Working in the not for profit sector can be mighty rewarding, but it can also be frustrating at times. Don’t know about you but for me a time of major frustration is after toiling away to promote your Cause you find that others, groups or communities just don’t seemed to be as engaged as you are.
Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes focuses on this same issue in his book, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming. Stoknes is an environmental activist who has noted that Americans are actually less concerned now about the climate than they were in 1999, despite the mountain of new studies highlighting the threat. It seems to Stoknes that more and more facts are being thrown at people, but most still aren’t taking action based on those facts—and he seeks to explain why.
In answering his own question, Stoknes concluded that rational argument just doesn’t work anymore in getting people to embrace a Cause. This is because the messaging often ignores five fundamental truths about human behaviour and he proposes a number of strategies to deal with these.
While Stoknes focuses exclusively on climate change, as you can see, each of his strategies are applicable to any Cause.
1. Make it feel personal, urgent, and local
To Stoknes we have a habit of presenting Causes as largely dealing with abstract problems that don’t happen in our community. So we present images of people being treated like flotsam in the Mediterranean, polar bears standing on ever shrinking pieces of ice or Pacific Islanders watching water lap their front doors. Graphic images yes, but the problem is that people naturally give little weight to distant problems, or those that haven’t affected their immediate social circle. I must admit, I didn’t do a test for Bowel Cancer until a friend of the same age with diagnosed with the disease!
2. Be positive.
While the facts may support it, warnings of apocalyptic doom, simply lead people to tune out. This is because we instinctively avoid stories about loss. Also attempts at making people feel guilty only serve to make them feel helpless or despairing.
As an alternative, Stoknes advocates that we talk about solutions, opportunity and a readiness to act.
3. Provide people with a way to contribute
It’s easy for people to rationalise non-action – we have all done it. My $10 donation will make no difference to this organisation or by throwing my recycling in with the general waste this week will have no impact on the planet. Stoknes talks about the problem of cognitive dissonance—if we’re not acting in a Cause supporting way, we tend to automatically adjust our beliefs to justify our behaviour.
The trick here is to establish transparent ways where people can genuinely feel that they are contributing to a Cause, no matter how small.
4. Reduce polarisation
This may not be an issue with many Causes but the supporters of some have allowed the view to develop that “if you ain’t for us you must be against us”. To Stoknes this is highly counter-productive to any Cause. As he says, arguing with a denier will probably only drive them harder into their position. “Resist the temptation to move to a ‘holier than thou’ stance, or throw a tantrum over the ‘idiots’ on the other side, even if the outspoken denialists and trolls ‘deserve’ it,” he says. Rather than fighting, he suggests empathy and talking about “resistance” to a particular position —which he sees as a natural psychological reaction—rather than “denial.”
“I, too, can feel resistance, if I really take in the full implications of global warming,” he says. “After all, the climate facts are threatening, apocalyptic, and overwhelming to our ego-consciousness. It awakens our inner resistance. Taking them seriously means considerable changes in our outlook and lifestyle. We should respect the pain of deep transformation, in ourselves and others.”
5. Use the power of social networks.
The famous Asch conformity experiments of the early ’50s showed us just how powerful peer pressure and social networks can be in influencing attitudes and behaviour. What this tells us is that we need to frame information in such a way as to suggest people in a community are out of step with their friends if the don’t support your Cause. For example, 85% of people in town give to the local hospital. Always talk about the people who are getting it right – don’t demonize those who are ignoring you. At the end of the day we humans want to be like those around us.
And remember when communicating about our Causes that we are talking to people and we are hardwired to respond in a particular way.
By Chris Gandy – Chris is the Founder and Principal of Cause & Effective.