In this movement, there’s no simple solution

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By: Elaine Mejia

Over the past few months, we have heard from partners around the country about an exciting new development in research on advocacy and changing people’s minds. They all cited a recent episode of This American Life about research from UCLA in which voters who oppose gay marriage were convinced to support legalizing gay marriage simply by having a respectful one-on-one dialogue with an openly gay canvasser. And amazingly, the voters’ new opinions persisted up to a year after that first conversation with the canvasser.

This story came up several times during a recent workshop Public Works led in California for advocates working to reduce hunger and food insecurity. The workshop participants felt this new information was transformative – “Do we just need to send people door-to-door who are the ones experiencing food insecurity and forget about these other strategies?” It was a legitimate question, supposedly grounded in new, compelling research.

This flew in the face of decades of research conducted by well-known communications outlets like Topos and the FrameWorks Institute. So we at Public Works weren’t entirely shocked when it was later revealed that the research featured in the This American Life report was fabricated. This game-changing study just wasn’t true. (It is a sad but actually fascinating story.)

We understand. It was an enticing idea. It was easier to grasp than the subtleties needed to develop communications that, for example, explain the shortcomings of a government program while not undermining confidence in the government agency that administers the program. But, the reality about personal stories is, as Topos explains in this document, “Close-up portraits of individuals are a type of story that, when treated as a main focus of communications, almost always works against building support for progressive policy change.”

So what strategies really do work when you want to change someone’s mind? Decades of research, primarily from political campaigns, finds that your best bet is to deliver your message through someone who is closely related in a demographic sense to the person you’re targeting. So if your target demographic for a canvassing event is conservative, white men in their 50s, then send people who fit that description but who are on your side (and arm them with a good script, of course).

Certainly, creating spaces in which Americans are able to have meaningful interactions with people they perceive as not like them is worth doing. In fact we should all be concerned about the decrease of such spaces and the long-term forces that are fraying our society, such as resegregation of schools, the gross lack of affordable housing in many communities, and so on.

But at best, bringing people with different perspectives is only one ingredient in a winning formula. Sadly, each of us has an endless and troubling ability to dismiss a story if it doesn’t fit a frame we already hold. Instead, we find ways to pick apart the messenger: What choices did the hungry person make that led them down that path? Was the person born gay? The same phenomenon holds true when the message is facts and statistics rather than personal stories – when data are presented without a frame the listener relates to, they do nothing to change thinking. Rather, the listener may question the integrity of the messenger or, worse still, hold even more firmly to their previously held beliefs.

Social movements take time—perhaps less time if they incorporate best practices and learn as they go along. But even then, changing attitudes and behaviors is a long process. Social movements need to use multiple approaches, including on-the-ground organizers and research that documents the problems and confirms the viability of solutions. They need ways to get that information into the hands of policymakers (i.e., good lobbyists). And they need strategic communications approaches that work and can penetrate and change the culture in lasting ways.

Yes, it would be great if one easy-to-understand strategy—like door-to-door conversations with people experiencing the problem you’re trying to address—were the answer. It would require many hours and many canvassers, but at least it was a clear, understandable path toward change.

The trainings we provide at Public Works are not so straightforward. Implementing our strategies—which are backed by decades of legitimate science—often requires a change in thinking by you, the activist or organizer, and a significant shift in how you communicate with your supporters and the public. But these strategies are proven to move the needle when it comes to changing minds.

Please check out our resources on the Public Works, and remember that we’re here to help you implement them.

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