No cause is an island

November 10, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedSome issues need focusing on in a broader, deeper way that regular news reporting or even a colourful feature can allow. Our Talkback section in the centre of the paper give space to some of the key philsophical and ethical debates within Transition and other progressive movements. Our main TB pieces have looked at a wide range of subjects: from finance (Brett Scott), to supermarkets (Adrienne Campbell) to land rights (Shaun Chamberlin). In the present issue Tom Crompton, author of Common Cause, discusses how strenthening intrinsic values can determine our willingness as a people to change.

As we wring our hands at inaction on a national food security strategy, climate change or biodiversity protection, it’s easy to focus on the timidity of key decision makers in business and government.

From the outset the Transition movement has recognised that decision-makers are crucially constrained in what they can achieve, and that no amount of clever policy analysis or inside-track lobbying can change this. It is understood that fundamental constraints on meaningful action are imposed by lack of public acceptance – not to mention demand – for ambitious change. Public orientation toward change is viewed as the solution, not the problem – and to be far-thinking public support needs to be built for policies that would today spell electoral suicide.

These are important responses to the problems that beset much mainstream environmental campaigning. Here I will suggest that a good starting point for going further is to understand cultural values and how these are shaped.

Social psychologists affirm what many of us grasp intuitively – that our values lead us to express concern about other people, future generations, or other living things. Our values, it seems, are important determinants – perhaps the most important determinants – in motivating public expressions of concern about social and environmental challenges.

We are almost all at times concerned about what psychologists call extrinsic values – money; social status; public image; authority. At other times, almost all of us prioritise what psychologists call intrinsic values. These are values associated with greater concern about social and environmental problems. They include values of connection to family, friends and community; appreciation of beauty; broadmindedness; social justice; environmental protection; equality; helpfulness. In motivating expressions of concern about social and environmental issues, the balance that we strike between these two sets of values (both individually and collectively) is of crucial importance.

As can be easily seen, it’s difficult to prioritise extrinsic and intrinsic values at the same time. It’s difficult to be concerned about making money while also being concerned about community. Indeed, one important study has found that ‘community feeling’ is almost perfectly opposed to ‘financial success’. This isn’t to say that it is impossible to hold ‘community feeling’ and ‘financial success’ to be of importance at the same time – but it’s going to be difficult.

So we can see that values aren’t prioritised independently of one another. Indeed, it seems that they are held in dynamic relationships. Here are three important principles that have been found to govern these relationships:

“Exercising a value tends to strengthen it in a more durable way”

Firstly, exercising one value within a group (for example, broadmindedness) is found to increase the importance that a person places on other values within that group (for instance, social justice). Asking people to think briefly about broadmindedness leads to increased concern about climate change. Why? Well, it seems that engaging this value leads people to place greater importance on other intrinsic values, such as social justice or environmental protection, which are more obviously associated with concern about climate change.

Secondly, exercising an extrinsic value tends to suppress the importance that a person places on intrinsic values, and vice versa. This has been called the ‘see-saw’ effect. So, for example, drawing a person’s attention to the importance of money (an extrinsic value) is found to reduce the likelihood that they will help someone in need, or donate to a charity (behaviours associated with intrinsic values).

Thirdly, repeatedly exercising a value tends to strengthen it in a more durable way – much like a muscle. Repeatedly reminding a person of the importance of image or social status is likely to lead that person to draw upon this value more often in making decisions in many areas of life, and to place less importance on social and environmental concerns.

These principles have important implications for any approach aimed at helping to build public concern about social and environmental issues – with a view to bringing more public pressure to bear on business or government leaders.

For example, an understanding of values highlights the dangers of appealing to extrinsic values in order to motivate environmentally-friendly behaviour. Marketers (indifferent to the wider social and environmental impacts) use extrinsic values like social status to help sell cars or to encourage us to shop conspicuously. But many social marketers also advocate the use of such extrinsic appeals to drive environmentally-friendly behaviour. This is despite studies repeatedly showing that these tactics are likely to backfire: engaging extrinsic values tends to erode wider environmental concern.

Another important implication of an understanding of values is this: values connect causes. It has been found that drawing people’s attention to the financial value of biodiversity (that is, presenting conservation in connection with extrinsic values) leads people to say that they would be less inclined to join a public meeting or write to their MP in support of work on rights for disabled people. Conversely, drawing people’s attention to the beauty and inherent value of nature strengthens their intention to take civic action in support of disability rights.

“Engaging extrinsic values tends to erode wider environmental concern”

This is very important. In fact it presents a fundamental challenge to the way in which the charity sector is currently structured around ‘causes’. Too often, charities themselves work to isolate these causes – because it works in building a constituency of public supporters. Fundraisers call this ‘positioning’. The problem is that the narrow focus on specific issues that this encourages tends to blind-side charities to the wider effects of their communications and campaigns. These communications will affect both public concern about other causes, and more general public appetite to demand change.

If we are serious about building irresistible public demand for ambitious policy change, the implications seem clear: we should always prefer to communicate about issues in ways that connect with intrinsic values; we should avoid communicating in ways that connect with extrinsic values; we should recognise the crucial importance of beginning to achieve coherence in this across ‘causes’. No cause is an island: it is the values we use to communicate which are more important in shaping public appetite for action on a wider range of different social and environmental issues than the particular causes upon which we focus.

An understanding of values, therefore, points to the importance of not getting hung up on the issues (energy insecurity or climate change, for example). Rather, any group working for social change would do well to free itself from a narrow issues-focus and ask in more free-ranging terms: “What are the issues that matter most to the people whom we most need to engage?” and then, crucially, “How do we campaign and communicate on these more resonant issues in a way that connects with intrinsic values?”

Relying upon intrinsic values to make the unconscious links is likely to prove to be a far more effective way of engaging many people on the issues that are closest to your heart, than by campaigning on those issues directly.

Tom Crompton works for WWF-UK and with children’s and disability charities. He is the author of Weathercocks and Signposts: The Environment Movement at a Crossroads (WWF, 2008) and Common Cause: The Case for Working with Our Cultural Values (COIN, CPRE, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam & WWF, 2010).

Tom Crompton

Tom has worked for nearly a decade with some of the UK’s best known charities – including NSPCC, Oxfam, Scope and WWF – on values and social change. He has advised the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments on cultural values, and has collaborated with some of the world’s foremost academics working in this area. He has published extensively in this field, including the reports Weathercocks and Signposts: The... Read more.

Tags: environmental messaging, policy, social movements