At the beginning of this handbook, we said that we need new models of engagement in order to succeed. Two major developments enable us to vastly improve how we engage one another:
- The cognitive and behavioral sciences have matured enough that we now understand how motivation and engagement work at a deep level; and
- Social media tools have appeared on the scene and are rapidly being adopted by people around the world, providing new pathways for engaging broad communities of people.
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
How Motivation and Engagement Work
For a long time, progressive strategies have been grounded in an outdated theory of decision-making that can loosely be called The Rationalist Paradigm. This theory presumes that people are (and should be) rational actors who consciously use logic and reason to make choices that lead to optimal outcomes.
Tactics that come out of this theory include efforts to (a) inform the public with an “only the facts” approach that avoids emotional appeals; (b) measure public opinion to craft policy platforms that people will presumably vote for; (c) rise above oppositional attacks in order to appear more logical and rational than our opponents; and (d) use analytical tools to craft “scientific” solutions to social problems based on the assertion that the outcomes that will be most popular are the ones that maximize self-interest for citizens.
We don’t need to go into all the details about why the Rationalist Paradigm is wrong. A quick look at our own recent history proves beyond a doubt that it has failed us:
- During the 2004 election, John Kerry took this rationalist approach to his campaign. George Bush opted instead for emotional appeals that resonate with the personal identities of everyday people. Despite all the incredible harms inflicted by his policies, Bush won the election.
- As evidence has continued to pile up that the planet’s climate system is destabilizing, there has been increasing skepticism from vocal politicians and media pundits, as well as segments of the population, about the legitimacy of the scientific method itself.
- After a decade of conservative policy-makers running the show, we experienced the worst financial meltdown in a century. Despite all evidence to the contrary, a story has taken hold among a significant portion of the population that somehow all of our economic problems were created by liberal politicians and powerless poor people.
These are but a few examples that demonstrate how inadequate the Rationalist Paradigm is for explaining political behavior. So there must be something else going on.
People are actually motivated by a combination of factors that marketers have known for years. We have deeply held concerns about vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Each of these concerns is grounded in our bodily experiences through the emotions that arise in our brains as we perceive threats around us. Those who seek to manipulate public will have exploited these emotions to advance their agenda for decades. These unethical practices exist and must be contended with.
But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The same emotions linked to these concerns are the foundations of human motivation. If we want to engage people in productive dialogue, we have to build trust and promote feelings of empowerment in those around us.
A common misunderstanding that has persisted in the Western philosophical tradition for hundreds of years is the notion that emotion and reason are separate from one another. Research in the last few decades has shown that our ability to reason is grounded in the web of feelings and perceptions that come out of our bodily experiences. So we cannot reason effectively without emotions.
Don’t believe us? Try imagining how you’d ask someone out on a date without the ability to read emotional cues and respond appropriately. Or think about how you’d respond if a tiger jumped out of the bushes and tried to eat you. You’d experience a burst of adrenaline alongside a surge of fear, both of which compel you to make the decision to get out of the way. This is a very reasonable thing to do. And it would be impossible to navigate either of these situations without the emotions that provide sufficient alertness and motivational drive to protect yourself from harm or to successfully acquire something that benefits you.
Motivation and engagement are linked through the workings of emotions in our brains. They also arise in the stories we live out and the meanings we draw from our experience. This is where frames come back into play. The logic of a frame is tied to the motivational psychology of our emotions. As an example, consider the Tax Relief Frame that underlies how conservatives think about taxation:
Taxes are thought of as an unfair burden placed on hard-working victims. Two emotional responses that are quite reasonable in a situation like this are disgust at the injustice and pain from the burden. Both of these feelings encourage the conservative to want to avoid taxes. The logic of the Tax Relief Frame tells us that taxes are bad and that it is unfair to inflict them on people. The feelings evoked by this logic are what compel voters to support politicians who will cut taxes.
Contrast this with the Tax Investment Frame that expresses how progressives think about taxation:
Taxes are thought of as an investment that community members make in shared infrastructure that benefits everyone. Two emotional responses that are quite reasonable in a situation like this are appreciation for the benefits received and disgust at the injustice of those who don’t pay their share, yet make use of the benefits that come from tax investments. Both of these feelings encourage progressives to want a progressive tax system. The logic of the Tax Investment Frame tells us that taxes are good (because of the benefits they produce) and that it is unfair to exploit societal infrastructure without also helping to fund it. The feelings evoked by this logic are what compel voters to support progressive taxation.
If we want to engage more people around our progressive ideals, we’ll have to appeal to their feelings through the use of progressive frames. If we do this through honest communication, we’ll build trust with those around us and encourage them to see themselves as progressives (because it feels good to be part of a group that cares about other people). And we’ll need concentrated networks of people working together to advocate for the same progressive frames and provide support to one another in the field of public discourse where consolidated media currently dominates the landscape.
This foundational knowledge of motivation and engagement will be critical for the movement as we increase our capacity for driving political and cultural change. Through the conscientious application of frame analysis, coupled with insights about political psychology, we can continually improve our ability to craft powerful narratives and build a coherent vision of the better world for Americans to embrace.
How Social Media Tools Are A Game Changer
By now it should be clear that we can do a lot better at engaging our fellow Americans. Fortunately, social networking media are offering us some powerful new tools to help get around the massive media institutions that have dominated public discourse for two generations.
Take Facebook as an example. It is a platform where people can create networks of “friends” who can share pictures and web links, engage in dialogue with one another no matter where they are in the world, and create groups with shared interests and objectives. This is just one of a vast universe of new tools making it easier than ever to bring people together and share information. And since the users are the ones creating these communication pathways, it’s easy to bypass established media institutions as though they don’t exist. In Facebook’s world, they don’t.
We have already begun to see the power of social media for driving political change that would have been impossible just a few years ago. Right now, there is upheaval in Egypt and Tunisia where authoritarian regimes have been ousted by grassroots movements that made extensive use of Facebook and Twitter to share information with their members and the world. Last year, there were organized protests in Iran after an election was deemed to be corrupted by a powerful minority. They used their cell phones and Twitter to give minute-by-minute accounts of what was happening. And no amount of media censorship could keep up with the rapid interactions that social media made possible. The same can be said for the role of blogger communities here in the U.S. that represent a persistent alternative to the corporate media.
Not only is social media disruptive to existing institutional powers, which should give us renewed hope here in the U.S., but it also allows us to create new models of civic engagement that have the vital ingredients of empowerment and trust built into the fabric of their underlying technologies.
We’ve already started to see social media’s power through the early successes of groups like MoveOn and the campaigns of Howard Dean and Barack Obama. But we’ve barely scratched the surface of what is becoming possible in a densely networked, information rich, social world. Powerful movements can arise through self-organized crowds who create their own media systems as they grow, incorporating novel business models for pooling and distributing their resources.
This handbook is an excellent example of a new model for engagement that makes use of social media tools. It was funded by the crowd on a website called RocketHub using email lists, web blogs, Facebook, and Twitter to spread the word and raise money. This would not have been possible just two years ago. And the crowdsourcing process we will employ to expand and improve the handbook will use the same tools.
Combine the potential for social media to drive political (and cultural) change with knowledge about how motivation and engagement work and we’ve got a situation where we can really start to break out of the mold.