Problems Need Solutions

When framing is in the news, everyone (and our mothers) emails us about it. This happened last week as our in-boxes filled up with “did you hear this” emails about how we “had to read” Shankar Vadantam’s report for NPR of recent work conducted by University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic and his colleagues.

The NPR piece reports on one interesting Slovic finding in particular—that problem appeals framed at the individual level (about one individual’s problem) are more effective in increasing donations than appeals that show the same problem at a larger population scope (talking about how this is a problem from which many people suffer). But the finding is not that simple, especially for those attempting to use this research to inform their communications practice.

There several critical points about for those communicating about social issues.

  1. Outcomes Matter: As a communicator, it’s important to realize that different communications goals require different communications strategies in the same way that you don’t make a three layered chocolate cake and a cassoulet using the same recipe or ingredients. The outcome of interest in the Slovic study was donations—the study asks, are individual- or population-level problem frames more effective in motivating respondents to donate money? It’s important to realize that affecting outcomes like public understanding, policy support or attitudes may require different strategies than those that are effective in motivating someone to make a one-time financial donation.

For example, the individual-level problem frame that was effective in making people donate in Slovic’s study may not be an effective frame if your goal is to change public understanding of a problem or create support for public policies that would be effective in addressing the issue. Put more directly, the same strategy that increases donation amounts may be ineffective (or even counter-productive) in communicating for social change.

One reason why different goals require different communications strategies is because there tends to be a correlation between people’s sense of the scope of a problem and their perception of effective solutions. Small, individual-level solutions seem silly next to big problems. This is in fact what Slovic’s study so elegantly shows. When the problem is framed at the individual level, people are more likely to give money because they feel that their donation can fix the individual’s problem. On the other hand, when told about a population-level problem, the idea of making a small donation is suddenly out of whack with the scope of the problem. This depresses peoples’ sense that they can do anything to address the problem.

The point to understand here is that, when thinking about framing strategies, it is essential that you start with your goal and make sure that your communications strategies align with this goal. The same strategy that works to increase the amount of a donation may not prove effective in making someone smarter about how an issue works or in helping them see what kinds of actions, ultimately, are required for meaningful change. Ideally, we would want to find a communications strategy that both increased people’s understanding of a social problem AND enhanced their support for meaningful solutions that they also felt they could effect. Is that possible? FrameWorks believes it is, but it requires both a more theoretical approach to engagement and recognition of these two discrete outcomes.

  1. Efficacy (and Urgency): Working toward better theories of engagement, Slovic acknowledges the importance of efficacy in the study’s findings. Efficacy is at the heart of the communication implications of this work. In the word’s of social psychologist and FrameWorks Fellow Ezra Markowitz, “Efficacy refers to individuals’ subjective perceptions of their own and others’ ability to achieve personal and/or social goals...” (Markowitz, E. [2013]. Efficacy: A Brief Overview with an Eye Towards Implications and Measurements.) Put another way, efficacy is a person’s sense that something can be done about a problem.

So why is efficacy so important in understanding Slovic’s finding? As Slovic explains, the lack of efficacy created when people hear about a huge whopper of a social problem without having a solution that works at this scale, is key. In a hallmark paper, Kim Witte (1992) reviews the literature on the relationship between three concepts: urgency (“fear” in the literature), efficacy, and message acceptance. The basic relationship between these concepts is summarized in the following schematic:

When presented with a population level problem, people may have high levels of perceived urgency, but low levels of efficacy—they feel that the problem is big and bad, but simultaneously that the action that is being asked of them is out of whack with the level of the problem and thus unlikely to meaningfully affect the situation. The result is less willingness to donate. This is all to say that, for the communications practitioner, providing large helpings of urgency by emphasizing the immensity of a problem will only be effective when such frames are accompanied by strong, clear explanations that these problems are addressable (i.e. efficacy). Solutions are key…which brings us to one final point.

  1. There’s More To The Story Than That: The messages tested in Slovic’s work are problem statements, which are certainly part of a framing strategy, but not the entirety. As the work of Witte and others shows us, effective framing requires more than a vivid problem statement. This is especially true when the problems being described are at the population level or systemic in nature. Effectively communicating about these types of problems requires strong explanatory and solutions message components.

Explanations of how a situation works and how a given intervention affects this process are highly effective tools in adding the all-important efficacy component. For the communicator, it is vital to keep in mind that effective messages tell stories and effective stories are about problems, but they are also about change over time via some action or intervention. We encourage communicators to harness the potential productivity of urgent messages by pairing them with clearly explained causal mechanisms and appropriately scoped solutions.

In sum, the recommendation that emerges from Slovic’s work is not that advocates working on systems change need to tell individual stories, but rather that they must challenge themselves to create stories in which the scope of problem aligns with a similarly-sized solution. The study and it’s finding are more complex than, “tell individual stories; don’t tell population or systems ones.” If we’re after systems change, what we need to do is tell better systems stories. And if we do this well, we may indeed find, as FrameWorks has, that they generate both political will and donations.

Occupy: Flash Mob Politics or Social Movement?


One of the most interesting and entertaining phenomena of this political season is the so-called “Occupy” trend. Started a few weeks ago by a group generally referred to as Occupy Wall Street, people have been gathering at city halls, corporate headquarters, and other institutions of power across the United States to protest a wide range of social and economic ills.
Journalists, pundits, celebrities, and politicians have been offering their views on these gatherings. Some, such as Rep. Eric Cantor, have criticized them for inciting Americans to turn against Americans. Others, like LA Mayor Antonio Villaragoisa have issued statements of support for the Occupy participants. Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain says the participants need to quit complaining about corporations and take individual responsibility for their employment status. Even President Obama has recognized Occupy as representing the sentiments of many Americans.
What everyone wants to know, it seems, is what is this all about? Do these gatherings represent anything significant or are they simply the shenanigans of the idle unemployed.
One way to think of this is what I call flash mob politics. As anyone under 30 knows, a flash mob is a group of people who assemble in a public place and act out some random performance. The “mobs” are organized by social media and other forms of electronic communication (email, Facebook, Foursquare, etc.) but with little or no apparent leadership. The first flash mob started in 2003 at Macy’s in Manhattan when a group of about 70 people gathered around the rug department with the ostensible purpose of shopping for a communal “love rug”.
Occupy certainly shares some of the elements of a flash mob – they assemble suddenly in public spaces, they utilize information technology to organize, and the gatherings often have a performative aspect to them (e.g., people sing, dance, chant, drum). Where Occupy differs, however, is that it has vaguely political undertones. In many instances the target of their wrath is corporate greed; other times it is the plight of the under/unemployed; sometimes the focus is on a specific issue like climate change, the Afghan war, or medical marijuana; and in yet other cases it is all of the above and more.
As a vehicle for long-term social and political change, however, flash mob politics has severe limitations. In other words, social networking and coordination may not be enough to produce significant changes in society. For instance, how long can Occupy maintain its activities without material resources? Likewise, Occupy will ultimately have to develop a core narrative that explains its preferred policy and action agenda. Finally, it is hard to imagine that Occupy will be able to sustain its efforts without a leadership structure and a “face” of the group.
What American history has shown is that a social movement is the type of group action that can lead to significant change. Perhaps the biggest difference between social movements and flash mobs is that social movements focus on a specific goal and issue area. Although they share some things with flash mob politics – informality, diffused communications channels, and a list of strains and grievances – they pay much more attention to the identification of resources, continuous leadership, and strategic political opportunities all wrapped into a core narrative structure.
An example of a potent social movement is the modern civil rights movement (1950-73). Its narrative was about America living up to its fundamental values; it had resources and a strong leadership structure through the black church and civil rights organizations like the SCLC, the NAACP, CORE, SNCC and even the black Panthers (I would remiss at this point if I did not recognize the passing of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth – a key and unsung hero of the Movement); it had charismatic leaders (e.g., Martin Luther King, A. Phillip Randolph, Ella Baker); and it was able to take advantage of a number of significant political opportunities (e.g., black voting power; general economic prosperity; shifting party politics, and international freedom movements).
To this point, flash mob politics is not a social movement. To be sure, increasing numbers of Americans are experiencing the type of anomie or social dislocation that is often present when social movements arise. However, for the flash mob model to become a social movement it must develop a clear core story of social change. And it has to be something more than generalized discontent or a hodgepodge of grievances. It has to put forward a value proposition outlining what is at stake; it has to identify what the target problem is; and it has to forward a set of actionable remedies. Resources, leadership, and strategy then follow. Then, and only then, is significant change possible.

Framer Reads the News: Complicating Issues of Budgets and Taxes

FrameWorks senior researcher Eric Lindland recently stumbled upon this advertisement in a local DC newspaper.

What’s the problem we want to solve?
The imminent destruction of the planet.

  • As strategic framers, we know that using crisis to get the public interested in your issue will generally backfire. Crisis as a frame can encourage a sense of helplessness. In FrameWorks’ research on Budgets and Taxes, we found that the value of Prevention, on the other hand, was effective in moving policy support. Prevention allows people to see that by making responsible budgets, and paying into the system now, we can head off future problems.

What’s the solution?

You giving more money than you are now.

  • By putting the burden of problem and solution on the individual, and more specifically, in their wallets, we allow people to default to consumerist ways of thinking. Our research shows that using the household budget as an analogy for federal and state budgets is not generally successful. Instead, we recommend that framers use the simplifying model of Forward Exchange, which communicates our shared responsibility in budgeting for the public goods that we’re going to need in the future. This helps people to consider the larger systems that we all rely upon and pay into for future use.

What’s the directive?

Cut budgets now.

  • If you’re going to make a conditional statement, it’s best to make sure you are clear about what the conditions are! The authors of this piece have missed a huge opportunity to help readers have a better understanding of the causes and consequences of budgeting for their issues, which range from global hunger to poverty, climate change, conservation, and disaster relief.

For more information about FrameWorks’ research on Budgets and Taxes, please click here.