Blog post

Taking the red pill:
A 10-stop tour of Common Cause

Common Cause ruined my career, it removed a lot of my assumptions, and took me to a more radical perspective. It was like taking the red pill, once you’ve taken it you can’t go back. You see how misdirected much progressive work is.

Martin Kirk, /The Rules, ex Head of Campaigns at Oxfam-GB

Common Cause applies what we know about motivation from social psychology to the big problems facing the world. We’ve had a go at whittling it down to 10 principles…

What is Common Cause?

Human Nature #1:

1. We’re not rational.

Facts aren’t enough to motivate us – if they were, wouldn’t adverts have a lot more graphs in them? We have a ton of cognitive biases that mean this isn’t the case. [Kahneman, 2003]

Human Nature #2:

2. We’re not selfish.

Despite what the media try and tell us, almost everyone values their community and environment more than their own wealth or status. In trying to meet an audience ‘where it’s at’, we often go somewhere they’re not: we assume that people are more selfish and materialistic than they really are! [Schwartz, 2006]

Communicating #1:

3. Nothing is ‘values-neutral’.

Although some experiences and communications may engage values less strongly than others (imagine something like a boring terms of reference written by committee), everything is likely to engage values to at least some extent. Intrinsic values motivate people to do the important things that help people and wildlife. We shoot ourselves in the foot by appealing to fear, status and money, because these motivations tend to undermine our cause. Instead, we can appeal to concern for nature, for freedom and for loved ones. Remember, values can bleed over and activate their neighbours. [Sheldon et al., 2011]

Communicating #2:

4. Use frames that appeal to people’s intrinsic values.

You can appeal to these values in anyone and there is plenty of room to be creative using the variety of intrinsic values: love, care, freedom, curiosity, wonder in nature etc. Remember values and frames are like muscles that strengthen with use, so we must  take responsibility for the way our communications affect people. [Hüther, 2006]

Communicating #3:

5. Don’t mix your values.

It’s like drinking wine after beer. Mixing self-interest with social-good tends to makes people distrustful and weaken the strength of your argument. [Maio, 2010] How would you feel if someone said: “I love you for your honest helpful wisdom… and the fact that you are completely loaded!”

Campaigning #1:

6. Deepen engagement.

If we are going to change things for the better, members and supporters need to be actively involved and not just considered as sources of money. Remember, you frame your issue not just with language, but by the experiences you create. Think about the activities you’re encouraging, and the kinds of social relationships you are helping build.

Campaigning #2:

7. Work together.

Most big issues are complementary, not competitive; therefore, work beyond your current remits and work in coalitions to strengthen support for each other. Values connect issues!

Campaigning #3:

8. Work on Common Causes.

Think big: what aspects of society shape values for the better or worse? The Seesaw effect means that when we strengthen one value (e.g. power), we simultaneously weaken concern for oppositional values (e.g. social justice).  [Maio et al., 2009] When we consider this on a cultural level, we think we’d all be better off with less advertising, reduced working hours, more time outdoors – these are causes that can be a collective priority for the third sector.

Big Picture #1:

9. Be the change.

It’s old wisdom, but we think it’s worth remembering. In everything we do, from the way our workplace is organised to the things we choose to spend our lives doing, we should consider whether we are expressing the values we want to. Of course, sometimes we have to make trade-offs, but these should be few and far between. Consider the means carefully, as well as the ends!

Big Picture #2:

10. Trust in civil society.

Public trust in charities is very high, but there is some evidence that it has waned slightly in the last few years. Organisations should be signposts rather than weathervanes, and the creeping influence of competitive, hierarchical values should be viewed in light of this. We have the public mandate for this work: if we’re not standing for intrinsic values, then who is?

– – –

What do you think? Have we missed anything?

Bec Sanderson

About Bec Sanderson

Bec's a researcher at the Public Interest Research Centre. She is particularly interested in 'consumer' framing, and its creep into different areas of our lives. She also likes stealing ideas from fields that aren't strictly 'psychology', then talking about them with psychological jargon. Apart from blogs, which she wishes she wrote more of, she enjoys river swimming and print making.
  • Niki Harre

    I love this breakdown. My only slight question is around the first truth that “we are not rational” I am wondering if that can be phrased positively – something like “We feel our way to solutions”. That might not be quite right, but the current phrasing begs the question of what we are? But super handy list!

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