Cultivating Humanity

by Tim Holmes

Tim Holmes investigates recent psychological research that has the potential to create a quiet revolution in the way that civil society organisations and activists operate.

First published: 12 February, 2011 | Category: Activism, Environment, Philosophy and Theory, Vision/Strategy

A couple of months ago, in early December – the same day students and others were gathering in Parliament Square to defend the idea of an education system to serve the common good – upwards of a hundred members and campaigners from a whole range of environmental and development NGOs met in a venue in central London to hear about and talk through a new direction for civil society groups. The agenda they were discussing has grown largely out of the work of environmental groups (though increasingly also of development groups), and so much of its focus has been on environmental issues. It has also as yet made few waves in the public arena. Yet it has the potential to quietly lay the seeds of a revolution in a whole range of groups’ way of operating, their relationship with the wider public, and even in the fundamentals of how they conceive of themselves.

The day was billed as a discussion of Common Cause – a recent report by Tom Crompton of the WWF, which has grown out of the organisation’s Strategies for Change programme. The report lays out perhaps as strongly as has yet been done a body of recent psychological research, and the proposals for a new and potentially transformative way of operating it has prompted. Some of the key insights motivating this agenda were strikingly illustrated by Professors Tim Kasser, Greg Maio and Paul Chilton at the event. They can broadly be summarised as follows.

• The limits to rationality

Humans’ response to reasoned argument and factual information is by no means as straightforwardly rational or empirical as some versions of the “Enlightenment model” of human nature suggest. As psychologist Drew Westen has pointed out in his own research – popularised in The Political Brain – human thought is subject to significant emotional as well as “cognitive” (rational or evidence-based) constraints. Even relatively strong “cognitive” constraints can be overwhelmed by emotional responses when information or argument is perceived as fundamentally threatening. In the case of problems like climate change, this potentially poses a very serious problem, since people’s whole identities and lifestyles will often be rooted in institutions and social norms that represent fundamental barriers to change.

• Some core values are better than others

Psychological research has since mapped a wide range of human values – roughly equivalent to life-goals or things held to be important in life – across cultures and nations. Each of these values seems to be present in all of us to a greater or lesser extent, and each may become dominant or suppressed according to the situation we happen to be in. The research consistently finds that certain types of “values” tend to cluster with “like” values and oppose others. They can thus be arranged in a circle – in reality just a kind of graph of research results – called a “circumplex”:


The closer the values on the circumplex, the more often they seem to occur strongly together; the further, the less strongly.

The broad definition of each value can be summarised as follows.

Self-transcendent values encompass:

- “universalism” (concern for the natural world and the wider human community); and
- “benevolence” (concern for the welfare of close others: friends, family, community etc).

Self-enhancement values encompass:

- “power” (concern with “social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources”) and
- “achievement” (concern with success through demonstrating ability, according to socially accepted standards).

Falling between self-enhancement and openness to change values is:

- “hedonism” (focused on the pursuit of sensual pleasure for oneself).

Openness to change values encompass:

- “self-direction” (focused on “independent thought and action”); and
- “stimulation” (focused on “excitement, novelty and challenge” in life).

Conservation values encompass:

- “security” (focused on the “safety, harmony, and stability” of self, relationships, and society);
- “conformity” (focused on self-restraint according to social norms); and
- “tradition” (focused on commitment to the customs and ideas of one’s culture or religion).

A particular set of values – which can broadly be categorised as “self-transcendent” and in particular “universalist” concerns – is consistently found to be associated with a propensity to engage in pro-environmental and humanitarian action. (Some similar positive effects are also related to “openness-to-change” values, and particularly “self-direction”.) People with a strong propensity for “universalism” tend, for instance, to care more about human rights and social justice, have lower ecological footprints, and undertake political and social action most consistently and with the most commitment. People “primed” with thoughts of this value in laboratory settings also display a tendency to engage in more pro-social, altruistic and pro-environmental behaviour.

• Values pull against their opposites and with their neighbours

Values can thus be “activated” by increasing their prominence in people’s minds. “Activating” particular values also tends to activate associated or “like” values, and – rather like different ends of a see-saw – to suppress dissimilar or opposing values. Bringing “self-enhancement” or (somewhat confusingly-titled) “conservation” values to consciousness thus temporarily suppresses our “self-transcendence” and “openness-to-change” values.

Extraordinarily – as Tim Kasser explained at the Common Cause event – a sample of American test subjects primed with ideas of national identity based on generosity, self-expression and family, for instance, were more likely to express support for pro-environmental policies than either a control sample or those primed with ideas of national identity based on material and status-based success (the least likely group of all). Thus people even express greater support for pro-environmental policies when primed with “like” values without any mention of the environment being made.

• Values are cultivated over time

Over time, the “activation” of particular values has the effect of cultivating and deepening them (and to a lesser extent their “likes”), and starving their opposites. So exposure to commercial television tends to foster more materialistic attitudes – though other forms of television, such as nature documentaries, have the effect of cultivating more pro-environmental attitudes. In another case, a longitudinal investigation of law students’ values suggested that this educational environment tends to foster greater materialism (and, as a consequence, lessened wellbeing). More broadly, values are cultivated by our social and cultural surroundings, families, peer groups, mass media and life experience in general.

What Governments do, and the institutions they create, also seem to play a role, through the widely-recognised mechanism of “policy feedback”. It was after the liberal reforms instituted in Britain in the 1960s were put in place, for instance, that they rapidly gained wider public assent, and it is likely that acceptance of the NHS has become embedded in the political consciousness of the nation in part through the public’s awareness and experience of it as an institution. An historical “paired experiment” examining this effect in the former East and West Germany in the decade-and-a-half following reunification found marked changes in the former (but not the latter) in attitudes towards Government-supported welfare and redistribution.

• Concessions to dominant values cost us more than we think

As a result of all of the above, appealing to people’s dominant, “materialistic” values in pursuit of short-term victories often achieves limited (if any) gains, and is likely to do long-term damage.

It is worth stressing that this approach is far from marginal at present, particularly among environmental groups. Some campaign strategists, for instance, have attempted to ape mainstream marketing techniques by applying demographic “segmentation” methods to the population, mapping their existing motivations – harmless enough (and even quite handy) in itself – to construct subsequent campaigns or political marketing vehicles designed to appeal to these motivations. Perhaps the dominant model is the “Values Modes” approach pioneered by Chris Rose – co-Director of Campaign Strategy Limited, former campaign strategist for Greenpeace, and currently a Board Member of the climate campaign 10:10. This aims to use appeals to broadly security- or esteem-based motivations (to save money or gain popularity, for instance) to achieve environmental goals.

While this approach may succeed in achieving the limited objectives it sets itself, it leaves itself wide open to the “rebound effect”: in the environmental sphere, frugal people may use the money they save themselves insulating their lofts on a cheap flight rather than a more expensive train journey, to take one small example. Rebound is no small risk given that materialistic attitudes have already been shown to correlate with generally higher consumption and ecological footprints.

More seriously, because every such appeal is likely to activate a particular set of values, and because activating values repeatedly over time reinforces them, over the long term this strategy is likely to entail significant “collateral damage”, doing more overall harm than good. To put it another way, “change your lightbulbs today, march on Parliament tomorrow” was never going to be a winning strategy.

But this objection also applies to campaigning on a much larger scale. When the Government’s Stern Review reported its conclusions on the various costs of climate change, environmental NGOs’ public communications emphasised the economic costs and benefits rather than the wider human and environmental costs. This was a specific strategic decision designed to ensure that climate mitigation was embedded in the mainstream of policy design and public discourse. Yet unfortunately, in this instance, by simply communicating in these terms, NGOs’ impact on public consciousness may have been self-defeating.

• Frames are fundamental to communication

In addition to the body of psychological research, this programme has also drawn attention to work in the field of cognitive linguistics into the importance of frames. Frames feature particularly prominently in another highly illuminating recent report – “Finding Frames”, from the development organisation Bond – that is rooted in the same agenda as Common Cause.

Some vagueness surrounds the “frame” concept, since it derives from several different intellectual traditions, and is often deployed to mean roughly the same as “metaphor”, “discourse” or “ideology”. Nevertheless, frames are broadly understood as mental constructs formed gradually through the accretion of discourse and experience, which later become embedded as mental “frames of reference” for interpreting and understanding later discourse and experience. They thus act upon, and are themselves acted upon by, external influences. Frames are not unchanging, then, and are sometimes scrapped and replaced; nevertheless they are – to a greater or lesser extent – rooted in our minds.

Many of the frames we possess may be mutually conflicting – but one or more of them, by being repeatedly invoked, can become reinforced over time. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff and others have written on the adeptness of the American right at deploying “frames” through linguistic turns that entrench its view of the world: referring to “tax burdens” addressed through “tax relief”, for instance. Other potent frames include conceiving of a country (or indeed the earth) as our “home” – and often, consequently, of a concomitant in-group as our “family”. Frames are in general triggered by linguistic or other cues that “place” us in particular contexts, and evoke certain types of response: as an economic or moral agent, for instance. Frames can thus be seen to embody and evoke values as well as worldviews or ways of understanding a situation.

The implications of this research for a range of groups are potentially significant and wide-ranging. Yet it also inevitably raises some serious questions for anyone working on social and environmental issues. A follow-up article will examine some of the most frequent queries surrounding this agenda; the scope of its implications for civil society groups; and some of the most imaginative and inspiring suggestions that have been fielded for turning the research into practical action.

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