The British public voted for Brexit. The 'poor 'often vote for political parties that cut benefits. J K Rowling, one of the most successful females in her field, has 141k followers on Instagram. Kim Kardashian? 117 million.
To a lot of people, these seem like injustices, stupidity or rage. In the wake of the Brexit vote, opinion pieces, comment sections, interviews... were awash with vitriolic criticism of the winning side. This rage is not only confined to those on the left of the political spectrum. The right regularly flood anything remotely left leaning with insults like “libtard” and “snowflake”.
Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, was not interested in these blinding, hate filled denunciations from either side. He wanted the cold, hard, scientifically obtained truth behind people’s motivations and set to work running experiments examining the psychological research landscape to find out just why we all seem to be getting more and more divided. Are people just selfish as classical economists would have us believe?
The answer was a resounding no. In this passage (from ‘The Righteous Mind’, first published in 2012 but more relevant today than ever) Haidt contrasts the belief in rational selfishness with his own scientific findings:
‘Rather people care about their groups, whether those be racial, regional, religious, or political… Don Kinder summarizes the findings like this: “In matters of public opinion, citizens seem to be asking themselves not ‘What’s in it for me?’ but rather ‘What’s in it for my group?’ “ Political opinions function as “badges of social membership.” They’re like the array of bumper stickers people put on their cars showing the political causes, universities, and sports teams they support. Our politics is groupish, not selfish.” [final emphasis added]
Think back to the first paragraph I wrote. If you’re left leaning, you probably read it and thought I was a guy on your side, on your team. If you’re a Brexit or Kardashian fan you probably rolled your eyes and thought yet another hit piece. But take a closer look at what I actually wrote. The British public voted for Brexit. No opinion, just a statement of fact. The poor often vote for political parties that cut benefits. Statement of fact. J K Rowling, one of the most successful females in her field, has 141k followers on Instagram. Kim Kardashian? 117 million. Facts (at the time of writing). No-where have I cast a judgement, no-where have I said that Kim Kardashian didn’t deserve 117 million fans, that JK Rowling deserved more, or that Brexit should or shouldn’t happen. You thought that. Why?
In this case two reasons: first, the same writing structures are recycled by the myriad of content creators across the globe in order to create a mental shorthand in the reader that enables them to deliver more information in a shorter period of time. A similar technique is employed by screenwriters, with the protagonist “saving the cat” or doing some other good natured deed in the first five minutes of the film so you know that this is the person you’re meant to be rooting for. In this article, I present statements with a commonly understood related theme, priming you to expect an opinionated elaboration in the second paragraph. The second reason is plain old confirmation bias: we actively seek to find signs and information that agrees with our own existing beliefs and disregard that which doesn’t.
How does this relate to groupish? Because, over the course of your life, you have formulated opinions on what constitutes good behaviour and governance. You have naturally gravitated towards people who shared those values and have formed a “tribe” and a shared group morality. You are on alert for behaviour or evidence that threatens your tribe and, instinctively, you move to defend and protect it even if it is not in your own self interest. You act groupishly.
In order to create campaigns that work we must step outside of our own groupish thinking and step inside our target audiences. Just because you don’t see the value in something doesn’t mean that there is none. If you can thoroughly understand the opposing viewpoint you can target them effectively.
Let’s take Kim Kardashian. If you’re not a fan you probably think some or all of the following:
- Kim Kardashian has no talent.
- She’s a bad role model for young girls.
- She’s underserving of her riches.
- She exploits her sexuality, her looks, and the media to get what she wants.
Now let’s take a look at what a fan of Kim Kardashian most likely thinks:
- Kim Kardashian is an inspiration.
- She’s beautiful and a constant inspiration for my looks.
- She’s a great example of what a woman can accomplish through hard work combined with business and media savvy.
If you attack Kim Kardashian for not subscribing to your own morality you’re not going to win her fans over to your side. You’re only going to alienate and anger them because you’re attacking their morality, their values. Values which, like you, they will die tooth and nail to protect. The same reasoning applies to the poor voting outside their self-interest. You can promise them all the money in the world but if you tell them that you’re going to go soft on criminals they’re not going to vote for you. You’re attacking their morality: they care more that their friends and family are safe and that cheaters are punished over their own bank balance. The same can be said of the right wing. You’re not going to win over left wing voters by promoting traditional family values because, according to Haidt, their overriding moral belief is in the prevention of harm to the individual and they believe strict family rules produce suffering in individuals who feel restrained by them.
So, if you can’t directly attack issues or people in order to influence them how do you go about it?
1. You have to put aside your own instinct to promote and protect your tribe.
2. You have to come up with better alternatives within your audience’s own moral framework.
3. You present these alternatives in places where those people are likely to see them, styled and worded in ways that are appealing to your audience and tailored to their specific delivery vehicle. “Content is king, but context is God.”
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