Why the North is resistant to change

Date: 17/09/2018 Written by: Rosie 10 minutes to read.
Groupish thinking at island scale

The word “groupish” describes the scientific observation that people make decisions not in their own self-interest but that of the group, according to the group’s shared moral code. In all places, cultures (which are essentially the shared moral behaviour, ideas, tastes and interests of a particular group) vary according to geographic location with one common distinction in the UK being that of the Northerner and the Southerner. Is it a useful distinction? Does it actually tell us anything? And if it does, how can we use it to impact our campaign decisions.


- People act in the interests of their group not their self.

- Northerners protect their group identity by socially regulating against change and social striving through adversarial humour.

- Combatting this effectively will require us to appeal to traditional Northern values as well as offering private services and social support and/or strong social incentives for change.

First let’s define our cultural stereotypes. The Southerner is liberal in their social values. London is the cultural hub around which the rest of the South centres. If the Southerner lives in the City they likely weren’t born there. As such the South is more of a playground, traditions are less ingrained (with the exception of the monarchy and those in the upper echelons of society), and openness to change is higher. The Southerner is likely higher educated, and likely more reserved towards strangers than his Northern counterpoint (he is unlikely to say thanks to the bus driver for example). He will earn more money over the course of his lifetime and is likely to live longer.

The Northerner is a family man: he values it above all else. He will have likely lived in the same area his entire life. He has tremendous work ethic and will proudly tell you how he has not taken a holiday in over 20 years. The physical is valued higher than the creative: those that work with their hands in agriculture or engineering, or in physically dangerous roles such as the Armed forces or Police are held in high esteem. White collar and creative types are often undervalued or, worse, viewed as freeloaders skimming off those who work “proper jobs”. But those who break through in creative roles and carve fame for themselves may as well have keys to the city: think The Beatles, Oasis, Arctic Monkeys.

The Southerner is reserved externally but internally open. The Northerner is externally open but internally closed.

These are broad sweeping generalisations. Of course, Southerners and Northerners both care about their families. And there are variations on these beliefs. Rural areas of which there are many, both North and South, tend to be conservative whereas urban areas tend to be left leaning. People are individuals, and each individual holds a unique combination of beliefs and behaviours shaped on their distinct experiences. But through the sum total of individuals we arrive at culture. And at that level, these observations tend to hold true. There is a reason why if you draw a line across the country through Stoke and ask anyone above it what they think of the North is like in comparison to South and you will likely get some proud proclamations about its superiority, despite the grim statistics. And there’s a reason stereotypes such as the “sensible Yorkshireman” and the “high flying City man” have entered the cultural lexicon and persist across time: they’re commonly encountered in everyday life.

So how should we be approaching campaigns aimed at the North?

In order to market to the North, you must understand and respect the culture of the North. You must see through the North’s eyes and you must appeal to the North’s values. To attempt to influence the North through a head on display of high riding, holier-than-thou, our-way-is-more-scientific-and-clearly-better-than-yours way is madness. You might as well throw your money away.

The first problem you will encounter crafting campaigns for the North is that any suggestion of change will instantly be met with scepticism at best or, most likely, outright dismissal. The Northerner’s belief in tradition is strong, things are done a certain way, they have always been done that way, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool. You do not want to be the fool in the group. That is for the Southerners.

If you solve this problem, you immediately run into the next one: the Northerner faces strong social pressure not to get caught out striving to be better, especially if he is at risk of failing. I have lived all across the country (Grimsby, Manchester, Nottingham, London, Isle of Wight, Gateshead) and whilst banter is a global practice, it is my belief that nowhere is it more fiercely undertaken than the North (plus Scotland, Ireland and Wales). This is the reason why so many comedians on our screens are from these areas; stand up comedy is a predominantly adversarial humour (in contrast to self-effacing or collaborative) and the towns these comedians originate from constitute the most cutting-edge training camps for this artform in the world. Why have these areas become so prominent at this type of humour? Social protection. If these areas can’t compete with the South in terms of money, resources and entrepreneurial strategy then they can take pride in their ability to beat the South with the sharpness of their tongues (or through self-destructive behaviour such as taking pride in being able to drink more). They can also see off any people within their own ranks who strive to change the status quo by mocking them with insults, turning them into fools and thus socially isolating them. The Northerner knows full well he will be teased mercilessly by his friends for his new efforts and needs positive, bulletproof evidence in favour of his new behaviour in order to counter this and maintain his social standing. Often this may not even be enough. The problem is further compounded as the likelihood of him successfully following through and gaining such evidence is dramatically decreased if he does not have access to social support and encouragement on his journey. Underestimate social influence in the North at your peril.

It is key to understand this point as it runs through all problems in the North.

You’re having a green smoothie? Ridiculous, Aunt Linda is 80 and she’s had a full English every day her life, who do you think you are, Gwyneth Paltrow? You’re cutting down on your drinking? There’s nothing wrong with having a few, we’re all going to die someday. Grandpa Gary is 90 and he has a whiskey every evening. Think you’re one of these fancy Hollywood juice diet people don’t you? And what’s this? You’re off to Uni? What a waste of time! What do they know, you’re better off just getting an apprenticeship!

Again, the problem is compounded by the fact that sometimes they’re right. For a lot of my friends, going to University has not paid off whilst my apprenticeship friends are making six figures (or close to it) working in engineering roles in Australia, Dubai or other foreign countries. As we all officially enter our late 20s, it is looking increasingly unlikely they will ever recuperate the lost earnings had they just gone into an apprenticeship at 16. Smoothies, depending on the ingredients, are increasingly derided as being insulin-spiking sugar hits. The North’s trust in Government decreases by their day and their belief in tradition grows. After all, there’s a reason why certain things become traditions: because they’ve been shown to have successful outcomes across time.

But just because something has shown historical success doesn’t mean that there aren’t other better alternatives out there. We can all agree the mobile phone is superior to the telephone box. But in order to present these new options, we cannot attack the old ways. We must show respect to the old way of doing things whilst subtly promoting the new methods by appealing to the group values of which our target subject belongs. We must hype the benefits to the Northerner’s community. And we must deliver our message humbly, showing a willingness to laugh at ourselves in order to prove we are one of them and not one of them.

So where should we focus our attention in order to deliver successful campaigns in the North of England? The Mindspace report gives nine influences on social behaviour to focus on. Of those nine I believe the following are of particular use to those crafting campaigns aimed at Northerners:

- Messenger. In the North the messenger is extraordinarily important in comparison to other areas. If the messenger is not a respected community figure the initiative will quite simply fail, either permanently or until the message is relayed by someone who is. Who is respected will depend on context. The Uniformed Services will work incredibly well in certain areas, others see them as the ‘enemy’. You must create tailored plans accordingly. Managers may have to swallow their pride and accept that popular members of the workforce have a better chance of delivering the message more successfully than they do and should show humbleness in asking these people to do it.

- Incentives. Social risks are avoided even stronger than usual. Can you create incentives that appeal to the Northerner enough for him to override this? Rather than asking him to cut down his drinking for himself can you appeal to his sense of family? It is much easier to tell his friends in the pub he is cutting down his alcohol consumption because he is worried his daughter will grow up without a father than it is because he wants to feel healthier.

- Norms. Norms are deeply engrained and promoted, even when they are harmful. Can you create services the Northerner can use in private? Can we offer him digital support services like video messaging, so he doesn’t have to risk being seen by someone in his tight knit community and firing up the rumour mill? The flipside to this strong inclination to the group is that if you can build momentum around a new community with new norms it is likely to be a strong one, with a strong influence in the local area. Crossfit Gyms are a good example of this on a global scale.

- Commitments. Similar to incentives, the Northerner is committed to his family and his community. Can you frame the behaviour as being beneficial to them rather than him?

- Ego. Social aspirations are kept secret but still exist, as they do everywhere. The ego is fragile however and loss averse. The Northerner’s reputation is everything and he is unlikely to risk it unless he has confidence in the new approach he is taking. How can you give him that confidence?

As a final point I have wrote all of this from the perspective of a male Northerner but the issues presented are experienced by female Northerners in equal measure. It is also worth pointing out that, in terms of messengers, using females may be a better approach than males. Strong female matriarchs and social groups are common in the North and it is known that, in general, men respond better to women telling them to do something as opposed to other men. Although it is a far cry from the Yorkshire Dales, Damian Mander, a former Australian special forces sniper, implemented a hugely successful campaign of change in Africa by training women into leadership roles. Something to keep in mind.

Want to hear more about how you can harness cutting edge psychological and behavioural research to create a campaign that works in the North? Either subscribe to our email to never miss a post or ring one our team today, free of charge on 01522 775060. Don’t be scared, we’re friendly and we love chatting about this stuff!

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