Reframing newsletter

Tell a Story of Collective Action and Benefits

March 23, 2017

In the last newsletter, we talked about the cultural models that are dominating public thinking as a result of the current national discourse. Cultural models are “deeply held understandings that motivate thought and behavior in largely unconscious and automatic ways.”

One of the cultural models that the FrameWorks Institute identified as being easily activated for the public right now is the idea of “self-makingness,” that our successes and failures are primarily dictated by our individual choices and effort. Self-makingness is a form of Individualism, which we know from FrameWorks’ research is one of the biggest communications challenges that the human services sector confronts when trying to engage the public and policymakers.

“People generally assert that individuals themselves are responsible for providing for their own needs and assuring their well-being. This strong sense of individualism has the potential to work against support for human services because it undermines any sense of collective responsibility for social problems and solutions.”

Talking Human Services: A FrameWorks Message Memo

An example of the individualism model emerged recently in the health care debate when a Congressman suggested in a CNN interview that affording health care was simply a matter of making better individual choices:

“Americans have choices. And they’ve got to make a choice. So maybe, rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on, maybe they should invest that in health care. They’ve got to make those decisions themselves.” -Representative Chaffetz

The dramatic cost disparity between an iPhone and health care made this specific claim relatively easy to debunk, but the underlying sentiment of the Congressman’s suggestion lives large in the public mind. In a recent column in the Washington Post, Stephen Pimpare, a professor of public policy at the University of New Hampshire, unpacks how public beliefs about individual responsibility dominate anti-poverty policy decisions, despite evidence that it’s the systems that need to change (higher wages, better quality of schools).

So what are human services advocates to do when one of our biggest communications traps is so quickly and easily triggered for the public? For starters, we strongly urge the sector to avoid metaphors that place an individual and their actions or failures at the center of the story. That means letting go of the deeply entrenched safety net metaphor and all of its extensions (shredding it, stitching it back together, turning it into a trampoline, etc). Instead, use the Construction Metaphor, which has been proven to help the public see the context and systems that contribute to well-being, rather than just the individual actions. Check out our August 4, 2016 newsletter for more information on why the safety net metaphor is problematic for our sector.

We’ll continue to explore strategies for navigating around individualism in upcoming newsletters. Please stay tuned!