How not to tell a social change story: Make it personal!

Today on the front page of the NYTimes is the embodiment of how NOT to tell a social change story* about class:  Two classes: Divided by ‘I Do’.  The thesis? Unmarried households are increasingly the norm and may affect the future of children. Readers are told a compelling story of the personal histories and daily lives of two women, one married and doing well, one single and struggling to keep herself and her children out of poverty. For those framing social problems with the hopes of improving support for public policy, this kind of storytelling is not only ineffective, it is likely to hurt your efforts.

Why? Because we are far more likely to think about personal causes when making sense of others’  problems or behaviors.  In other words, we are more likely to blame individuals for their fates than we are to generate situational explanations for their actions or problems.  As Skitka et al. explain,

“personal attributions are the default or automatic inference people make for the causes of others’ behavior, and these inferences are only corrected when people have sufficient cognitive resources and motivation to do so…” p. 485.

So, when the only view into a problem we have is someone’s life story, it reinforces this tendency toward personal explanations.

And you want to know something else? There seem to be partisan differences in the tendency to make personal attributions about political issues, with conservatives tending to blame poverty on self-indulgence, and liberals tending to blame poverty on unjust social practices and structures (see Skitka et al., above; but also Haidt, J. 2012). This particular story aligns perfectly with values of individual responsibility and self-reliance, which are strongly endorsed by conservatives. There is virtually nothing explicit in the story to suggest anything structural is a cause – liberals might connect those structural dots in their heads given their tendency to consider social justice, but from a framing perspective, those dots are implicit, most people won’t see them.

What might issue experts who communicate about complex social problems learn from this?  You need to give your audience a reason to reconsider the default tendency toward personal explanations, and to think about situational explanations.

In the Times story, the author does not provide us with any motivation to consider situational explanations for the life course of this single mother. In fact, she is quoted as saying she blames herself for the “choices” she’s made. In addition,  the author makes little more than passing reference to the father of her three children, and notes that, “She has had little contact with the children’s father and receives no child support.” If this were a draft of a piece written by a low-income advocacy organization and I were asked to provide feedback, I would recommend giving readers more information about that state of affairs. Is it because he has no obligation for child support? And, if so, for what reasons? Might there be a problem with collecting his child support obligation? And, if so, why?  That is just one piece of the story that could be reframed to make clear some structural or situational drivers of the child support problem.

Much of the work I do with advocates is to help them make explicit in their communications the situational explanations they know too well about social problems. The framing in the Times piece is not an anomaly and is instructive – situational stories will not be relied on to reason about social problems unless we tell them, explicitly.

(*Note: I realize the journalist was not necessarily intending to tell a social change story – my comments are to illustrate, for those who do intend to tell such stories, the problems with this kind of framing.)

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