The role of intrinsic values in campaigning

New decades should bring new, exciting adventures and that is exactly how my 2020 has started, as I’ve jumped straight into a new role with the Common Cause Foundation – an organisation working to rebalance cultural values in order to create a more equitable and sustainable world. In my application for the position, I described how I’d discovered Common Cause whilst stumbling around in the darkness of the internet looking for something to explain the concerns I had about the social justice sector’s ability to achieve its long-term vision for change. So, to honour this new chapter, I’ve written about the reasons why I believe that values-led campaigning is the way to go!

The vast majority of NGOs, charities and social movements advocating for a better world depend considerably on the concern of the public. It’s hardly surprising then that those who spend their time trying to engage others on a whole range of issues can often feel immensely frustrated! Why don’t people care about the oceans/the children/the donkeys etc? For decades, the assumption has been that if people only knew about the issue, they would be compelled to act. But, we know from many years of campaigns trying to ‘raise awareness’ that things just aren’t that simple. So if it’s not a lack of knowledge holding people back from becoming trail-blazing global citizens, what is it?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

This befuzzlement has resulted in a billion and one thought pieces, research papers, academic journal entries and ad-hoc engagement experiments all trying to work out how we can get people to give a damn. Do we need to frame our issues better? Do we need to make our campaigns shinier, bolder, louder and more extravagant in order to rise above the humdrum of modern-day life? Do we need more Bonos and Bob Geldofs rallying the masses to the cause? Do we need to provide people with material benefit in order to ‘buy’ their support?

Of course, there is no silver bullet to catalyse mass public engagement, and on the whole, I think campaigners have done an admirable job over the years at using the latest technologies and platforms (Tik Tok, anyone?) to keep their issues in the public eye. However, sometimes it feels that we’re so focused on generating immediate engagement and campaign wins that we fail to stop and think about what the longer-term effects of the approaches we’re using may be. Is it possible that we might be damaging the likelihood of achieving our aims in the future? Are the tactics we deploy helping us win the odd battle now, but at the expense of winning the war overall? These niggly questions have popped up again and again for me throughout my career, but it wasn’t until exploring an entirely different field of thinking that I started to feel like I could answer them.

Within the study of social psychology, values are a really big deal, as they help us understand people’s motivations, and subsequently their behaviour. When it comes to campaigning this is gold-dust information, as it can help us recognise some of the drivers behind an individual’s engagement with our work, and thus strategise about how we can encourage more and more of that engagement in the future. 

Every human being holds a whole bundle of different values – some of them more intrinsic, like ‘equality’, ‘social justice’ and ‘community feeling’, whilst others are more extrinsic like ‘wealth’, ‘status’ and ‘public image’. Research suggests that although nearly everyone holds all of these values, each one of us prioritises them differently, due to our life experiences, our upbringing and the culture we live in. 

Common Cause Values Map

Different campaign strategies tend to try to appeal to certain values. For example, we may appeal to the intrinsic value of ‘a world of beauty’ if we talk about pro-environmental behaviour as a way of preserving the inherent beauty of nature; or, we may focus on appealing to more extrinsic values like ‘pleasure’ and ‘public image’ by encouraging environmental activism with the promise of tickets to a music gig with snazzy wristbands.

No one singular value is ‘bad’ in and of itself, but when it comes to encouraging widespread public engagement, the question of whether or not campaigners should appeal to individuals by using extrinsic messaging, or attempting to create a values-shift towards intrinsic values in society at large, is a very important question.

To some, if appealing to extrinsic values gets people involved and donating to your cause, then great! Who cares what their underlying reasons are as long as they’re engaging in the campaign. Although a completely fair criticism, the research coming out of social psychology tends to disagree for a few key reaso

1.Intrinsic values lead to greater engagement now and in the future

It’s hardly surprising that those who place greater importance on intrinsic values like equality and protecting the environment, tend to show greater concern for a range of social and environmental challenges, and are more likely to engage in different forms of activism. People who place more emphasis on extrinsic values on the other hand are far less likely to show concern or engage. If campaigners believe that widespread public mobilisation is an important factor in overall campaign success then this finding would suggest that we should be appealing to intrinsic values in our messaging

2. Values exist on a seesaw

Building on the previous point, it can be helpful to picture the values that we all hold as existing on a kind of metaphorical seesaw. As one set of values is temporarily engaged (that is, when an individual’s attention is drawn to a particular value by viewing a piece of communication material), then the opposing set of values is temporarily de-engaged. For example, if my campaign successfully activated the intrinsic value of ‘broadmindedness’ in somebody, that person would be unable to simultaneously hold the extrinsic value of ‘social status’ to the same degree of importance at the same time. For campaigners, this is extremely important, as it suggests that if we try to communicate our message by appealing to extrinsic values we not only lessen our chances of getting better levels of engagement, but we actively suppress the values most associated with civic action in the first place.

3. Can a problem’s cause play a part in its solution?

When considering this debate, I am often reminded of the famous words of Audre Lorde: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. We live in a capitalist world where we are bombarded with extrinsic messaging all the live-long day. Messages about how we need to be rich, successful and powerful in order to be happy, how profits outweigh the health and sustainability of our planet, how we need to dominate and control others in order to get ahead. Capitalism is dependent on people placing greater importance on extrinsic values, which consequently means that intrinsic values become increasingly suppressed. Campaigners often consider embedded systems, like capitalism, to be the root causes of many of the challenges we seek to overcome. With this in mind, surely it seems insane to be appealing to extrinsic values in the hope of generating public engagement, when these are the very same values that underpin many of the inequalities and environmentally destructive behaviours that we are active against? It’s like trying to fight a fire by increasing the oxygen supply

4. Activate one value and you activate it’s neighbours

Imagine you’re a campaigner who has tirelessly worked on an issue for decades and finally all your blood, sweat and tears has paid off and you have managed to achieve the outcomes you were seeking. Now what? An almost infinite number of other issues await your attention. How utterly exhausting! Luckily for us, research into the relationship between values has an incredible bit of insight we can use. It’s been found that as one value is engaged, its neighbouring values are also engaged. So, if you’re working on a campaign to do with women’s equality, activating the ‘equality’ value, it’s also likely to be activating the near-by value of ‘protecting the environment’, meaning your campaign could have a positive knock on effect for other campaigns working on totally different issues! However, currently, instead of working together to build underlying values that could raise public engagement across causes, campaigners tend to work in silos, fighting for public attention, resources and money. We seem to live in a world of ‘my issue is worse than yours’, which – let’s be honest – when working to solve the world’s biggest challenges like poverty and climate change seems a bit redundant. If we’re considering how to make the world better as a whole, we should be thinking about the interconnection of challenges we face, as well as the approaches we can use to affect as many of them as possible at one time. No matter how passionate you are, or how politically active, it is simply impossible to care about everything to the level that we would need in order to see change on the scale required. Thinking about which values we need to strengthen amongst the public (and ultimately which values would be weakened by consequence) can help us create campaigns which don’t just move the dial on our issue, but go about building foundations for tackling a whole host of different problems all at once. To me, that just sounds hella efficient!

I’m super excited to be joining the Common Cause team, as I believe wholeheartedly that until society sorts itself out values-wise, it’s going to be pretty much impossible to resolve the global challenges we currently face. Although helping to mainstream intrinsic values within our culture may seem like a task of epic proportions, I take comfort in the fact that recent Common Cause research suggests that the vast majority of people place higher importance on compassionate values over extrinsic values. And if the cynic inside you just scoffed, well that may be because on the whole we tend to assume that our fellow citizens are more motivated by extrinsic values than actually seems to be the case! This kind of gives people a ‘get out of jail’ free card when it comes to civic action, as if you think someone’s a selfish git, you’re less likely to expect them to behave in pro-social and pro-environmental ways. 

I’m looking forward to working with a diverse range of organisations – not just those with a specific social or environmental remit – to share this research, think through and identify ways that we could collaboratively strengthen the intrinsic values muscle in society and ultimately pave the way for greater possibilities when it comes to campaigning in the future. Who knows, if the world was making its decisions from a place of intrinsic values, we may not even need campaigners at all!

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Further resources

If you’re interested in learning more about values and geeking out on all the latest research, check out this list of reports and articles by Common Cause and other brilliant organisations working in this field and feel free to drop me an email – I’d be happy to chat J

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