Identity Campaigning and Cognitive Policy

I would like to share with you some work that is led by Tom Crompton, change strategist for WWF-UK and author of Weathercocks and Signposts: The Environmental Movement at a Crossroads, which builds a framework for political campaigns based on cognitive policy.

Tom and I are working along with a host of other people to develop and implement identity campaigns. We have just received a Page Legacy Scholar Grant to explore the cognitive impacts of environmental communications. Throughout the next few months, we will explore the role of identity and values in environmental campaigns.  A report will be prepared for public dissemination through WWF-UK and Cognitive Policy Works.

You can learn more about this project here:

The following text is republished from this site and is written by Tom.  He does an excellent job explaining what we’re doing and why it is important to the environmental movement.

Identity campaigning and cognitive policy

By Tom Crompton, Change Strategist for WWF-UK

The principles behind identity campaigning draw on the work of cognitive scientists like George Lakoff and Joe Brewer (a contributor to this site). An understanding of the importance of cognitive policy requires a grasp of ‘framing’.

Frames are the mental structures (physically enshrined in the neural networks of our brains) that enable us to make sense of reality and that determine what we each see as ‘common sense’. As Lakoff puts it, frames “structure our ideas and concepts, they shape the way we reason, and they even impact how we perceive and how we act”.

Moreover, they are largely unconscious. Social institutions and situations are shaped by mental structures (frames), but frames are also propagated by social institutions. Lakoff draws a distinction between ‘surface framing’ and ‘deep framing’. Surface framing refers to catchy slogans and clever spin (which may or may not be honest). ‘Deep framing’ refers to forging the connections between a debate or public policy and a set of deeper values or principles. Surface framing (crafting particular messages focussing on particular issues) cannot work unless these messages resonate with a set of long-term deep frames. But, because frames are physically present in our brains, the cultivation of new deep frames requires a sustained programme of repeating these values over and over – using them to infuse a series of short-term campaigns, working in concert across issue areas. This is what the environmental movement must begin to do (and what it is so bad at today).

There is a mutual process by which our social institutions and situations shape our frames, which in turn shape our institutions. Public policy, for example, has an important implication for the frames that predominate in society. Recognition of this led George Lakoff and Joe Brewer, then both working at the Rockridge Institute to distinguish two types of policy – material policy and cognitive policy:

“There are two aspects of policy: cognitive policy and material policy. Material policy consists of the nuts and bolts, what is done in the world to fulfil policy goals. Cognitive policy is about the values and ideas that both motivate the policy goals and that have to be uppermost in the minds of the public and the media in order for the policy to seem so much a matter of common sense that it will be readily accepted.”

Policy proposals which may, at the more ‘superficial’ level of material policy, seem similar (perhaps they both set out to achieve a reduction in environmental pollution) may differ importantly in terms of cognitive policy. These differences may be implicit, drawing on (and supporting) a set of deep frames without conscious discussion. Difference in cognitive policy may arise, for example in the ways that different policies rely upon market mechanisms to address environmental problems. For example, putting a financial value on an endangered species, and building an economic case for their conservation ‘commodifies’ these. It makes them equivalent to other assets of the same value (a hotel chain, perhaps). This is a very different cognitive policy to one that attempts to achieve the same conservation goals through the ascription of intrinsic value to such species – as something that should be protected in its own right. As Brewer and Lakoff suggest:

“Concentrating on material criteria alone can be counterproductive if a policy is either unpopular, or if it instils in the public’s mind long-term values that contradict the aims of the policy.”

The environment movement should therefore be aware of the cognitive implications of their campaigns in at least two ways:

Firstly, they should be aware that campaigns for new policies or regulations, if successful, will lead to new government interventions which will themselves have important cognitive implications. Irrespective of whether or not these policies are helpful in immediately alleviating a set of environmental problems, they are likely to either support (or otherwise undermine) work on the longer-term task of engaging the aspects of identity that we have outlined.

Secondly, even if a campaign is unsuccessful, it will have cognitive impacts – because people will see the campaign materials and unconsciously respond to the deep frames that these enshrine. These cognitive impacts may be unrelated to the specific environmental issue or policy ask that the campaign is highlighting. Thus, the way in which the campaign is framed is likely to have unforeseen secondary impacts on ‘deep frames’ – and these may either help or hinder the emergence of more systemic environmental concern.

These points have profound implications for environmental campaigning. Working with an understanding of cognitive policy impacts can help to ensure that the public experience of new environmental policies simultaneously serves to convey a set of frames that will be important for creating the ‘deep frames’ necessary for systemic engagement with environmental challenges. And it can also be used to design campaign communications that have a widespread positive impact in shaping the right deep frames, even if the policy campaign itself is unsuccessful.

Further reading

For more on cognitive policy, see these two articles by Joe Brewer and George Lakoff:

Comparing Climate Proposals: A Case Study in Cognitive Policy.
Why Voters Aren’t Motivated by a Laundry List of Positions on Issues.

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.