16. What Moves People to Demand Social Change: Responsibility or Obligation?

Shame, pity and guilt in public policy

These days, campaigns for social change are likely to elicit from the public a sense of fatalism and of futility. Governments around the world are making noise about reform on issues such as immigration and mental health. But most have so far failed to make meaningful change.

To change policy in meaningful and sustainable ways, we need public support and engagement. When an issue has public will behind it, policymakers are pressured to act.

But how do we engage people, build public will, and create demand for change on stubborn issues like poverty, immigration, and climate change? Unproductive thinking about these issues appears fixed in the fabric of society.

When an issue has public will behind it, policymakers are pressured to act.

Communications science shows that we can loosen the threads, building public support for innovative solutions. This is communication for change. What does it look like?

Researchers and practitioners are thinking about this question from a variety of angles. There are people doing great work on how to correct misperceptions; scholars studying the effect of metaphor on how we think and act on social issues; researchers working on how new, fringe ideas become normalised, accepted and even expected; and others thinking about the effect of values on people’s engagement with and support for solutions to social issues.

One particularly strand of work on public will-building focuses on ideas of responsibility and obligation, and how activating these values might build public will and help move social issues forward.

Senses of personal responsibility have been found to correlate with pro-social behaviours (particularly on environmental issues). In other words, people who feel personal responsibility for an issue also tend to act positively and engage in addressing the issue. While most of this work has been at the level of correlations, it at least suggests prescriptive potential: if we can find ways of evoking personal responsibility for an issue, people may be more likely to think and act to solve the problem.

But there is more to shifting thinking and building engagement than just getting people to feel responsible. Some research suggests that the location of responsibility or obligation is significant. Research is finding that internally derived responsibility is a more positive and effective motivator than externally imposed obligation. The latter may backfire, increasing negative emotions and depressing willingness to engage.

This evidence suggests the potential of finding and tapping into people’s personal and internal senses of responsibility around issues of justice, for example, rather than activating and relying on external senses of social norms or obligation. In this way, eliciting personal responsibility seems a more effective framing strategy evoking than social obligation.

One provocative idea to consider is the difference between responsibility and obligation and whether this difference has any “frame effects” — that is, whether switching from appeals to obligation to responsibility creates significant differences in how people think, feel, and are willing to act. Much more work is needed to understand these processes.

The distinctions between obligation and responsibility remain fuzzy. As a framing researcher, where these lines lie and implications of being on one or the other side are important questions to pursue.

Nat Kendall-Taylor is chief executive officer of the FrameWorks Institute (@FrameWorksInst), a communications think tank in Washington, DC.

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