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.