Tom Crompton


I've worked on values and social change for nearly a decade. WWF’s work in this area started in 2008, with the publication of my report Weathercocks and Signposts. This was followed in 2010 with the publication of a book I wrote with Tim Kasser called Meeting Environmental Challenges, and then with the Common Cause report, published later the same year. In the last couple of years I’ve focused on research – particularly through a very productive collaboration between WWF and Scope. This has allowed us to test many of the principles we are advancing through Common Cause. I’m now helping to set up The Common Cause Foundation. Email me at:

The UK election: a triumph of values over perception?

Much of our work over the last couple of years has focused on the likely consequences of the ‘perception gap’. Most people (85% of citizens in Greater Manchester, for example) place more importance on ‘compassionate’ values of community, social justice and equality than they do on values of wealth, success or social status. But it’s also the case that most people (75% across Greater Manchester) underestimate the importance that others place on these values. Our work finds that this ‘perception gap’ is greatest among people who self-identify as ‘liberals’.

It seems that the ‘perception gap’ is related to many different outcomes – people’s well-being, their feelings of connection to community, and their concern about social and environmental issues. We have also repeatedly found that people who hold less accurate perceptions of what matters to a typical fellow citizen are less likely to vote.

One key factor in shaping the outcome of the recent UK General Election seems to have been an increase in voter turn-out.

Why might this increase have arisen?

There are many things that may influence whether people vote. But perhaps one important factor is a tension between people’s own values and their perceptions of others’ values.

A typical person’s own ‘compassionate’ values may motivate them to vote for whichever party they feel is most likely to promote social justice, equality, environmental protection and strong communities; while that same person’s perception of what matters to others may hold them back from voting at all. And remember, this ‘perception gap’ is particularly large among people who identify themselves as ‘liberal’ as opposed to ‘conservative’.

The dramatic increase in support for the Labour Party in the few weeks running up to the election did not, in all likelihood, arise because people came to attach greater importance to social justice or equality over the course of the campaign. That kind of shift doesn’t happen quickly.

But the ‘perception gap’ could be closed quickly. Perhaps, in part, what we saw in the few weeks running up to the election were the effects of people coming to realise that others held these concerns to be more important than they had hitherto thought. This realisation may have been helped by the reduced influence of newspapers, many of which seem to promote the erroneous perception that people care most about themselves.

At one level, this is simply to restate that success begets success: that is, as support for the Labour Party was seen to grow, it was likely to grow further. But if I am right that shifting understandings of what others care about played a part here, then there’s a consequence of practical importance.

The suggestion, voiced by many Conservatives since the election, that their party lost support because their manifesto didn’t make much of a “retail offer” conveys an understanding that the question uppermost in most voters’ minds must be: “What’s in it for me?”

This very suggestion is likely to widen the ‘perception gap’ – eroding people’s motivation to vote (especially among people who identify themselves as ‘liberal’).

If they are to build further on their growing public support, the Labour Party would do well to frame their success as arising not because they spoke to people’s self-interest, but because they connected with people’s concern for one another.

This framing, if adopted by any political party, but especially if adopted by political parties that appeal to ‘liberal’ voters, could be of great help in closing the ‘perception gap’ and engaging even more citizens in civic life.

(Cartoon by Bec Sanderson)

Tom CromptonThe UK election: a triumph of values over perception?
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Values at City Hall

With a month to go before mayoral elections in England, there is one overarching question that voters can ask of their mayoral candidates: will they organise their work around the values that citizens in these cities and city-regions hold to be most important, and will they do so explicitly – testifying publicly to the shared importance of these values?

Climate campaigners and communicators wring their hands at the fickleness of public debate on climate change: a debate does not seem to be in any way proportionate to the scale of the challenge that climate change presents, or the gravity of its consequences.

Faced with this frustration, one response is to try to link climate change more firmly to other more salient aspects of the news agenda – for example, immigration, security or economic growth.

On the face of it, this seems like a sensible approach. If, for example, people don’t seem to care (much) about climate change, but care deeply about the economy, why not focus on the potential economic benefits of a vibrant renewables sector?

But the continued failure of this approach, now over many years, suggests that it may be misguided.

It is an approach that seeks to build concern about policy areas while showing little understanding of the underlying values that drive public appetite and demand for policy change.

Values are not rooted in policy debate: they are structured very differently. Debate about policy may cut across many conflicting values, while commitment to the same coherent set of values may underpin public support for seemingly unrelated policy interventions.

Policy areas – like national security, immigration, climate change, public health care or economic competitiveness – are largely discreet. Public debate on these issues is led by experts with different areas of specialism.

These experts sit in different academic disciplines, in different government departments, in different (often competing) charities, or at different editorial desks. To be sure, links can be made between different policy areas. But where this is done, these links are material. Think of the debate about the impact of immigration on national security, or the intersection between economic competitiveness and public revenues for public health provision.

Unfortunately, most policy debate is structured in ways that fail to grasp the psychological factors that are of critical importance in shaping public support for action in these areas: people’s values.

People’s values are often blind to policy areas. In our work, we have shown that public support for conservation action may be built as effectively by communicating about disability rights as by communicating about biodiversity loss: if the values are right. If the values are wrong, then communication in one sphere is found to undermine public support for action in the other.

Crucially, it seems that the actual issues don’t seem to much matter – what matters are the values that are invoked in debate about these issues.

These insights present a crucial challenge to the way in which public debate around social and environmental issues is conducted. It suggests that the work of, say, a government department focused on child poverty may be as important in influencing public support for ambitious action on climate change as the work of, say, a charity working specifically on climate change. Even where that government department makes no mention of climate change.

Of course, these inter-dependencies are already operating – often unseen, and usually in an unhelpful direction.

So, today’s dominant narrative thread, running throughout public policy debate and focused on wealth creation and economic competitiveness engages specific values. These are values which, as demonstrated by study after study, are diametrically opposed to public expression of concern about challenges such as climate change.

The psychological evidence seems clear: systemic public support for serious action on climate change will be predicated on different values.

These will be values of community, social justice, friendship and helpfulness. And they are values that can be placed at the forefront of public policy making.  Indeed, there is a clear mandate for this because these are the values that a large majority of people hold to be most important – though, tragically, most of us underestimate the importance that a typical fellow citizen places on these values.

Though difficult, it will be necessary to effect such change at a national level. But at a local level it is perhaps more foreseeable. This is why we are working in Bristol and Greater Manchester in the UK: seeking to help place these values, and awareness of the importance that citizens place on them, at the forefront of regional public debate.

There is a single overriding commitment that mayoral candidates in the upcoming elections across England next month should make, and that we can encourage them to make at their hustings. It is this: to begin to organise their work around those values that the citizens in these cities and regions hold to be most important, and to do so explicitly – testifying publicly to the shared importance of these values.

Tom CromptonValues at City Hall
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Values to help heal our Brexit divisions

Tom Crompton & Paul Hanel

An understanding of values could help to heal the divisions that have been deepened by the EU Referendum, pointing to a crucial role for our cultural organisations.

Working at the University of Bath, one of us (Paul) has studied values data from across the European Union and has found that people who attach importance to the group of values called “Security” are likely to be the least trustful of the European Union.

Here concern for “Security” is defined as “safety, harmony, and stability of society, of relationships, and of self”. The group includes values such as “national security” and “social order” but also “family security” and “cleanliness”.

Figure 1 shows the values of a demographically representative sample of a thousand UK citizens (based on a survey that Common Cause Foundation commissioned in 2015). High numbers of us prioritise “Security”: indeed, it is the second most highly prioritised value across the UK.

Figure 1: UK citizens’ own values


But there is another value group, which is even more widely prioritised than “Security”, and which seems to be unrelated to feelings of trust for the European Union. This is the group “Benevolence”.  “Benevolence” is defined as “preservation and enhancement of the welfare of people with whom one is in frequent personal contact”. These are the values which are most widely prioritised across the UK. But Paul found that the importance that we place on “Benevolence” values is of no help in predicting the level of trust that we feel towards the European Union.

Our survey also found that, across the UK, we seem to have a relatively accurate perception of the importance that fellow citizens place on “Security” values – correctly perceiving that these values are widely prioritised. But, crucially, this research has also shown that we in the UK typically underestimate the importance that our fellow citizens place on “Benevolence” values.

Look at Figure 2. The blue line shows an average UK citizen’s value priorities; the orange line shows our average perceptions about a typical fellow citizen’s values. We typically underestimate the importance that fellow citizens place on “Benevolence” values. But we hold relatively accurate perceptions of the importance a typical fellow citizen places on “Security” values.

Figure 2: UK citizens’ own values and perceptions of others’ values


In other words, there is an opportunity to deepen our appreciation of the values that we share, irrespective of our attitudes towards Europe.

One way to begin to heal the divisions that the EU referendum has created may therefore be by working to convey a deeper appreciation of the high importance that most of us place on shared “Benevolence” values, regardless of how we voted in the referendum.

At a workshop earlier this month, organised by Happy Museum and held at Derby Museum, representatives from many different museums came together to explore the role of the cultural sector in helping to heal the divisions created by the Brexit vote.

A key focus emerging from the workshop was the potential for cultural organisations to amplify and reflect common values, particularly around “Benevolence”, as a way of opening dialogue and building understanding.

Encouragingly, research that Shanna Lennon, Common Cause Foundation Co-coordinator at Manchester Museum, recently conducted shows that visitors who left Manchester Museum feeling that their visit had encouraged “Benevolence” values were also more likely to leave saying that they felt a responsibility to become involved in their community, to support action on climate change, and that their visit had contributed to their well-being.

Such insights are not, alone, conclusive. But they suggest that, by becoming aware of the values they model, and that their visitors hold to be most important, the UK’s 2,500 museums could play a crucial role in nurturing community cohesion and healing social division.

Dr Paul Hanel is a post-doctoral research assistant with particular interest in human values, cross-cultural research and statistics. He is at the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, UK.

 Featured image: The Great North Run, copyright Peter McDermott, Creative Commons

Tom CromptonValues to help heal our Brexit divisions
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We Need to Talk About Englishness

English people in the social and environmental movements often don’t like talking about English identity. It seems to be a source of embarrassment. When I speak to friends about Englishness, I find that many like to shift the conversation subtly onto the safer ground of Britishness.

But there’s an irony here. This easy elision from Englishness to Britishness could only ever be sustained by those living in England. Where it’s unconscious, it’s an elision that arises through a sense of being numerically, economically and culturally dominant. Yet it is those who feel most uncomfortable about Englishness, and who appeal most readily to Britishness, who are also the first to consciously reject any possible basis for dominance.

All of this is changing. The stark difference between the attitudes of Scottish and English (or Welsh) voters towards Europe, thrown into relief by a referendum that forced a binary yes/no response, makes it increasingly difficult even for those living in England to confuse Englishness with Britishness. Theresa May’s insistence that “we voted in the referendum as one United Kingdom” rings hollow.

It’s time for people who live in England, and who are working for a more humane and caring society, to stop hiding behind this increasingly untenable sense of Britishness. It’s time for them to begin to help shape what it means to be English. Only by doing so can they assist in the midwifery of a self-confident, outward-looking and inclusive English identity.

I was keen to explore this perspective with the theologian and philosopher Alastair McIntosh – someone who has given a great deal of thought to Scottish national identity. Sharing a dram over Skype we took a sideways look at English national identity: both of us were born in England, though we have each spent almost our whole lives living elsewhere (Alastair in Scotland, I in Wales).

Where might an inclusive and outward-looking conversation about English national identity start?

Here are three possible departure points that Alastair and I came up with:

1. Get the history right

Before he became Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnston delivered a speech entitled “What Would Maggie do Today?”. Thatcher, he said, “changed the self-image of the country”:

“To grasp what she did, you have to remember how far we felt we had fallen. Our country – Britain – used to rule the world – almost literally. Of the 193 present members of the UN, we have conquered or at least invaded 171 – that is 90 per cent…”

Greatness, it seems, is to be found in the power to suppress. According to this perspective, advanced by an English MP speaking for Britons, we felt we had fallen when we stopped ruling the world. But the atrocities of British suppression of other peoples is not greatness, and to suppress our collective understanding of these atrocities is to keep the lid on our humanity. There can be no possibility of developing a self-confident and outward looking English national identity without coming to terms with the horrors of the empire. But this is history that we would rather destroy than confront.

Yet, at the same time, there are many great things that England has given to the world that we choose not to highlight, and that are largely overlooked in our history classes. One could start with the flood of radical ideas thrown up at the time of the English Revolution, and their global legacy today.

In the US, there are organisations dedicated to supporting the teaching of people’s history. Similar organisations are needed in England.

There is work here for teachers, and arts and heritage organisations – perhaps starting with the National Trust.

2. Treat nature as though it’s sacred

England’s “mountains green” and “pleasant pastures” of Blake’s Jerusalem (pictured above in his own version) are central to English identity, which is, for many, rooted in relationship with England’s woods, rivers and coasts, and the other species with which we share these.

Yet this is an aspect of our identity which is under profound threat. We all know – even if we don’t recall the precise figures – that our woodlands and farmlands are becoming quieter as song-bird populations plummet, the seas around our coasts are dying, and those “pleasant pastures” themselves are under threat – whether from fracking or road building.

At the same time, what is left of English nature is commodified as “natural capital”, robbed of its intrinsic value as its notional financial value is chalked up: often with the complicity – if not outright enthusiasm – of conservation organisations. What untold and unconscious psychological damage is being wrought by the denigration of English nature as a resource to be “sustainably exploited” or “harvested”?

England’s environmental and conservation organisations need to mount an effective defence against the desacralisation of English nature. To embrace its commodification is to shoot themselves in the foot.

Alastair recently drew these threads together for BBC Alba, speaking about the crucial interplay of history, sense of place, community and the shared national imagination.

3. Talk about English diversity

The myriad ways in which English culture is enriched through the contribution of people of diverse background or faith needs to be talked about. If we don’t talk about it, then we silently strengthen a more narrowly circumscribed and impoverished perception of what it means to be English.

Take just one example: look at the Google ngram chart I’ve generated below. The phrases “British Christian” and “English Christian” are used with comparable frequency. But there’s a wide disparity in the frequency of the use of terms “British Muslim” and “English Muslim”. Is it that we prefer to use “British” in relation to Muslims because of a tacit fear that “English” is less inclusive of faiths other than Christianity? It seems possible. But if this is happening, then it is also likely to be self-reinforcing. A more inclusive sense of Englishness is going to be best nurtured by consciously talking about, for example, English Muslims.

Any English person who worries about what Englishness stands for could ask whether she or he is working to help address the source of these worries, or is rather retreating behind her or his simultaneous identity as British. It’s time to start celebrating all that’s great about Englishness – and, yes, finding in it things of which to be proud.


English identity and today’s big challenges

It seems clear that if England is to become a caring and open society, celebrating the diversity of the English, caring for the disadvantaged and looking after the planet – both the bit called England and the rest of it – then we need to talk about English identity differently.

A lot is known about the intersection of people’s identity and their social or environmental sensibilities.

Take climate change.

If accepting the gravity of the problem that climate change presents risks leaving you ostracised by your ‘in-group’ (the people with whom you closely identify) then it is ‘rational’ for you to shore up your group-identity by rejecting the climatology.

After all, the chances are, whether you accept or deny climate change, your stance on the issue is going to have next to no impact on whether effective policies to tackle climate change are adopted.

But (depending upon the worldview of your in-group) accepting the science may come at a very high social cost – that of being criticised, or ostracised, by friends and family. The social scientist Dan Kahan calls this “identity-protective cognition”: whether we accept facts depends in part on the impact of this on the identity we’re striving to preserve (even where this effect is not something of which we are consciously aware).

It’s known – Tim Kasser and colleagues have shown this – that reflecting on different aspects of our national identity leads to different outcomes when we’re subsequently asked about our support for environmentally-friendly policies.

It’s because identity is so important in shaping collective responses to social and environmental challenges that Common Cause Foundation is working on our perceptions of what matters to others. Collectively, and across all English regions, people typically underestimate the overriding importance that fellow citizens place on values such as social justice or environmental protection.

These values are core aspects of the identity of most people who live in England. We need to start making them part of what is understood by Englishness.

Tom CromptonWe Need to Talk About Englishness
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The Values of Cooperation

This is a guest blog by Ed Mayo, Secretary General at Co-operatives UK and author of the new book Values: how to bring values to life in your business.

Sometimes, you just need confidence.

Ask yourself this: do I ever feel a bit lonely, a bit different if I care about social justice, or about what we are doing to the environment?

If you do, then it is not because you are alone. It is because you are made to feel alone. This is what I have learned from Common Cause Foundation.

We live in a world in which the narratives that dominate in society and the economy are rooted in values that tend to marginalise ‘intrinsic’ values of co-operation, fairness and sustainability. Common Cause Foundation are on a mission to give us confidence, proving that concern for those intrinsic values are far more widely shared than we are led to believe. If non profit, social movements stress these values, then we contribute to changing the narratives that keep us separate and unconfident.

I have recently been exploring whether what the Common Cause Foundation argues might also hold true for business – that even markets may be conduits for positive values.

One test case has been co-operative enterprises. There are around 1.6 million co-ops worldwide, operating under a global statement of values and principles, some underpinned in law, some voluntary, and all extraordinarily diverse expressions of a common shared model of a business owned democratically (one person, one vote) by people participating directly in the business.

The result is a short book, Values, a ninety minute read published by Greenleaf, in their Do Sustainability series. The book focuses on the practical tools for bringing values to life in business – how to recruit for values, how to measure values, how to bring values into the supply chain or into governance. It tells the stories of businesses that have tried and failed to change values, and those that have succeeded.

So, business can reflect different values. Of course there are challenges, of inequalities and competing purposes, but in principle every business relies on a high degree of voluntarism, both from staff (will they stay, will they be productive, will they speak up with innovations and improvements?) and from customers (will they stay, will they spread the word, will they too speak up with innovations and improvements?).

With voluntarism of this form making a difference, there is always a case for business to reflect better the values and deeper motivation of those it deals with. If the owners also share these values of fairness and sustainability, for example with a number of co-operatives, then the business case for action on fairness and sustainability is even more clear.

So, what next?

If there are one billion people worldwide who are co-owners of co-operative enterprises, then the next question is how these values of co-operation can become more prevalent or even dominant within society?

With data analysis being led by Common Cause Foundation, we are now looking at values data drawn from existing surveys worldwide, such as the European Social Survey and the World Values Survey, using in particular the widely respected framework on values developed by Professor Shalom Schwartz.

The results, across country to country, won’t be available until 2017.  When it comes, we hope to have been able to test for around ninety countries across the world, the prevalence of co-operative values.

The data, when published, may reinforce the finding that there are more people who care than we presume. More than the conventional narratives of power, including economics and politics, would have us believe.

We are not alone.

We just need the confidence to know that this is true and to act individually and collectively in ways that our shared intrinsic values call us to.

Values is published by Greenleaf and available here

Tom CromptonThe Values of Cooperation
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Values and civic participation in Greater Manchester

Promoting public demand for a more caring society

Common Cause Foundation are working in collaboration with Manchester Museum, part of The University of Manchester, on a project to show how insights from social psychology could help to build social cohesion, wellbeing and support for positive social and environmental change across Greater Manchester – including public demands for ambitious action on climate change.

What’s preventing a more caring and compassionate society?

A society which fosters greater wellbeing for today’s citizens and future generations is an aspiration not just in Greater Manchester, but the world over.  We know what policy interventions, technologies and lifestyle choices are needed, but without vocal and sustained public demand for change, these seem to be a distant prospect.

Change won’t happen by itself.  Organizations working for a better society will benefit from developing a clearer understanding of how to motivate and sustain widespread public demand for change.  Only by doing this will political space and pressure be created and maintained.

What will we be doing?

Our recent research, published as Perceptions Matter, shows that over three quarters of people in the UK under-estimate the importance that typical fellow-citizens place on values such as responsibility, honesty, social justice, and equality (that is, ‘intrinsic values’).

With Manchester Museum we will be developing ways of addressing this widespread misunderstanding about what others hold to be important – something which, if we can overcome it, could enable citizens everywhere to be more civically engaged in building a better world.

Focusing on visitors to, and stakeholders of, Manchester Museum we will create a better understanding of the typical values of a Greater Manchester citizen, validating and strengthening social norms around intrinsic values by:

  • developing new resources for the 450,000 visitors to the Museum that convey a deeper understanding of their and their fellow citizen’s values
  • supporting other organizations in Greater Manchester to engage their audiences in ways that convey a better understanding of their values and concerns, strengthening their commitment to civic participation

What do we expect the outcomes to be?

  • deepening awareness among Museum visitors of the importance that they and others place on intrinsic values
  • increased engagement in civic participation by visitors to the Museum
  • inspiration and practical support for other organizations working in Greater Manchester to adopt similar changes, greatly magnifying impact
  • a toolkit and replicable approach to ways of strengthening people’s commitment to civic participation, for uptake by networks in many other city-regions, in the UK and beyond

This project builds on conversations facilitated by Happy Museum and is supported by the Minor Foundation for Major Challenges




Tom CromptonValues and civic participation in Greater Manchester
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Grounds for hope in challenging times

We know – we don’t need to see the data, though here it is – that we (individually and collectively) embody deep contradictions.

We desire power, wealth, and image. We tend easily towards prejudice. These are values that are celebrated – often blatantly, often subtly – in so many ways; through much of the media and advertising that we consume, through the role-models of our political leaders, even through the ways in which we measure the progress of our society. The dead hand of market fundamentalism, it seems – beckons us ever towards self-interest and antipathy.

But, even in the face of this, we hold other values to be important. Values of community, social justice, and equality. We strive for broadmindedness and we are drawn to beauty.

Indeed, these are the ‘intrinsic’ values that most of us hold most dearly: though we tragically underestimate the importance that our fellow citizens place on these values.

As Common Cause Foundation’s research has shown, people in the UK hold these values to be the most important irrespective of age, region, perceived wealth, gender and political orientation. We can anticipate that most people in the UK will also hold these values to be the most important irrespective of how they decided to vote in the EU referendum.

Here are four hope-full things we can each do.

Practice empathy and humility

As David Malone wrote in his recent appeal for ‘Remainers’ to express the empathy and humility to which they are so committed rhetorically: “The battle of our time, will require a courage and a faith in each other that we are squandering with every word of this bilious Brexit name-calling.”  This video may help in that effort.

Know your blind-spot

As Common Cause Foundation research has also shown, over three quarters of UK citizens underestimate the importance that a typical fellow citizen places on ‘intrinsic’ values such as community, social justice, protecting the environment, and broadmindedness.

The ‘intrinsic’ values we are likely to hold to be most important are actually in step with the values to which most others attach greatest importance. Understanding this could, in turn, embolden us each to better express these values – providing further social proof of the importance that people place on them, and further emboldening others to express them.

Let hope transcend misguided tactics

In the run-up to the EU Referendum in the UK, both sides sought to deepen our collective fears – about the economy, or people from other countries. People who should have known better acquiesced to this.

“I’m backing Osborne’s Project Fear – if it helps keep us in Europe” wrote Martin Kettle in The Guardian. The trouble is, what Kettle welcomes as an argument that is “pragmatic and hard-headed to a fault” may have unintentionally contributed to our distrust of others who are not part of our social group.

So, for example, John Duckitt reports that those who perceive a dangerous world (demonstrated by agreement with statements such as “Any day now chaos and anarchy could erupt around us – all the signs are pointing to it”), are more likely to have a high ‘social dominance orientation’. That is, they are more likely to agree with statements such as “Inferior groups should stay in their place”, and less likely to agree with statements such as “It’s OK if some groups have more of a chance in life than others”.

This is just one way in which people who would like to see our politics infused by greater openness and compassion shoot themselves in the foot by mistakenly thinking that they are best appealing to fear, selfishness, or desire for social status. They are less likely to succeed – and where they do, their success is founded on sand.

Dig where you stand

And if this feels out of reach for those of us who do not feel the hand of history upon our shoulder, then perhaps it helps to be reminded of something T.S. Eliot wrote during February 1940 – while working as a night-watchman just a few months into the Second World War. He urged us to locate “our hope in modest and local beginnings” rather “than in transforming the whole world at once.”


Tom CromptonGrounds for hope in challenging times
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Donald Trump’s selective hearing about climate change

One key barrier to public acceptance of the evidence for man-made climate change is our psychological investment in the current economic system.

At one level this seems obvious, because the implications of any adequate response to climate change for today’s economic institutions will be profound. We might anticipate that anyone heavily invested in today’s economic system is going to be attracted to sources of information more sceptical of climate change (and, on the other hand, that people critical of the economic system may be more attracted to sources of information underscoring its severity).

But when it comes to climate change, our selective hearing (or memory – psychologists aren’t sure which it is) also seems to operate unconsciously.

In research published last month, Erin Hennes and colleagues asked people a series of questions to assess their belief that the current economic system is fair and legitimate.

People who score highly on the “economic system justification” scale, are likely to agree that: “If people work hard they almost always get what they want”, “it is virtually impossible to eliminate poverty”, “social class differences reflect differences in the natural order of things”, and “economic positions are legitimate reflections of people’s achievements”.

When presented with a report about climate change, those people who scored highly on the “economic system justification” scale were then less likely to recall facts, mentioned in this report, that affirmed the scale and severity of climate change.

It seems that people who score highly on this scale have an unconscious fear of accepting the scale of challenge that climate change presents, because to do so risks acknowledging that our faith in the fairness and legitimacy of today’s economic institutions might be misplaced. This insecurity leads them either not to assimilate, or to assimilate but then forget, information pointing to how urgent action on climate change is.

This is perhaps a demographic to which Donald Trump tries to appeal when he dismisses climate change as a hoax – though the jury is out on whether he really believes this himself.

More generally, the researchers suggest that people “… may be motivated to manipulate their informational landscape in a manner that fulfils the need to maintain and justify the status quo.” (p.10)

What can be done with this insight?

Those who score highly in “economic system justification” are, the researchers suggest, more accepting of evidence for climate change if they are first told that the economy is buoyant. They tentatively recommend that communications about climate change should be preceded by assertions that the economy is doing just fine – something which seems tantamount to inviting us to stick our heads in a pile of yellowish granular material.

One more realistic response is to assimilate climate change into the current economic system as another business opportunity, thus allowing ‘high system justifiers’ to reconcile their desire to bolster the current economic system with acceptance of the reality of climate change. But this approach leads to an emphasis on new opportunities for jobs and growth without ever mounting a proper response to those activities that make lots of money while trashing the climate.

Another response is to work to change the ideas that ‘high system justifiers’ hold of the kind of economic system that they are anxious to defend. This requires us to re-imagine economic systems, and think about these in new ways. In terms of the material dimensions of climate change, the case for this re-imagining was always strong. This new research underscores the compelling psychological reasons for embarking on it.


Tom CromptonDonald Trump’s selective hearing about climate change
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Money can’t buy love – or can it?


“Money can’t buy love”, we’re told. And we now know that thinking about money is likely to make love a lot more difficult. But is this inevitable?

Research has found that being briefly reminded of money leads us to care less for others and for the environment. This is especially unfortunate because we are so often reminded of money: handling it, paying for things, talking about it, reading about it.

But this effect isn’t, presumably, inevitable. It arises because of the symbolic meaning that money has acquired – and it’s conceivable that, in a different world, money comes to symbolise something else.

I spent yesterday afternoon in Liverpool with an energetic group of people working on local currencies – both established local currencies, like Bristol Pound or Brixton Pound, and many others in earlier stages of development.

These are people who want to change the meaning of money. But I worry that at times the profound impact that they could have on what money symbolises is lost – because of a focus on the structural changes that a local currency could create.

This means that those working on local currencies sometimes lapse into judging their success on the basis of how much money is in circulation, or the proportion of the local economy they have ‘captured’.

Measured in this way, most local currencies struggle to demonstrate much impact. Ironically, their very success is judged on precisely those values that underpin the financial establishment that these local currency schemes are setting out to challenge!

Inviting people to support a local currency because this “helps independent business” or “keeps money on the high street” sets the terms by which success of the currency will be judged, but will do little to change the symbolic meaning of money.

We discussed, at the meeting of the Guild of Independent Currencies, whether there are other, more important, impacts of local currencies. The salience of a local currency may far outstrip its economic leverage. When I visit Bristol, for example, I see signs on buses and shop doors inviting me to pay in Bristol Pounds. The social impact of these reminders – created through the values that they engage – may be far greater than the structural impact of the Bristol Pound (which is, today at least, small). If this is the case, then it’s important to ask what this wider social impact is, and whether it might be further strengthened and improved through a values led approach.

For example, a local currency could be promoted as a symbol of a community’s commitment to self-direction, civic participation and social justice. There can be few more powerful symbols of people ‘doing things for themselves’ than a local currency.

To most of us it seems to be an almost impossibly difficult thing to create, not least because it seems to level such a clear challenge towards the financial establishment.  Local currencies are a potent demonstration of what can be achieved by committed people, volunteering in their spare time. What wonderful testimony to the power of people collaborating, volunteering and creating: intrinsic values that we know spill over into many other areas of social and environmental concern.

The purpose of a local currency might then be framed as being to convey a town’s or city’s commitment to these values, where its actual use becomes an expression of a commitment to self-direction, civic participation and social justice. This opportunity aligns strongly with our recent survey that shows that these are the very values that most people hold to be of highest importance.

So evidence suggests that a local currency might also seek – with complete legitimacy – to associate these values with those held to be most important by the majority of people living in that town or city, irrespective of whether or not they use the currency themselves.

In this way, the currency could become a conspicuous reminder of most people’s commitment to these values, and could have significant impact in strengthening key aspects of shared identity across a town or city. This is an effort that could then be joined by other organisations and institutions: particularly those that have a role in promoting public reflection on the values that characterise those who live in a town or city. This might include museums, universities, local government and regional media.

These values would then, of course, contribute to building public support for a wide range of social and environmental initiatives, potentially multiplying the impact of the scheme many-fold.

Local currencies present wonderful opportunities for beginning to build such shared identity – and to keep this salient in citizens’ day-to-day lives. But if these schemes are constrained by a narrow focus on economic indicators of success, this opportunity could be missed.

Tom CromptonMoney can’t buy love – or can it?
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Is reframing climate change a waste of time?

If nobody much cares about climate change, does it really much matter how it’s talked about?

Our common climate

No, according to David Roberts. Rather, he argues, climate communicators and campaigners shouldn’t spend so much time worrying about how to ‘reframe’ their message.

Is he right?

Part of Roberts’ argument is compelling. But this interesting bit risks getting lost because of his focus on one particular study.

Roberts highlights a recent letter in Nature Climate Change which looks for, but fails to find, framing effects.

Why should this study have failed to detect such effects, when so many others have found them? It’s difficult to know, of course. But it seems overly-exuberant, in the light of those other studies, to draw the conclusion that thinking carefully about how climate change is framed is a waste of time.

In another respect, though, Roberts’ argument has real weight: communication on climate change must be viewed in a far wider context.

 “Human beings,” he writes “ … come complete with a strong set of overlapping, mutually reinforcing frames.

“To a great extent, those preexisting social and psychological commitments — which are outside the scope of any conceivable climate communication campaign — are going to determine how people assess a specific phenomenon like climate change.”

We know that, very important among those ‘preexisting social and psychological commitments’, are values. Deep concern about climate change, support for ambitious policy interventions, and motivation to get out and make a fuss about it (joining a demonstration, volunteering for a pressure group, lobbying a politician) are all related to the values that a person holds to be important.

We also know that engaging some values strengthens expressions of concern about climate change. Here’s one study we conducted which found this. And here’s a useful summary of many comparable ones.

But such effects – real and important as they may be – are going to be rapidly ‘washed out’ by many other aspects of day-to-day life. Roberts is dead right that climate change cannot be simply split off, and dealt with separately, as though all the other influences we encounter daily are irrelevant.

In terms of the things that shape our values, climate change communication is a drop in the ocean. That’s an ocean deep and wide, made up of a vastness of advertising, boundless expanses of celebrity gossip and a flood tide of economic bulletins about the Dow Jones or FTSE 100. In other words, many of the communications we receive every day are likely to engage and strengthen values opposed to those that underpin concern about climate change.

This is one very important reason why, as Roberts points out, “danger of climate change does not arouse much public passion.”

But this isn’t an argument for indifference about how we frame climate change. It’s an argument for caring deeply about how we conceptualise both climate change and a wide range of other things that are (as yet, for many of us at least) more salient in our day-to-day lives.

Think of the UK’s National Health Service.

NHS demonstration

I experience the NHS both as someone who sees a deduction on my pay slip each month as a contribution to its cost, and as someone who rocks up to the doctor and leaves without paying. These are more impactful aspects of my day-to-day experience than my exposure to communications about climate change.

Such experience serves to reinforce my perception that public goods – such as universal healthcare – are normal and expected things in society, and that the cost of these should be borne collectively.

Such experience is also likely to strengthen my support for policy interventions to help safeguard another public good – a safe climate.

In both cases, I am invited to support policies which are in the common interest, without asking whether they justify the personal expense or inconvenience that they might entail. There’s an ethic here which defies simple cost-benefit analysis.

Reframing the NHS in transactional terms – inviting me to reflect on whether I ‘get as much out’ of the NHS as I ‘put in’ would be deeply corrosive. Public support for the NHS would collapse if people began to think in those terms.

Coming to think of the NHS in these transactional terms would, I predict, also undermine public commitment for ambitious action on climate change.

Here it would be unhelpful for me to ask whether the personal impacts of ambitious climate policy cause me more inconvenience or expense than it delivers personal benefit.

So Roberts may be right that people working on climate change communication agonise too much about reframing climate change. But, far more importantly, most agonise far too little about how to collaborate with myriad other groups who influence the way that we think about many other issues. How we talk about – and think about – these other issues will prove to be of crucial importance in building public support for action on climate change.

Tom CromptonIs reframing climate change a waste of time?
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