national and state levels) of policy analysts, advocates and criminal justice officials. This ensures that the research we conduct actually reflects the policies that experts believe are important for the public to consider, as well as the field’s hypotheses and speculations about what works (and what doesn’t).

Additionally, this work is comprehensive – not a focus group here and a poll there. We have reviewed over 500 communications and policy documents. This engagement provided depth and texture to our qualitative and quantitative methods. In all, we surveyed over 10,000 Americans. It is fair to say, then, that our project has been driven by a powerful blend of substantive information and analytic rigor. We have brought “communications science” to the already well-developed policy science that informs criminal justice advocacy.

What has our research found? What shapes public thinking about criminal justice issues?

  1. People generally understand the system in terms of the first responders they encounter in their day-to-day lives (e.g., cops, firefighters).
  1. There is a strong sense that the government is responsible for providing criminal justice services; however, people also believe that the government is corrupt, inefficient and generally incapable of doing this work.
  1. People reason that individuals are rational actors and that crime is the result of a deliberative process of consciously weighing the costs and benefits of a given action. However, African-Americans and Latinos were more likely to cite structural inequities as the cause of crime.
  1. People have conflicting views on what “fair” means when it comes to the criminal justice system. At times, people reason that “fair” means uniformly applying rules and punishments irrespective of context and circumstances; at other times, “fair” means considering the context surrounding an offense when making sentencing decisions (e.g., criminal history, mental health and upbringing).
  1. Finally, the public adheres to a fatalistic view: Crime is caused by bad people but government is corrupt and inefficient. From this perspective, we can’t really hope to improve the system, and the best we can do is “lock ’em up.”

Alongside these dominant ways of thinking are a set of more productive, but highly recessive, cultural models. For example, people can appreciate the importance of broader ecological factors in crime. And when they do, they are more likely to entertain policy- and resource-based solutions. The challenge lies in pushing the closing ways of thinking to the background and engaging the more productive patterns of reasoning.

These findings are important in that they focus our efforts on the exact places in the public mind where thinking is breaking down, allowing policy experts to be truly strategic and efficient in their public engagement efforts.

So what does this research mean for my colleagues as they head up to New England?

My perspective comes from the Harvard-FrameWorks collaboration; from my day job as dean of a professional school that trains policy analysts, NGO advocates and social service managers (and has many alums in the field who are joining the ranks of experts); and as a researcher who has spent the last 20 years writing on the topic. I offer five observations that the new research findings inform.

Don’t Confuse the Policy Science with the Communications Science

A common misperception is that the empirical science of a field is the same as communicating about that science. Advocates know a great deal about the technical and operational aspects of their issue. They also spend a lot of time talking to either other advocates or professionals in the field. The people that advocates are typically talking to, then, are folks who understand their acronyms, get the inherent complexities of the work, and share a clear-eyed view of how to get to the desired policy outcome.

When expert talk is used to communicate to the public, however, people’s eyes glaze over and they fall back on the most accessible ways of thinking about the issue. And these dominant modes of reasoning typically do not align with the systemic changes advocates want.

Fortunately, there is a “science of communications” emerging across the fields of cognitive linguistics, cultural anthropology, political psychology and policy studies. The FrameWorks Institute, for example, has pioneered a multi-method analytic and practice-based approach that provides advocates with strong empirical evidence for how, why and when some messages work and others don’t. The quick recap of the findings outlined above is the result of such a process.

All Values Aren’t Created Equal

Our findings make it clear that simply choosing a value that prima facie appears to be a reasonable way to guide public thinking is a mistake. Using a large-scale experimental survey (N=8000), we tested four values (derived from our qualitative analysis and review of advocates’ communications materials) – Fairness, Prevention, Cost/Efficiency and Pragmatism. To see how these values were used in our experiments, I encourage you to refer to the FrameWorks website.

The central finding was that Pragmatism is a highly effective value in shifting people from an individual to a systems understanding of the causes of crime and in increasing support for progressive policy reforms. None of the other values was successful in moving support and, in some cases, actually lowered policy support. So it’s not just any old value that should be used to frame a public-facing communication; rather, it’s matching tool to task so that the value you invoke elicits the policies you want considered.

Using Numbers by Themselves Will Not “Set You Free”

It is common practice for criminal justice advocates to communicate using numbers, particularly numbers regarding rates of incarceration. To test the effectiveness of this practice, we examined three sets of facts: Neutral Facts (statistics with no mention of groups or cross-national comparisons), Racial Facts (statistics about the disproportionate incarceration of people of color) and International Facts (statistics comparing the U.S. system to other nations). The fact is that exposure to the “facts” had either no or negative effects.

This is not surprising to many of us. Unframed facts lead people to default to the dominant pattern of reasoning. If the facts support their beliefs, people will accept them; if the facts are counter to their dominant belief, they will reject them or reason them away.

There is a Productive Way to Talk about Race

Nowhere does the science of communications prove more useful than when it comes to talking about race and the criminal justice system. Indeed, our findings run counter to the communications advice advocates typically hear (e.g., “don’t talk about race” or “lead with race”). How did we unravel the race question?

We designed an experiment that combined each value with one of three sets of facts. What we found was fascinating – exposure to the combination of Pragmatism with Racial Facts produced two important results: heightened belief that environmental factors play a central role in causing crime, and increased support for a range of progressive policy reforms. This coupling seems to inoculate against blaming the individual, while at the same time getting over the hump of partisan gridlock and fatalism. Even more encouraging, this combination is particularly robust when it comes to matters of juvenile justice. Again, I urge you to consult the FrameWorks website to see an example of this execution as out-the-door messaging.

So you can talk about race/disparities in the criminal justice system. But it is a question of how and in what order you talk about race. In this instance, leading the conversation with the value proposition that we need to be much more practical in designing the criminal justice system, combined with the fact that people of color are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates, allows people to understand why certain reforms are necessary.

Can I Get a Witness?

I’ve been lucky to be witness to, and part of, an exciting new field – “the science of communications.” Interestingly, my policy, planning and social service students have increasingly asked for communications courses, workshops and trainings. I have managed to teach a course in strategic communications and social justice issues during my six-year tenure as dean of the Luskin School. The students come from across campus – e.g., Public Health, Law, Education, Political Science and Sociology – which speaks to the growing demand for the science of communications.

Communicating about social issues is not just listening to a couple of focus groups, or simply a matter of art. Rather, it is best when based on the emerging science of communications. And remember, no matter how great the communications strategy is, advocates must first have a “strategy” strategy. The good news, in our view, is that the field is ripe with any number of thoughtful solutions; the challenge is to “till the soil” so that smart recommendations can flourish. To this end, we strongly commend to the field the results of our efforts over the past two years.


Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr. is Dean of UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs and a Senior Fellow at the FrameWorks Institute.



Talking Criminal Justice Reform

Criminal justice reform advocates are cautiously optimistic that their day in court may have arrived at long last. While many other progressive issues appear to be at a standstill (witness immigration reform, climate change, etc.), criminal justice issues appear to have the wind at their back. From the Department of Justice to the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Congress, leaders are re-examining how the U.S. got stuck in one gear–the prison gear–and the ramifications for moving our society forward.

Yet, history suggests this optimism be tempered with lessons from past social movements. Taking advantage of the moment of opportunity requires reformers not only to seize the day with policies and programs, but also to put forward a new narrative about the criminal justice system–how it works, to what end and what can be done to improve it. That new narrative cannot be invented out of whole cloth; it requires a systematic understanding of the stories we have been telling ourselves about public safety over time–in media, in public and private discourse, at kitchen tables and water coolers. In short, reframing the narrative is crucial to the sustainability of the reform momentum, but it is not easily constructed. To replace the status quo, a reliable reframing strategy must reshape and redirect public thinking toward meaningful policies.

(Read more in this guest blog by FrameWorks President Susan Nall Bales for the Rosenberg Foundation)

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Neuroscience is Hot

Dive into almost any issue in the news these days and it won’t take long to find a neuroscience angle. Morality has roots in the brain. Adolescence is best understood by what is not yet in the brain. The ebbs and flows of the stock market are tied to neural activations. And even the difference between liberal and conservative ideology can be seen in the brain.

This increased focus on neuroscience has brought with it brilliant studies with important applications in helping us understand and address social issues—like what a better system of juvenile justice looks like, how addiction can be prevented, and how we can identify and limit toxic stress to improve outcomes for children. Unfortunately this caravan of fantastic science is laced with a few stragglers—flawed studies and bad science. When these outliers get pointed out—and they usually do—we get a glimpse of how science, culture and public opinion come together to influence each other.

“Hot” areas of science inevitability produce some less-than-hot science. When you cross this reality with a fundamental public misunderstanding of what science is and how it works, you create a situation that leads people to throw the baby out with the bath water.

FrameWorks has found that Americans, Canadians, Brits and (especially) Australians model science, in part, as a fickle, uncertain and unreliable endeavor. I won’t get into why this is, but you don’t have to look too hard to see the ways in which this cultural model plays out in the media. When the science skepticism cultural model gets piqued by coverage of bad science or of the limitations of science, people start to question the validity of the entire endeavor.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw this phenomenon on a trip to the UK, where, based on a couple of dodgy studies, there has been a recent backlash against the ability of neuroscience to say anything meaningful about the developmental effects of adverse childhood experiences or what constitutes effective interventions.

At a meeting of leading international developmental scientists I found myself in the middle of a conversation about this runaway anti-science trope—a trope that threatened the implications and applications of the solid science that members of this group had spent their lives developing. “How do we deal with this backlash?” they asked.

From a framing perspective, this moment and the conversation that followed were interesting for two reasons:

  1. You could see culture in action. The media’s questioning of neuroscience was causing members of the public to doubt the ability of all science to say anything about policy and programs. This was a strong reminder that culture is a powerful but not always rational shaper of how we think. Sure there are bad studies of the brain, but that doesn’t mean that the good ones can’t teach us valid and valuable lessons.
  2. You could see the difference between a science and communication science perspective. The developmental scientists’ resounding solution to the science-pushback was…do better science, reasoning that if they did better science, the problem would be solved. My perspective and that of communication scientists, however, was that while doing better science certainly wouldn’t hurt, getting people to think differently about science through better science communication was a vital part of the solution.

Doing quality neuroscience is certainly part of the answer, but, having better ways of communicating about neuroscience is vital in assuring that what we know about the brain informs what we do about social issues.