Building the case for working with cultural values

I have previously made brief reference to the recently published World Wildlife Fund supported report Common Cause. This report is very important as it seeks to make the case for utilising cultural values in understanding public policy challenges.

I appreciate some of the following issues might be a little arcane, but I seriously recommend reading the report itself, this blog and the article by Chris Rose that I refer to later. The debate on the report will, I believe, also be very important as to how we view many forms of behaviour change in the future.

It is firstly worth setting out core points of the Common Cause report and then looking at how far it takes us forward in understanding the issue better and where alternative values based approaches might work better.

Common Cause – Understanding Cultural Values

The report argues we are facing global challenges that are “bigger-than-self” problems. It concentrates on the example of climate change, which might not impact on most of us at a direct personal level but is nevertheless a longer-term challenge to wider society. The report also rightly recognises that our ‘Enlightenment model’ of rational human decision-making in the light of scientific study, fails to take account of the fundamental role of emotions and that understanding values is important to this as they are driven by needs and emotions.

It identifies differences between “intrinsic” values that much more easily respond to “bigger than self” problems and “extrinsic” values that relate to perceptions of others, material wealth and power. It thus argues for strengthening intrinsic values in society, so that “bigger than self” issues such as climate change are more seriously considered. In order to achieve this it suggests the use of “frames” which it describes as the mental structures that allow humans to understand reality. It recommends encouraging the use of a number of particular frames of thought to communicate specific messages in order to enhance intrinsic values, which are set out here:

  • Common interest as opposed to self-interest
  • Nurturant parent as opposed to strict father
  • Participative democracy as opposed to Elite Government

In terms of practical use, it makes the following recommendations:

  • Organisations should develop an awareness of values
  • They should transparently acknowledge they are promoting certain values
  • Even unsuccessful campaigns can have an impact if they use the right frames effectively
  • The potential for collaboration across a range of policy issues if frames are used consistently by a range of organisations
  • Organisations should recognise the impact of direct experience of public policies on people’s values
  • Campaigns may serve to inadvertently strengthen  unhelpful frames. In this case it is critical of those seeking to address extrinsic values though marketing communications that for example might promote “green consumerism”. This last point will be addressed in more detail below.

The report has been welcomed by organisations like the RSA, however it is clear even from their comments regarding the existence of intrinsic values during the last World War, which are surely survival and safety motivations and values, that many people are still unclear as to what is meant by intrinsic and extrinsic values and particularly how they have evolved over the last 40-50 years. We would argue that values based segmentation is more complex than that.

Using Values even more effectively

The authors of Common Cause recognise in their Foreword on page 6 that it is clearly a “work in progress”. The report is absolutely right to raise the importance of using values and then utilising frames to communicate values laden messages. It is, however, far too trapped by its own deeply held intrinsic values to recognise that in order to achieve a wide distribution  of the values it favours, people and society are very likely to often hold extrinsic values first.

The World Values Survey shows how these cultural values have evolved over the years. If one recognises this is a vast dynamic evolving process impacted by many resource and contextual factors, trying to “convert” people through frames into holding intrinsic values can then be seen as a very difficult thing to achieve in any sensible timescale. The report also raises a whole range of ethical issues in this field. Who decides it is right for authors and their supporters to “impose” their values on something that is likely to evolve anyway through numerous forms of interaction including people’s own social networks as well as the impact of NGO campaigns. It also seems to be rather unfocused in strategic terms since it then faces the vast logistical challenge of the need to “convert” a lot of people!

Others with substantial expertise working in this field share similar views to us on this. The noted environmental campaigner Chris Rose, has just published this critique of Common Cause, which we strongly concur with. Chris is an expert in the field of values based campaigning and communicating and makes the point that there is a vast difficulty in starting change by changing values; rather than seeking to work with the grain of existing values and communicate and create behaviour that resonates with each values set. In order to do this one needs to conduct deep insight using a clear segmentation system with effective and clear metrics that the Common Cause typology currently lacks, but which does already exist as a result of the 37 years of data collection for the British Values Survey.

Building on some of Chris Rose’s arguments what might be a more effective use of values in tackling issues within public policy? Here are a few pointers:

  • Understand the full range of values. Common Cause lumps together Extrinsic and Safety values and thus does not recognise that people have a wider range of needs to be satisfied than is actually expressed in their report.
  • Winning broad support requires effective segmentation in order to win support across all values sets. Common Cause does not have clear metrics across all values sets.
  • Understand and Focus on the needs – when a need is met it gets overtaken by new needs. It is needs and the emotions associated with them that drive the development of values. Addressing needs is much more likely to work compared to the various forms of “Reflexivity” that Common Cause and even the RSA’s behaviour change publication Steer tend towards advocating. The danger with these latter approaches to change is that we simply end up with intrinsically motivated people talking to other intrinsically motivated people as they are most likely to be reflective on these intrinsic conceptual “bigger than self” issues. Tackling people’s needs also often requires collective action by public bodies that is likely to be beyond the resources of campaigning NGO’s.
  • Sell the action required not the problem. A problem such as climate change may well be too conceptual for those focused currently on satisfying extrinsic or safety needs. Actions are much more likely to be made easily tangible and closer to home, whereas “bigger than self” problems are often intangible and a long way away from people’s daily lives.
  • Change outcomes in order to lead opinion, rather than change minds at the level of deeper attitudes and beliefs. This requires the use of other tangibles like technology and market which are more likely to be “believed” by those with extrinsic and safety needs than conceptual universalism embodied in intrinsic values. Utilising these tangibles in green terms may then create short bursts of cognitive dissonance, which is corrected when opinion finally follows the newly adopted behaviour.

Whilst Common Cause is a significant advance, there is a potential danger it will lead us partly into a cul-de-sac and demobilise campaigners for change. What happens when people with different values still choose to ignore the conceptual “bigger than self” frames the report recommends? This is not to say people should not seek to encourage intrinsic values. As someone who holds them myself, I generally share the view that it is good for more people to hold them, as society will then be more like the one I would like it to be. However, compared to the authors of Common Cause, I am also “mindful” of other values and recognise my values would not be in the increasingly prevalent position they are but for the many who built our society over the years mainly with different values to myself. I also recognise those other values are still strongly represented in society as well. Pat Dade of Cultural Dynamics, a long-standing practitioner in the use of values based segmentation has also has raised the issue of “mindfulness” saying that one of the problems with the report it that it: “is based on the “unawareness” of the authors of their own values set  and the unconscious assumption that their “viewpoint” is the “right viewpoint” – the very thing we try so hard to be aware of and beware of!” Thus we do need to recognise, as Chris Rose indicates the difference within our strategies between our own long-term support for changing values to be in line with our own values and shorter term actions required to change behaviour.

Nevertheless, as well as a good basis for a debate, what Common Cause could enable NGO’s to do, is to even more effectively communicate to people who already hold intrinsic values and get them to do even more on “bigger than self issues”, such as responding to climate change. There is nothing wrong with that. However, we must be realistic that it will do little to address the current needs, emotions, motivations and values of the 60% of the UK population who do not primarily hold intrinsically motivated values.

We therefore think this is an important document and a very important debate and we will return to explore the elements within Common Cause in more detail in coming weeks. Despite some of the disagreements set out here, I am sure all those taking part in the debate would agree that the first step is clearly mainstreaming a values based approach, which Common Cause is a good first attempt. However in taking this mainstreaming forward I hope the debate concentrates on the need to ensure that we use values based communication more effectively.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company.

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5 Responses to “Building the case for working with cultural values”

  1. Measuring identity through people’s values « The Campaign Company’s Blog Says:

    […] This report is therefore very useful in taking us forward in understanding how communities react to change as well as their willingness to change behaviour. It thus complements the recent World Wildlife Fund Common Cause report which addresses both values and identity in the context of the challenge of climate change, and which I have written about in some detail here. […]

  2. The state of Public Involvement in the Big Society era « The Campaign Company’s Blog Says:

    […] “There was perhaps a similar sense of one-dimensional outlook when it came to the recent World Wildlife Fund Common Cause report which addresses both values and identity in the context of the challenge of climate change, and which has been previously covered in some detail in this blog. […]

  3. The Guardian reports on the increasing relevance of Values Segmentation « The Campaign Company’s Blog Says:

    […] also referred to the WWF Common Cause Values research in an article in October 2010, which I have reviewed here and which shows the interesting debates within the Values research […]

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