Good causes will get further by emphasising their intrinsic worth rather than external rewards, argues Clare Bryden.
HUMANITY is faced with big problems – poverty, climate change, human-rights abuses, inequality. We need to find durable solutions, but these are bigger-than-self problems that it may not be in an individual’s self-interest to solve.
Social marketing – applying insights from marketing physical products – is one strategy that has been used to promote sustainable behaviour. But the Common Cause project argues that this can be counter-productive, and that we need an approach that begins with personal values. Instead of using marketing techniques that appeal to self-interest, good causes need to appeal to self-transcending values.
Common Cause grew out of work undertaken by Dr Tom Crompton and his colleagues at WWF-UK on how pressure groups campaign on climate change. It is now funded by a number of campaigning organisations, and in 2011 published The Common Cause Handbook, which looks at the values that guide how we receive information, and how we respond.
VALUES represent our broadest motivations, based on what we think is important. Psychologists have assembled a large body of evidence that shows that certain values and beliefs tend to align, while others tend to be opposed. So values can be categorised into two main groups.
Self-enhancing, or extrinsic, values are centred on external approval or rewards, such as money, status, and power. Self-transcending, or intrinsic, values are based on more rewarding attitudes, such as concern for nature, human relationships, and creativity. Exercising these values tends also to increase personal well-being as a by-product.
We are all oriented more or less towards extrinsic and intrinsic values. People who identify with one extrinsic value tend to identify with other extrinsic values and less with intrinsic values, and vice versa.
Psychologists have found that engaging one value strengthens neighbouring values. So, for example, when we are reminded of intrinsic values, we are more likely to respond positively to requests for help. Conversely, temporarily engaging one value suppresses opposing values; so, when people are reminded of extrinsic values, they are less likely to respond to requests for help.
THE University of Cardiff recently undertook a study that illustrates both these tendencies. Three groups of people were invited to memorise words associated with intrinsic values, extrinsic values, and food (the last one was the control group). Later, they were invited to volunteer their time on another project. On average, those in the control group volunteered about 40 minutes of their time, the intrinsic-values group 70 minutes; and the extrinsic-values group only 30 minutes.
In another example, researchers surveyed people in Switzerland on whether they would be willing to have toxic-waste sites near their communities. The people were aware of the risks, and when civic responsibility (intrinsic) was emphasised, about half of those questioned said yes. But when compensation (extrinsic) was also suggested, only a quarter said yes.
Psychologists have also found that if values are repeatedly engaged and exercised, they become stronger. Conversely, values that do not have the opportunity to be expressed become weaker.
Politicians tell us that economic competitiveness is the most important indicator of national performance. Advertising insinuates the idea that consumption of a product will enhance our image and status. We are no longer citizens, but consumers. And when we are engaged in the slightest way as consumers, those extrinsic values are being strengthened further.
THESE insights lead to three important lessons for campaigners. First, the prevailing culture needs to be challenged. We need to lay a foundation of intrinsic values – not just through campaigns for particular good causes, but with more general campaigns against extrinsic, and for intrinsic, values. Some examples would be to replace GDP with an indicator of well-being, and to teach empathy in schools.
The current norms are powerful, however; so campaigners and policy-makers need to work together, which is itself intrinsic behaviour.
My the same token, competition between campaigns is counter-productive. This is the second lesson. As good causes are linked by the intrinsic values that underpin them, work on any cause to reinforce intrinsic values will benefit other causes. Encouraging people to care about their neighbours will mean that they are more likely also to care about people in parts of the world that they do not know.
Campaigns that borrow from standard product-marketing do not care about motivation, so they typically appeal to people’s self-interest, for example by promoting energy efficiency by emphasising the financial savings. But the third important lesson is that it is counterproductive in the long-term to appeal to these types of extrinsic values to achieve intrinsic goals, because appealing to extrinsic values will reinforce those values.
Worse, offering an extrinsic reward can actually discourage the intended intrinsic behaviour. One project found that the incidence of blood donations decreased when a monetary reward was offered.
CAMPAIGNS that prompt their audience to reflect on the importance that they attach to intrinsic values are more likely to be successful in prompting concern about bigger-than-self problems. This is because, despite our prevailing culture, it seems that almost everyone holds some intrinsic values, and the majority still hold intrinsic values to be more important than extrinsic values.
Some people question whether there is time to shift our values, usually in the context of the swift action needed to address climate change. But Common Cause argues that it is not so much about shifting values as engaging the intrinsic values that are already there.
Change based on appealing to extrinsic values is often limited, and all too easily unravels, as we saw when the recession hit, and interest in the environment waned. We do not have the time or the excuse not to engage intrinsic values, if we wish to address the bigger-than-self, important problems that we face.
The Common Cause Handbook is available at www.valuesandframes.org.