Prediction: Implicit bias will hijack this well intentioned documentary

I recently had the chance to view the documentary, Resilience: The biology of stress and the science of hopeby Jamie Redford and Karen Pritzker.  The film aims to explain research findings on how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can produce toxic stress that can have long term effects on health and well being.

It is understandable that early childhood experts and advocates (who have been working for years to get public policies to keep pace with developmental science) would be excited about this film. In fact, many of my clients have spoken to me about their plans to host screenings of this film in their communities. I’m telling them not to. Here’s why.

In short, my concern is that the film provides endless opportunity for implicit biases about race and poverty to be reinforced, and offers no specific, actionable policy-based solutions (of which there are many). I actually don’t fault the filmmakers for this – I attribute it to the widespread misuse of traditional storytelling techniques in communications about social problems. What are traditional storytelling techniques? Those that focus on characters, both victims and heroes, to the exclusion of contexts. In the case of Resilience, the victims of toxic stress are almost entirely poor children and families of color, and the heroes (with a few notable exceptions) are white teachers, principals, therapists and scientists.

If I had a dime for every time a client said to me, “But we have to tell the story of the people we serve – to make their voices heard!” And if they had a dime for every time I responded with, “But you must understand the entrenched racism in our culture, as well as the default tendencies toward personal attribution of responsibility, and what challenges that creates for your communications!”

The biggest mistake the film made was in not connecting the dots between historic, systemic, institutional, policy-driven inequities and the current circumstances of those portrayed. Instead, the film started the conversation with the question, “Why are children in THESE neighborhoods doing ok, but children in THESE OTHER neighborhoods, not?”  Sorry – but unless you truly tell the story of how those neighborhoods got to be, then you leave audiences to believe the problems were created by the people who live there. And we know that’s not the case. Policies and institutions have contributed to and promoted disparity. If we want to solve these serious problems, we need to focus the lens on those policies and institutional practices, not on their victims. We need better stories about us, about what we have done and failed to do, culturally and politically.

So, instead of community screenings of this documentary, I would recommend community book groups that discuss Richard Rothstein’s, The Color of Law. And sharing far and wide the terrific Fresh Air episode with Rothstein.



The Challenge of Communicating About Income Inequality

While scrolling thru my FB feed one morning, I saw a link posted to this piece on Mother Jones, “It’s the Inequality, Stupid. Eleven charts that explain what’s wrong with America” 

Here’s the first chart posted, showing average family income by income group.

This chart communicates striking inequality in income, that’s for sure. But it doesn’t say why this is the case. When data are left uninterpreted, when communicators fail to tell a story, they leave it to the reader to deduce, “What does this MEAN?”  And in that search for meaning, the reader relies on beliefs, values, and assumptions about how the world works to make sense of the data.  Take the chart above as an example – you looked at it, and you probably scanned it or studied it in an attempt to answer, “What does this mean?” What values shaped your thinking? Fairness? Self-direction? Opportunity?

The impact of values on political thinking is not news, and has been well documented in a variety of disciplines (social and political psychology, developmental psychology, sociology, political science, communications). That’s why it is a bit startling to see how frequently political communications fail to consider that sweet old news. Recently, Jonathan Haidt (see his recent book, The Righteous Mind and your for more) has offered a wealth of evidence that conservatives and liberals rely more or less heavily on some values than others to help shape their political impressions.

What does Haidt’s work suggest about the values-based stories that liberals and conservatives are likely to rely on to explain these income inequality data? Conservatives, who strongly endorse values of self-reliance and individual liberty, are likely to look at these data and conclude, “Some people work harder, earn more, reap what they sow, and that’s the way it should be. That is, in fact, fair.” It is far easier to draw that conclusion when data are about inequality in outcomes, as opposed to inequality in opportunity. Liberals strongly endorse values of social justice, and are likely to look at these data and conclude that the system is rigged, that inequality of opportunity is the cause of inequality in outcomes. But the data don’t necessarily tell that story. Not by a long shot.

But Jonathan Haidt has a recommendation for liberals on how to connect the dots:

If the Democrats really want to get moral psychology working for them, I suggest that they focus less on distributive fairness — which is about whether everyone got what they deserved — and more on procedural fairness—which is about whether honest, open and impartial procedures were used to decide who got what. If there’s a problem with the ultra-rich, it’s not that they have too much wealth, it’s that they bought laws that made it easy for them to gain and keep so much more wealth in recent decades. (

The data in the chart call into question distributive fairness, not procedural fairness. In his essay in this past Sunday’s New York Times, The Blurry Line Between Makers and Takers, economist Tyler Cowen takes on the question of the role of politics in income distribution, and in so doing invites reflection on that question of procedural fairness:

 Seven of the 10 most affluent counties in the nation are near Washington, D.C. That means a growing number of educated people are making a very good living advising, lobbying and otherwise influencing the federal government. This is a talent drain. It’s far from obvious that we are getting better policy as a result, and true wealth creation has not kept pace.

As Matthew Yglesias, a columnist for the online magazine Slate, has pointed out, there is also a subtler point about those wealthy Virginia and Maryland counties. They have high per capita incomes, not only because they attract educated, government-oriented professionals, but also because their zoning and building codes limit the supply of low-cost housing. That’s a significant government intervention that hurts lower-income people, who must pay more. Privilege-seeking through government is often most pernicious when it has a tidy front and a well-manicured green lawn.

Infographics are quite the rage. But infographics won’t be effective no matter how clever the design if the data representation does not capture the real story advocates are trying to tell. Until we tell stories, such as Cowen’s above, that paint a clearer picture of the causes of income inequality, we are not improving Americans understanding of this complex issue.

I’ll be looking for examples of data-based messaging that succeeds on this front, and would love to hear from you if you come across effective examples.


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.)