Recent events in the United States and beyond have forced many of us to take a very careful look at our strategies and tactics when it comes to engaging people at scale. This kind of assessment is essential if we want to be effective. In fact, it’s key for any kind of meaningful innovation. However, are we going as far as we need to, when it comes to our assumptions about what we call “engagement” and “behavior change”? I argue the answer is no – and that this is one of the most critical areas in which we must get very clear if we are going to be effective in our world.
Organizations (including agencies) tend to rely on well-worn theories of change, often based on implicit assumptions when it comes to how humans behave. I have come to call this the “theory of change muddle.” This is where various approaches and strategies — from social marketing to values-based messaging to behavioral economics and gamification, or the latest storytelling trend — blur into a muddle. This muddle is abundantly evident in the language we use: usually a generalized approach based on “levers,” “drivers” and the need to “mobilize” or “get people on board.”
However, many of these theories have conflicting underlying assumptions about people. These different approaches also carry implicit attitudes about the people we seek to reach, usually revealed by our language. For example, segmentation terminology such as “disconnected” or “hard to reach” offer clues to these attitudes about those who are not yet fully on board with our causes.
This is where the urgent need to engage more with psychology comes in, no matter if you are an agency, a consultant or a Fortune 500 company designing an engagement campaign.
Despite the fact that we now know more than we ever have about the nature of the human psyche and how we cope (often badly) with change, anxiety, uncertainty and ambiguity, many of us still base our work on the notion that people are self-aware, transparent and values-driven.
We continue to assume that if we only focus on positive storytelling and aspiration, we will get the scaled need to actually change our world.
This is simply not the case.
The messier reality — quickly revealed when we learn how to really listen — is that many people are conflicted, contradictory, unconscious and anxious. Many of us are deeply ambivalent about the increasingly urgent news about declining species, the warming climate, what we eat and how we get around. This is not the same as not caring, or holding different values.
Contrary to the overriding fixation in most sustainability-driven enterprises, this is not only about values. This is about how humans construct a life full of competing needs, desires, aspirations and worries, and how easy it is to allow our limbic system to drive the bus.
We know now about how our brains process challenging, difficult and alarming information. Our prefrontal cortex becomes secondary to the limbic system, which is about survival, fear, us/them, polarization, and the inability to process complex data.
The limbic system is currently on overdrive in our country.
A fear-based mode expresses itself with ‘othering’; targeting enemies; denial of real threats; and avoiding at all costs any hint of shame, guilt or blame when it comes to our current predicament. In that scenario, it doesn’t matter if people value health, economic viability or nature, because values are higher-functioning entities.
This is why a focus on values alone — or on “aspiration” or even on “solutions” — is not sufficient.
Values and problem-solving belong in the prefrontal cortex, where we can reflect, strategize, imagine – and yes, clarify our values. However — and this is the key part — it involves addressing our fear-based, short-term survival-focused neural networks — in the limbic system. Meeting the limbic system with a values-based message is akin to being tone-deaf. Would you ask someone who is fearing for their security if they “value” something? No. You would ask them what they need, now, to feel safer and more secure, before you can engage in the conversation you really wish to have.
If even a fraction of this were to be taken on board, we would immediately be redesigning our research, strategies and tactics differently. We could be inviting new and different people to the table, new kinds of practitioners who understand cultural change, psychosocial dynamics, and how to translate this into brand strategy – beyond polling, surveying and focus group experts.
We would pause to rethink the heavy use of social marketing, such as ambassadors or champions, heavy reliance on celebrity endorsements, and coming up with yet another values-based messaging platform. We would be focused on messaging according to empathy for these “Three As” – Anxiety, Ambivalence and Aspiration.
We would be designing our insights and research methods to capture the deeper layers of anxiety, ambivalence and aspiration, by using more conversation-based methods. We would be funding projects that leverage insights already gained from ethnography, marketing, psychosocial research and innovation sectors. We would not be focusing only on what people “view” or “demand” or how to “mobilize,” but on what people are experiencing – where the anxieties, ambivalence and aspiration (“The Three As”) live. To do this requires rethinking our deeply held, even cherished ways of doing things. It means being open to new and emerging practices, and collaborating with new kinds of practitioners from different disciplines. It also means recognizing that we are all in this together – that our lessons learned are what are going to help us protect and preserve the vulnerable humans and nonhumans amongst us, who are depending on us right now to show up and be effective.
Perhaps most importantly, if we take this opportunity to truly do a reset, we’d encourage each other in our community to compassionately yet ruthlessly examine our assumptions about people, why we behave as we do, and what we bring to these interactions.
We would be as honest as we can with ourselves about our frustrations, sadness, anger and distress over what appears to be retrograde and harmful trends. We would push ourselves to be ruthlessly open to new ways of thinking and doing things. In so doing, we would be supporting each other to be our best, our most creative, and ultimately our most effective at connecting with those who feel overwhelmed, scared and concerned, and looking to us to be partners in a different future.