Report: Working with our Cultural Values

* Report: Common Cause. The Case for Working with our Cultural Values. by Tom Crompton. By WWF-UK et al., September 2010


An understanding of values must be incorporated into civil society campaigns

As discussed, on the one hand, simply conveying information about bigger-than-self problems is likely to leave many people unmoved – or perhaps even more resistant to change. On the other hand, appeals to values that are in opposition to the emergence of widespread concern about bigger-than-self problems are likely to contribute to further strengthening these values culturally. What alternative response might be developed?

This report builds the case that bigger-than-self problems will only be systemically addressed through the conjunction of:

• An understanding of the effect of cultural values upon people’s motivation to change their own behaviour or to demand change from political and business leaders.

• An understanding of the range of factors that activate and strengthen some values rather than others.

• Widespread public debate about the ways in which government, business and civil society organisations serve to strengthen particular values through their communications, campaigns and policies.”

Frames offer a vehicle for promoting values

“This report then brings two streams of research alongside one another:

i) studies in social psychology and sociology which examine the importance of particular values in motivating concern about bigger-than-self problems (that is, the work discussed in the section above); and ii) research on the importance of ‘frames’ as vehicles for working to activate and strengthen helpful values [See Section 3].

Frames are of key importance in thinking about values and how these are activated and strengthened culturally. [Section 3.1 introduces frames.]

“Frames”, writes the cognitive scientist George Lakoff, “are the mental structures that allow human beings to understand reality – and sometimes to create what we take to be reality. [T]hey structure our ideas and concepts, they shape how we reason, and they even impact how we perceive and how we act.”

Some cognitive scientists use the term ‘deep frames’ to refer to cognitive structures held in long-term memory that contain particular values. They tend to be relatively stable but they are not unchanging or unchangeable.

Work on framing is often misunderstood: it is sometimes assumed that framing is just about ‘getting the message right’ – as though a particular choice of language can motivate us, en masse, to want to embrace a particular worldview.

‘The message’ is of course important in activating particular frames, but it is only the beginning [Section 3.2] . Conceptual framing (crafting wording and phrasing to focus on particular issues) will not have an effect unless these messages resonate with a set of deep frames.

So there’s an important distinction between processes that lead to the activation of frames, and processes that help to strengthen frames (that is, make frames more easily activated).

[This distinction is discussed in the context of values in Section 2.5, and in the context of frames in Section 4.3.]

‘Activation’ refers to the process of eliciting particular frames. Once culturally established, a deep frame can be activated very easily through the use of just a few words (for example, the phrases ‘War on Terror’ or ‘tax relief’ activate deep frames relating to a whole understanding of security or the proper role of government, respectively). What is of particular interest is how deep frames are strengthened – that is, how a deep frame comes to be more easily activated through the use of simple cues. Crucially, activation of a frame through use of particular language is an important way of helping to strengthen it – repeatedly activating a frame has the effect of making it easier to activate.

But language doesn’t stand alone. It is part and parcel of the institutions and policies that we live with and interact with. Deep frames (and therefore the values that these embody) are activated and strengthened through many aspects of our lived experience – including our experience of living with particular public policies and social institutions.

There is a mutual process by which public policies and social institutions shape our deep frames, which in turn shape our policies and institutions. For example, interacting with particular policies or social institutions such as the electoral system, aid agencies, planning policy, or the national health service, has an effect upon which deep frames come to dominate. Research on policy feedback reveals that – perhaps unsurprisingly – public policy has an impact in shaping dominant public values, which in turn impacts on public support for new policies [Section 3.2] .

Deploying an understanding of frames raises profound ethical issues

The power of deep frames to promote particular values-based agendas is well known. It is something to which many political interest groups have responded. For example, George Lakoff argues that American neo-conservatives have assiduously set about establishing “their deepest values into the brains of tens of millions of Americans”, by working to strengthen deep frames consistent with their politics. There is some evidence for similar effects in a UK political context [Section 3.2], though not in an analogous party-political way.

An understanding of deep frames can be hugely powerful to political strategists attempting to build public support for their programmes. Unfortunately, the way in which this understanding is deployed is not always transparent, and this lack of transparency may be seen to serve the interests of those designing these programmes: while deep frames provide a set of extremely powerful tools, working with them can be seen as manipulative – and it is undoubtedly the case that this perception is sometimes justified.

But that is not to suggest that framing can be exposed and then ignored – any more than an understanding of the importance of values in motivating public concern about bigger-than-self problems can be ignored. We think, inescapably, in terms of frames, and any communication therefore necessarily conveys a set of frames – whether it does so deliberately or inadvertently. In the same way, any public policy creates expectations on the part of a citizen – an understanding about their role and that of government, for example – and this, too, serves to activate and strengthen particular deep frames. There is no such thing as value-neutral policy.

So deep frames won’t go away – they structure our thinking, and will probably continue to be deployed by political interest groups of all political persuasions. How, therefore, should civil society organisations respond to an understanding of the importance of deep frames?

Two responses are needed:

• Civil society organisations should champion public scrutiny of, and debate about, the role of deep frames in activating and strengthening particular values culturally, and the consequences of this.

• Employing utmost transparency, civil society organisations should deploy an understanding of deep frames in their own public-interest communications and campaigns, thus helping to strengthen values that will leave society better positioned to tackle bigger-than-self problems. In doing so, these organisations should take scrupulous care to explain to their audience what deep frames a communication or campaign is intended to activate (and therefore strengthen), and why this is important.

Examples of frames that may be important in tackling bigger-than-self problems

In this report, three pairs of deep frames [Section 3.5] are presented that seem likely to be of significance in influencing the cultural importance accorded to the helpful values discussed earlier. Each example was developed by drawing, in part, on the specific survey items used to establish these values [these survey items are presented in detail in Appendix 2] .

In time, important frames will need to be identified and validated through empirical methods.”

* The Three Frames

These three pairs of frames are summarised as follows:

Self-interest’ versus ‘common-interest’ frame

According to the self-interest frame, individuals inevitably and properly pursue their own self-interest, and this interest is to be assessed primarily through individual cost-benefit calculations conducted in economic terms.

There is an analogy between the individual and the nation-state. Nation states will inevitably, and rightly, operate in their own economic self-interest and there is no scope for the morality of shared wealth in international relations. International alliances are therefore inherently unstable, and will begin to break down as soon as the national interests of individual states begin to diverge.

In contrast, the common-interest frame views individuals as inherently concerned about both themselves and others, and the value that they place on these things cannot be fully captured in economic terms. People, other living things and nature have an inherent value that is irreducible to economic value. Freedom is to be assessed through the extent to which people are unconstrained in developing as human beings in the manner they desire. Individual nation states are part of an international community with many shared dependencies and responsibilities.

Note that these two frames include two dimensions that are conceptually distinct, but which are very closely associated psychologically: the extent to which people value common interest above self-interest, and the extent to which such interests are to be assessed in economic terms. Of course, conceptually, it’s perfectly possible to value common interest and to assess this interest economically. But for psychological reasons [discussed in Section 3.5.1] a deep frame that conveys the importance of self-interest is also likely to establish the importance of assessing this interest in economic terms.

‘Strict father’ versus ‘nurturant parent’ frame

George Lakoff suggests that there is a direct correspondence between models of family and models of a nation. In particular, he highlights two different ideals for the family – the strict father and the nurturant parent family, and he suggests that these two different models produce deeply contrasting views on individual freedom and the role of government. These two concepts are of course key in Western society, and comprise important frames in relation to action on bigger-than-self problems.

The strict father frame emphasises the role of government in exercising authority and control, of establishing moral order, commanding obedience, and punishing dissent. It views social support for people who are less fortunate as morally dubious, because people’s misfortunes arise as a result of their own lack of discipline and morality. By comparison, the nurturant parent frame stresses the role of government in ensuring social justice (built upon empathy for everyone) and responsibility towards others.

Although these frames were developed as a result of analysis of the deeply partisan American political context, it is nonetheless important to explore them in a UK context: the strict father frame is still of great importance in UK political thought.

These frames underscore the importance of conceptual metaphors for understanding political visions. Conceptual metaphors project a frame that we know well (for example, ‘family’ or ‘battle’) on to something more contested (‘the nation’ or one’s career trajectory) [Section 3.3]). Adaptation of these frames to a UK political context would necessarily be less partisan – for example, elements of progressive thinking from both left and right are found in variants of the nurturant parent frames.

‘Elite governance’ versus ‘participative democracy’ frame

“The elite governance frame holds that political power is properly consolidated in the hands of elites. People cannot be trusted to solve their own problems through deliberative means: strong leaders must take control and act on their behalf. It is important to note that this frame is quite powerful among some sections of the environment movement – with some environmentalists openly questioning whether democracy can respond to environmental problems with sufficient speed.

In contrast, according to the participative democracy frame, citizens hold political power, and should exert their influence through effective organisation. The government is of the people, by the people, and for the people – the question becomes one of how to make citizen participation in democratic process more effective.”

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