By Graeme Trayner

Communicators and marketers aim to change public attitudes every day. But bringing about that change can be frustrating and challenging. As people, we can be stubborn when it comes to our opinions and are reluctant to change our views, let alone how we act and behave. Yet, the situation is not all bleak for those tasked with persuasion, as the big, and rapid, public shifts on social issues such as marriage equality have shown. What do we need to know about how attitudes are formed, and how they might evolve?

Why change can be hard

Thinking from psychology and behavioral economics underlines why changing opinion is remarkably difficult:

Loss aversion: Behavioral economists explain that people put a high value on something they already own, and will work harder to avoid losing it than they will to gain something new. Academics such as Dan Ariely and Robert Cialdini show that this applies to attitudes. People work harder to justify current points of view than they do to change them.

Group polarization: among like-minded groups people are often inclined to take a more extreme position than others in a community, in order to enhance their standing and identity. Being more partisan than others in a group signals our integrity and commitment. This is particularly pertinent in an information space defined at times, in activist and technology thinker Eli Pariser’s phrase, by “filter bubbles” – where through internet and TV consumption, people can be in danger of only hearing perspectives and viewpoints that chime with existing stances.

Knowing skeptics: Something we see a lot in focus groups is the “knowing skeptic.” In a climate of widespread cynicism toward institutions of all kinds, it is often more empowering to be doubtful about anything a candidate or company tells you, and at times, to believe more in hidden motives or even conspiracies. Further amplified by popular culture – think House of Cards or Scandal - believing in corrupt and self-serving elites becomes a default position.

Digging deeper

The first stage in understanding how to affect change is to understand the narratives people attach to brands or issues. As people, we are both “meaning makers” – we attach meaning to brands and candidates – and “storytellers” – we place politicians, companies and issues within the framework of a story or narrative.

Importantly, a company needs to have a grasp on the role of “narrative bias” – the way certain stories, in advertising guru Rory Sutherland’s words, gain influence “unconnected to how closely they represent the truth,” particularly if they hark back to common frameworks embedded in culture. Common understanding of ‘David vs. Goliath’ – visible in Star Wars as much as the Bible – partly explains why not-for-profits are instinctively more trusted than large corporations, and why as their size and scale grows, Silicon Valley tech firms can go from being seen as plucky upstarts to monolithic Big Brothers. Insight determines not just what a brand’s narrative is, but how its current or potential framing can boost or hinder positive perceptions.

As the marketing innovator Mark Earls has shown, understanding the “we” rather than the “I” is often more important when looking at attitude formation. Indeed, too often, opinion research can be obsessed with the myth of the autonomous individual vs. what is learned group behavior. Earls has highlighted the role of “copying” in society; we take positions and views due to others doing the same, regardless of whether we are conscious of doing so. Learning how social norms inform perceptions reveals the role of context in shaping attitudes and behaviors, and what can be realistically changed or moved.

This is about locating the belief systems behind a debate or issue. Narratives are reinforced by the sense of others thinking similarly and their formation of collective positions. In the past few years, we have seen a shift from a strong belief system in the strength of a free-market economy, and consensus behind the benefits brought about by business, to an environment where income disparity and hostility toward aspects of corporate activity is becoming more of a common stance. Understanding assumptions, biases and social norms behind an issue, and where beliefs are most shaky, is the first step in understanding how to shift views.

What can be done?

An understanding of psychology and the new media environment means information alone is not enough to change opinion. Facts and figures on their own, no matter how compelling, can either get lost in the ether, or at worse, be seen as self-justifying attempts to make a case. What is critical is to connect a case or perspective to people’s deep-seated values and to forge an emotive connection.

In the journalist Jo Becker’s fascinating recent book on the battle for marriage equality, Forcing the Spring, she shows how the cause gathered momentum by widening the lens from solely talking about gaining equal access to benefits and legal rights open to straight couples, to a broader narrative about core American values around fairness, freedom and a level playing field. Building on this, it was about people with a myriad of perspectives coming to believe it was consistent with their values:

Republicans arguing it was consistent with conservative values of fidelity and commitment, athletes arguing it was consistent with fair play, CEOs arguing it was good for business and the economy, religious leaders calling on people to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’, and foreign policy hawks pointing out that some of the most antigay countries in the world were also the most vehemently anti-Western.

Tied to this, it is also about finding the personal, human and real angle to a dynamic or issue. Implicit in the success of the fight on marriage equality was a rising number of Americans knowing a friend or family member who was gay, and as a result, lending a highly emotive and immediate angle to the debate. Though many business issues do not have the same importance, weight or impact, it does highlight the need to locate human actor and personal stories when it comes to communications. Often in corporate and brand messaging, the role of employees is overlooked – people who often feel passionate about the business they work for, are trusted and rooted in their social networks and communities, and can act as powerful persuaders and advocates.

And lastly, it is about repetition and commitment. Drawing on the work of the academic Giep Franzen, consumer research pioneers Wendy Gordon and Caroline Whitehill have highlighted how it can take up to two years to establish a connection or association in our long-term memories, but once embedded, it is rarely forgotten. In part, it explains why childhood associations with brands or our first impressions of political issues are so ingrained. It underlines the need for sticking the course when it comes to looking at evolving perceptions on an issue, brand or debate – change does not come about overnight, and requires focus, commitment and discipline. But above all, it is about finding the emotional connection and striking a chord with people’s values and vision for the future.

Graeme Trayner is a Vice President at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, and leads our global corporate practice.  He has advised companies around the world on how to build and manage reputation. 

GQR Corporate Perspective is a series providing insights on the application of campaign thinking to commercial challenges, and views on the convergence of politics and business.

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