Developing Discourse or Stunted Growth? Taking the Sustainable out of the Sustainable Development Goals

Where does poverty come from?

Whatever your answer, it’ll shape what you think we should do about it. If you think it’s natural, for example, then perhaps all we can do about it is alleviate suffering rather than get rid of it. Perhaps we shouldn’t do anything about it at all.

Your answer will subsequently have an impact on how effective you are at addressing poverty. Will you introduce incentive schemes because you believe poor people are just not trying hard enough; or higher taxes for the rich because you believe historically there has been an unfair allocation of resources? Do you reduce or increase social benefits, like unemployment or child benefits?


In other words, the way we ‘frame’ poverty has a direct link with our political response.

It’s worrying, then, that an upcoming report from /The Rules suggests that the understanding of poverty that underpins the Sustainable Development Goals  (SDGs) is faulty. Worrying because the SDGs, which replace the Millenium Development Goals, represent the political response of the entire international community to global poverty.

Elena BlackmoreDeveloping Discourse or Stunted Growth? Taking the Sustainable out of the Sustainable Development Goals
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Building Bridges: How (not) to talk about Human Rights


Each framing defines the problem in its own way, and hence constrains the solutions needed to address that problem. George Lakoff

Do you remember the last time you read about human rights in a British newspaper? What was the angle? Was it about national security? Or the power of the European courts? Or protecting universal rights?

Here are a few headlines from different newspapers over the past couple of years:

Put UK back in charge of Human Rights Laws
Human rights are a charter for criminals, say 75% of Britons
Tory Wreckers out to destroy their own human rights

Each of these headlines connects human rights with a different area of concern, implying a different problem and solution – what authority should dictate our laws (the UK or Europe); who uses or abuses the law (citizens or criminals), and who it is actually designed to protect (everyone or the few).

How we talk about human rights can and does make a huge difference to how they are perceived. While the vast majority of us are either supportive or undecided about human rights, the media tells a different story. In a review of broadsheet and tabloid newspapers, political blogs and parliamentary speeches from 2013, ‘human rights’ was rarely used in a positive context. In fact, only 30% of articles were supportive of human rights in the UK (in England it was less than 20%).

This won’t surprise anyone that has paid attention to media coverage of human rights, but it gets more interesting when you look at the different ‘frames’ used. A frame is a story, composed of ideas, memories, emotions and values attached to and associated with a given concept. Framing is a communication tool, that we use (consciously or unconsciously) to provoke a particular kind of reaction to that concept. Most ideas (like human rights) can be talked about in vastly different ways. Last year, working with Counterpoint and Equally Ours, we analysed UK media coverage of human rights; identified the main frames, and then tested how these frames affected people’s values and attitudes.

Bec SandersonBuilding Bridges: How (not) to talk about Human Rights
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No Cause is an Island

A major new piece of research

Common Cause makes the case for a different approach to creating change.

Most current approaches to creating change focus on specific causes (for example, biodiversity conservation or international development; climate change or disability rights). They identify key interventions – changes in people’s behaviour, or policies for example – that will help to advance these causes. And then they promote these interventions.

Common Cause makes the case that this approach, important as it is, isn’t sufficient. We confront huge challenges. If we are to step up to addressing these, then our approaches need to add up to more than the sum of their parts.

We have built the case that we need also to look ‘across’ a wide range of causes. In this way we can identify the values that motivate people’s concern about these causes, and work to engage and strengthen them.

Common Cause has accumulated a large body of evidence for this approach. But much of this evidence comes from studies run by academics who don’t necessarily set out to address the specific challenges faced by charities. Often we hear from communicators and campaigners in charities that the material tested in these studies isn’t very ‘realistic’.

A new study

Today we’re publishing a new study, which we have been working on for many months. It combines the best of both worlds. On the one hand, we’ve worked on it with some of the world’s leading experts on values. On the other hand, we used it to test the effectiveness of material produced by staff in WWF (a conservation charity) and Scope (a disability charity). The study makes use of a large panel of nearly 14,000 people managed by the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton. Having read text describing the work of either WWF or Scope, in either intrinsic or extrinsic terms, we then asked people about their intention to help one or other of these charities – by donating money, volunteering, lobbying their MP, or joining a public meeting.

Here are some key findings, each of which I’ll be unpacking further in subsequent blogs.

Tom CromptonNo Cause is an Island
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Treating people as consumers boosts materialistic values

“One of the most profound changes in our modern vocabulary is the way in which ‘We the People’ are defined”, observes the academic David Rutherford. “Not so very long ago, we ‘pictured’ ourselves as citizens. … Today, we are most often referred to (and therefore increasingly inclined to ‘see’ ourselves) as consumers.”

Too true. There has been an inexorable rise in the use of the term ‘consumer’ over the past forty years – a stark trend evident in both newspapers and books. But whilst the rise of consumerism has been well-documented, evidence of its negative impacts have proven harder to pin down. Does it really matter that we’re all consumers now?

Guy ShrubsoleTreating people as consumers boosts materialistic values
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What about people for whom extrinsic values are particularly important?

A great deal of the research that we have brought together on this site points to the advantages, on aggregate, of appealing to intrinsic values in communicating to people about social and environmental problems – and the potential costs of appealing to extrinsic values.

But, of course, people aren’t all the same, and it may be that there are some people who are simply impervious to communications which appeal to intrinsic values. We’ve argued that this is unlikely, because we all express all these values at different times – life, afterall, is a ‘dance around the values circle’!

But the original group of people who supported the Common Cause report – from COIN, CPRE, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam and WWF – wanted to test this further. So we enlisted the help of some psychologists (at Cardiff University, and Knox College, Illinois) and linguists (at Lancaster University).

Tom CromptonWhat about people for whom extrinsic values are particularly important?
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Value Modes and Common Cause: 
Response to Rose

In our recent Common Cause Briefing Limitations of Environmental Campaigning Based on Money, Image and Status, we highlighted some important claims that both Pat Dade and Chris Rose have made about how values change: claims based in the Value Modes approach that were contrary to our understanding of psychological research and theory.

To help clarify our understanding, we asked several psychologists with expertise in these topics to respond to two questions designed to test the claims Dade and Rose have made about value change.

None of the psychologists who responded to our questions supported the perspective that Dade and Rose have advanced. At the end of our briefing, we therefore challenged Dade or Rose to make available the data or theoretical statements by other psychologists that would support their viewpoint.

Rose has recently responded to our briefing. Nowhere in his reply did he address the comments made by the psychologists who we surveyed, comments that explicitly rejected the implications about value change that were derived specifically from statements that he and Dade have recently made.

Conspicuously, Rose also failed to produce any data supporting the viewpoint that he and Dade advance. Nor did he offer any explanation as to why he is still not making these data public.

In addition, during his response to our briefing:

1. Rose stated that we misrepresented his views but did not explain exactly what we said that was a misrepresentation. We had been careful in our briefing to draw directly and extensively from Dade and Rose’s recent writings on this issue. For example, we cited Rose:

“…once the underlying dominant unmet need is met, a new one takes its place… So, if Prospectors meet that need by getting enough stuff and following sufficient fashion etc, they do not stay Prospectors but develop other needs – i.e., they become Pioneers”

And Dade:

“[S]atisfying people’s needs, in Maslow terms, acts as a means of fulfilling a needs set and thereby saps or lessens the strength of that value set to influence behaviour”

What they have written here seems very clear. Having quoted extensively from their writing, we summarised their position in our briefing in these terms:

“Rose and Dade claim that adopting a pro-environmental behaviour in pursuit of values for image, money, and status is likely to help meet an “unmet need” and therefore lead individuals to develop other needs, such that they will eventually come to place greater importance on the kinds of values that the research shows do indeed promote positive social and environmental behaviours and attitudes.”

We would like to hear from Rose in what way our briefing misrepresented the viewpoint that he and Dade have advanced, so long as such a response includes references to what we have each previously written.

2. Rose claimed points of difference between his approach and the Common Cause approach that are simply not points of real difference. There are many instances of this, but one example will suffice:

Rose wrote, for example that:

“trying to change people’s values or attitudes and beliefs by arguing with them or telling them they are wrong, does not work”


“You need to start from where people are, not where you are.”

We have never advocated telling people that they are wrong, and in his response Rose does not offer any evidence to support his suggestion that we have. On the contrary, we have argued repeatedly and explicitly for meeting people where they are. To give one example, a section of the Common Cause Handbook entitled “Meeting people where they are” includes the following passages:

“Continuing to reinforce extrinsic values in people’s motivations is therefore likely to have unintended consequences. At the same time, though, a person’s dominant values—which will sometimes be extrinsically-oriented—may well cause them to react negatively to anything seen as directly oppositional to their dominant value-set. …
“Meeting people where they are will therefore be important in engaging them, with a view to ultimately creating spaces for change and facilitating the flourishing of more intrinsic values. This means making the most of the shared knowledge and experience we already have on how to initiate and maintain engagement with those around us; thinking about the language and media we use, and the places we work.” (p.41)

We hope that Rose will recognize that we do not disagree with him on this point.

3. Rose offered a series of reflections that have no apparent bearing on the key point of difference that we highlight in our briefing. For example, he highlighted the extensive survey evidence for the possibility of segmenting audiences according to their values. We have never disputed this evidence – and, indeed, we have drawn on the results of such surveys ourselves.

4. Rose wrote:

“Instead of trying to use theories based on these studies to criticise our work, WWF could use CDSM’s model in a realistic campaign test to see if it can persuade real outer-directed Prospectors, or security-driven Settlers, to change behaviours for inner-directed Pioneers reasons.”

As we mentioned at the end of our briefing, within the last year we sought CDSM’s help for a study that we were designing, the aim of which was to explore how best to meet extrinsically-oriented people “where they are” in discussions of issues such as climate change. Unfortunately, CDSM declined to collaborate, citing commercial sensitivities.


In our Common Cause Briefing Limitations of Environmental Campaigning Based on Money, Image and Status, we set out a very clear challenge to Dade and Rose to provide evidence in support of claims that they have made very clearly in past writings of theirs. Rose offered no such evidence, despite the fact that all of the psychologists who responded to our survey stated that they believed Dade and Rose’s viewpoint was mistaken, and despite our earlier reviews of the empirical evidence on the point in question. Instead of offering relevant evidence, Rose made a series of points tangential to the issue that we raised and attributed to us perspectives that we have never – and would never – seek to defend.

At this point, it seems, there is little that we can do other than to restate our hope that Rose or Dade will at some point provide evidence in support of the statements that they have made. Until they do so, we hope that organizations and individuals interested in promoting environmental sustainability and social justice outcomes will recognize that there appears to be no evidence supporting the contention of Rose and Dade that selling people green behaviours and products on the basis of appeals to status, image, and money values will help move those individuals towards a greater concern for the environment and for social justice. Instead, it appears that the weight of the empirical evidence supports our claim that such appeals run the risk of further entrenching these extrinsic values deeper in people’s minds, and thus potentially making it more difficult to meet the challenges of environmental sustainability and social justice.

Tim Kasser and Tom Crompton

Tom CromptonValue Modes and Common Cause: 
Response to Rose
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Value Modes and Common Cause: 
The dangers of appeals to money, image and status

There is much about the Common Cause approach which is in agreement with the ‘Value Modes’ approach advocated by Chris Rose and Pat Dade:  both approaches draw from a similar body of empirical work, recognize the tensions that exist in people’s value systems, and acknowledge the need to tailor different communications to different audiences.

But there is a critical difference:

Rose and Dade claim that campaigns and communications which appeal to values of money, image and status are likely to weaken these values. For example, according Rose:

“…once the underlying dominant unmet need is met, a new one takes its place… So, if Prospectors meet that need by getting enough stuff and following sufficient fashion etc, they do not stay Prospectors but develop other needs – i.e., they become Pioneers”

Tim Kasser and I have maintained that the evidence suggests this is not the case. In fact, we argue that such campaigns are likely to reinforce the importance that people give to values of money, image and status.

Rose and Dade have been adamant that they are right – prompting us to want to check our understanding with psychologists who are expert in behaviour, motivation and values.

So we recently conducted a small survey of such psychologists. We presented them with two scenarios, designed to explore the crux of the difference between the Common Cause and Value Modes approaches. All those who responded concurred with our viewpoint. None supported Rose and Dade’s perspective.

To read more, download the briefing:

Limitations of Environmental Campaigning Based on Values for Money, Image, and Status

Limitations of Environmental Campaigning Based on Values for Money, Image, and Status

Tim Kasser & Tom Crompton | August 26, 2011

The results of a small survey of psychologists on the key point of difference between the Common Cause and Value Modes approaches.

79.2 KB | 5097 Downloads

Tom CromptonValue Modes and Common Cause: 
The dangers of appeals to money, image and status
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New report from Friends of the Earth US and Psychologists for Social Responsibility

On September 23 and 24, 2010, nearly two dozen activists and psychologists gathered at the offices of Friends of the Earth in Washington, D.C., to explore how to productively apply research and insights from psychology to inspire and empower real, systemic change at every level.

The report from this meeting has just been published. You can read it here.

This blog was originally posted on Identity Campaigning.

Tom CromptonNew report from Friends of the Earth US and Psychologists for Social Responsibility
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New WWF report: ‘Weathercocks and Signposts’

This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.

A new WWF report, Weathercocks and Signposts: The Environment Movement at a Crossroads, critically reassesses current approaches to motivating environmentally-friendly behaviour change. Current behaviour-change strategies are increasingly built upon analogy with product marketing campaigns. They often take as given the ‘sovereignty’ of consumer choice, and the perceived need to preserve current lifestyles intact. This report constructs a case for a radically different approach. It presents evidence that any adequate strategy for tackling environmental challenges will demand engagement with the values that underlie the decisions we make – and, indeed, with our sense of who we are.

Download the report


I’ve also started a wiki, where you can say what you think of the ideas developed in the report.

Tom CromptonNew WWF report: ‘Weathercocks and Signposts’
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