In Theory: How Mentality Change Happens

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In Theory: How Mentality Change Happens

How our minds can be influenced

  • How are beliefs born and what brings us to adopt certain beliefs, attitudes and behaviors? What are the specific roles of frames and values in this process? 
  • What are the major principles behind mentality and behavior change? What generates resistance and how can it be overcome?

Process of developing a communications strategy for social change

  • What are the various components of a communication strategy and what needs to be taken into account for each of them?
  • What are the elements of messaging and what is the specific role of market research in developing messages?
Teaser introduction

I’d like to start with a bit of a teaser question:
- Why do members of a sect become even more vocal and proselyte when their doomsday predictions have been disproved?
- And why did it turn out in a simulated jury situation that people had a lesser opinion of a rape victim when she was perceived as innocent (eg a virgin or a married woman) than when she was perceived as less innocent (eg a single woman or a divorcee)?

If anybody reading this has a clue, please share your thoughts here.

These two examples, on which I’ll come back on Monday show us that we need to understand as much as we possibly can about how human beliefs, attitudes and behaviors are shaped so we can try to have an influence. And this is highly counter-intuitive!

Now, the human mind might not work in similar ways in all societies an cultures, but some of the evidence produced so far, mainly in the global North, probably holds largely true. Or at least provides interesting food for thought to test it in other settings.



The mysteries of the human mind and subsequent behavior


Thank you for providing this provocative opening "teaser". I'd like to share a framework for exploring people's motivations based on needs, fears, beliefs and customs. These are powerful motivators. If we are able to gain insights into these motivations, there are opportunities to shift not only perceptions but also attitudes and behaviors. 

Using this framework of motivations, I will use an example of early child marriage to highlight how the framework can provide insights into identifying leverage points for change.

  • Needs: What need does a viewpoint, bahavior or practice serve or is attempting to remedy?

Father of child: He NEEDS income to provide for his family and poverty is often a driving force for early marriage. Marrying a girl child can bring monetary resources while also reducing the number of people in the household requiring support. Tactics that provide actual monetary incentives for families to keep girls in school have proven to be quite successful in delaying the age of marriage for girls.

  • Fears: What are people afraid will happen if the practice changes? 

Men in the family/community: They FEAR girls' sexuality. They fear girls will bring dishonor to the family if they don't marry girls young. Tactics that have engaged boys and men to recognize and combat sexual violence against girls and women have found some sucess in delaying the age of marriage for both boys and girls.

  • Beliefs: What belief is the practice keeping alive?

Religious / Traditional Leaders: Patriarchal BELIEFS where religious and traditional leaders—usually men—are viewed as keepers of knowledge, of culture, as authorities on how to live maintain the practice.  Tactics that have engaged religious and traditional leaders as champions in the community to combat child marriage have had considerable success in shifting communities toward delaying the age of marriage for girls.

  • Customs: Is there an historic situation or root that created the practice but no longer exists? How might the current situation be used to raise old fears or concerns?
Communities: Religion and culture are often cited as unassailable reasons for the CUSTOM of early marriage to continue. Tactics that target ways in which customs and norms do change and the benefits to girls' health and the well-being of the whole community when girls and boys delay marriage have found some success.
For a terrific summary on this framework and a quick way to utilize it with groups, see this blog post by Philippe Dumanel, From Motivation to Solution: A Strategy Tool.
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Thanks Nancy for this very clear framework.  The case study from Ghana that NewTactics has published very clearly illustrates this framework. Refering to Philippe's doc, he suggest to "come up with powerful arguments that could be used to bring respectful challenge". 

This is obviously what influencing is all about: finding what this powerful argument is. What we see in social psychology is that is requires a whole lot of science behind it, and it often works in very counter-intuitive ways. And I definitely fully support the vision that changes comes best in a win-win approach. 


Some background theory on the human mind

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt theorized that people have two minds: one intuitive (that generates reflexes, or “gut feelings”) and one rationale, that produces reflections, thoughts, etc.

In practice, people often make a decision about right and wrong based on their gut reactions, using the intuitive mind, and then use their rational mind to produce a rationalization for the decision.

But what determines a person’s gut response? Haidt says six “moral foundations” influence human judgments about right and wrong. He argues that each moral foundation has an evolutionary rationale, and he and his collaborators have carried out ingenious experiments to show the influence of each moral foundation in people today.

These are  the six basic factors that shape human judgments about good and bad: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

I'm posting here some reflections on the importance of each in terms campaigning for sexual and gender minorities. I will do each in a separate item, which should make it easier to comment on individual ones

I'm keeping the comments ultra-short on purpose, with an invitation to all readers to expand with their reflections, examples, or even counter-arguments




 In evolutionary terms, care for children was essential for the survival of human groups. Politicians, corporate executives, religious leaders, advertisers, and all sorts of lobbyists and campaigners seek to direct the care response to serve their priorities. Many political struggles thus involve continual attempts to trigger the care response for desired goals and to inhibit it for undesired ones. (paragraph inspired by Waging non-violence)

Indeed most strategies to marginalize sexual and gender minorities rely on proving that these groups don’t deserve care. This is done by:

-      identifying them as not being part of society (either because they are unwanted, or because they come from ‘outside’)

-      labeling them as dangerous

This strategy often goes with the promotion of “care” towards members of society which are seen as in need of protection. In this case mainly children, hence the often raised argument about “protecting children from propaganda/enrolment”.

Syrian Refugees & the Care Response

The changing attitudes to the Syrian refugee crisis reflects changes in the care response.  Refugees have been portrayed as both innocent victims and ruthless terrorists. The cartoon bellow depicts this.


In 2015, newspapers were flooded with images of refugees: toddlers being washed on shore, trucks of corpses and other tragedies. In many parts of the world, this invoked a care response for refugees. After the terrorist attacks in Paris, the San Bernardino shooting, and the Cologne sexual assaults, some media outlets portray Muslim refugees from Syria as a security threat. The focus on fear inhibits the care response for refugees, creating a “them” versus “us” situation. Rather than completely inhibiting the care response, many people focus their care on protecting their own societies. While terrorism understandably breeds fear and uncertainty, it also increases xenophobia.

There are ways to downplay this “us versus “them” phenomenon through “cognitive reappraisal.” One study done by Israeli researchers found that by teaching participants to evaluate their emotions and contemplate the origins of these fears, participants were more inclined to choose nonviolent solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict (Halperin 2013).



Cross-cultural research has shown that everywhere children develop very early a sense of fairness when they are treated worst than their peers. They somewhat later develop a consciousness of fairness even when they are treated better.

This value is obviously central when appealing to people to think or act differently.

Fairness has been a real major argument in the same-sex marriage campaigns, which have insisted a lot on the fact that it was “fair” and “just” to treat people equally.

The principle of fairness is important for campaign tactics, as it implies that the public needs to have a high moral assumption of the target group. To generate this assumption is difficult with highly stigmatized groups like LGBTI people

A lot of LGBTI campaigning aims at generating this sense of fairness by elaborating on the human rights abuses suffered by people, so creating a sense of unfairness. But the big question is whether it is possible for the sense of fairness to develop outside of the care value, i.e. if people only feel unfairness if the victim is someone in the “care” sphere. If so, it seems ineffective to portray LGBTI people as victims in order to generate care. It would seem that good strategies would generate a desire to care first.

This is all the more important as victimization strategies tend not to work well when it comes to changing moral perceptions.

Actually, some research has shown that in the US (and this might not hold true in other settings), that the more people perceive victims as innocent, the lesser they value them.

Nick Cooney in his book “Changing hearts” reports on a simulated jury situation where the victim was a woman who had been raped and was said to be either a virgin, married or a divorcee, the victim was seen as more at fault if she was a virgin or a married woman (and therefore by the conventional standards of the time more innocent and pure) than if she was a divorcee (Jones and Aronson 1973)

When wondering why people denigrate victims more when the victim seems most deserving of sympathy, he points to what Melvin Lerner calls this the « just world hypothesis ». People, he argues, want to believe that they live in a world where individuals generally get what they deserve, people are reluctant to give up disbelief and are troubled by evidence that it isn't true.

In the simulated rape trial, because the women who are virgins on married were perceived as more innocent, the idea that they could be raped was more of a threat to the « just world » belief than the idea that a divorcee could meet the same fate. Therefore, when the rape victim was a virgin on married woman, fault had to be found with her in order to keep the world seeming just.

So, interestingly, the fairness value is a double edged sword: it can trigger change  when people perceive the sense of unfairness, but it can also lead to denigration of the victims when people react with a kind of “they probably brought it on themselves somehow” reaction. I tend to think that the difference between the two reactions is brought by the level of empathy towards the victim: if we can identify with the victim, we probably sense unfairness and want it corrected. If we don’t we probably reject the person even more.

Charity & Victimization

This perspective of victimization is intriguing. I am curious how this plays into foreign aid patterns.  To raise funds, charity organizations often portray recipients as helpless victims (i.e. stereotypes of a starving African child). While this may raise funds it also denigrates and homogenizes diverse communities and individuals. Ultimately this may also alienate the audience. Reflecting on your point, when do these stereotypes may make victims so foreign that the audience cannot identify with them? 

Here are some interesting videos, pushing against these stereotypes:

Research has found there is an “identifiable victim effect.”  Charities are more successful when they use a single victim rather than overwhelming statistics (Resnick 2015).  (Also potential interesting point is the damaging effect of segreating ethnicities in messaging. For example, in the United States, suggesting that people of different ethnicities are “on the same team” reduces racial biases (Bavel & Cunningham 2008).




According to Nick Cooney again, the tendancy to denigrate innocent victims doesn't mean people won't ever provide help, but if they do it will probably be fairly minimal such as a donation to a charity as opposed to lifestyle changes that would have a far greater impact. Furthermore, for issues where people are partly responsible for the suffering and destruction (through eating chicken, buying clothing made in sweatshops,  wasting paper etc., there is a stronger tendency to denigrate the victim.

So I guess victimization might work for short term effects that don't include personal change, but might be counter productive for behavioral change as it reinforces stereotypes as you rightly point out. I'm not aware of any research on this, but it would be logical that the "just world" hypothesis works better for people's familiar known world: a homeless person next door, who lives by and large in the known society, will probably be more affected by the "just world" effect than people who live in totally foreign systems, which  doesn't need to be consider as just in order to maintain the illusion.

Also, what will make a difference at the end of the day is whether people can identify with the victim, as you point out. This is really a challenge for many causes and identification has to be brought about by a complex and indirect process, involving developing the "intersection" between the people we target for change, and the cause we are defending.


The value of liberty, and resistance to oppression, is a strong value and it has been a strong angle in campaigning for sexual and gender minorities. Indeed, many campaigns have used the “freedom to love” argument, and it can be argued that the whole concept of Pride marches mainly rests on the value of liberty.

The difficult thing with “liberty” is that it has a high degree of variance amongst societies and that it also fluctuates a lot within a given society. The more a society rests on economic and social cooperation, the more the value of liberty will be counter-balanced by the value of “loyalty “ (see next post). Hence its variation in times of crisis, when obedience towards a leader will be placed more highly than liberty on the value scale.

So again, we have a double edged sword here: liberty carries a very strong emotional potential, but it can backfire badly if this liberty is sees as working against the common good, which is very easily achieved when the campaign focus is a group perceived as socially marginal (which our opponent will do everything they can to ensure)

So campaigning around liberty arguments should probably associate systematically the notion of “no-harm”. 


Loyalty is obviously connected to the value of care, in a reciprocal relationship: you are loyal (only) to the ones who care for you and you care (only) for the ones who are loyal to you.

But loyalty has this additional dimension of obedience and it is therefore a central value for all societal construction and it is centerpiece in many campaigns, from political elections to brand promotion. Essential to the notion of loyalty are therefore the existence of a community, and the existence of leaders.

“Loyalty” has understandably been used much more by the opponents of sexual and gender diversities in order to cement the social “in-group” but it has also been used creatively in LGBTI campaign, eg in the marriage referendum campaign in Ireland, where patriotism and loyalty to a certain image of Ireland has been hugely helpful in driving voting participation.

But the value of loyalty has a strong implication for LGBTI campaigners not so much in terms of messaging but in terms of mobilization tactic: many campaigns will feature participation to a campaign as an act of loyalty to the group.

The value of loyalty also has obvious implications in terms of leadership management and movement building and campaigns without a charismatic leadership (whether people or brands) will find it difficult to mobilize.


The value of authority relates to obeying tradition and legitimate authority.

Again, a principle that will work much more often against sexual and gender diversities, especially when they are framed as a challenge to the authority of a system. I  would argue that the major driver of the opposition to same-sex marriage, at least in France where I have witnessed it most closely, was that it undermined the authority of the majority group. This is in my view what drove the strategy of the opponents to same-sex marriage who constructed a big part of their campaign message about the fact that there was a risk to the authority of the majority social model.

But the entry point for LGBTI campaigners could be to reclaim the notion of respect, very closely related to the notion of authority, and seek to replace the notion of obedience (which mainly concerns systems and the expression of their forces eg police, military, justice, etc.) with the notion of respect, which can much better accomodate the individual. Doing this is not easy though and campaigns that encourage respect somehow run the risk to reinforce the notion of authority, which at the end of the day might work against them....

This notion of respect can be used to reposition the notion of authority and its repository, i.e. to “divert” the authority of the people to somewhere else, beyond their control. This has be widely used by placing the authority within the medical profession (eg by flagging high the 1990 WHO decision to take homosexuality out of the list of mental disorders).

This shifting of the authority can also be used for religious targets, as the notion of authority of the individual is highly controlled, as all authority derives from a higher order. These approaches are very well illustrated (involuntarily?) with Pope Francis’ now famous “who am I to judge?”

The notion of authority is also very important in contexts where legal or judicial changes were secured in socially hostile settings, and where social transformation campaigns could base part of their messaging on the authority of the State, the Congress or the courts.


This moral value is the lesser known

Haidt postulates that cultures invest certain objects and ideas with irrational and extreme values.  Some objects and ideas are regarded as sacred while others are intuitively repulsed as disgusting and abhorrent. According to Haidt, the evolutionary origin of the Sanctity/Degradation foundation was the need for an instinctive mechanism that would lead early humans away from parasites and pathogens — in other words, away from rotting food, human waste, decaying corpses, etc.

Haidt argues that religion and the concomitant creation of sacred symbols served to bind individuals into large cooperative societies. The notion of sanctity is therefore closely linked to authority (it takes a source of authority to define what is sacred) and to loyalty (obedience to the sacred is the expression of the loyalty towards the group)

Sanctity is important for LGBTI campaigners, as it lies at the heart of the stigma that has been built against us. A lot of our opponents’ strategy is to generate and maintain a feeling of dislike or disgust. So we are constantly confronting the notion of sanctity.

I would argue here that our best chance here is not to fight the value of sanctity but to influence what it contains until we are included in what the society considers “sacred” (e.g. inherently good)


I feel we should also discuss the biases that we are influenced by when we look at the world and make decisions. Again, I'm going to start off with a few very short posts for several biases which have been identified and invite all to comment on whether these biases have also been identified in non-western contexts and how campaigns have taken these biases into account 

Availability bias

As a general psychological principle called the availability bias, people perceive something to be more valuable the more they have heard of it (Schwartz 2007). the tendancy to overvalue what is, and undervalue what could be, forms the basis of much of people’s ethics. The judgment they make, and why they make them, come not from critical thought or personal experience, but from the mere existence and current popularity of those judgments in society.

As a result societal issues that already get a lot of attention tend to stay popular and often served as a point of entry for new campaigns

For LGBTI campaigners, this has sometimes meant that campaign focuses have been chosen according to what was popular (eg marriage), rather than what was higher on the agenda. This is obviously tricky as it stears the agenda artificially, but can also constitute very clever strategic thinking.

The problem might arise when this bias is actually influences the campaigners themselves, eg when this choice to prioritize popular items is not a strategy choice but is an unconscious urge to follow the trends.

Obviously, there is a totally different dimension when the agenda in one place (eg marriage in the US) influences the agenda in other settings. In that case, the availability bias works fully for the campaigners, who see this obejctive as highly desirable, but it obviously is not the case for the vast majority of the population. There could be a case though for a strategy that aims at benefiting from this bias with certain target groups. In the case of same-sex marriage, this bias could work with young people who spend a lot of time on international online spaces and are heavily exposed to Western media. If this is the target group, it might make sense indeed to advocate for marriage, or to piggyback on the marriage momentum to promote locally relevant objectives. But campaigners have to be very careful in compounding the very likely negative reactions from outside of the target group. A way to do this might be to limit the access to this campaign to the target group (eg a snapchat campaign is less likely to make ripples outside of the target group)

Status quo bias

As its name indicates, the Status-quo bias means people will prefer, when given a choice, not to change their beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.

This bias has two factors, according to "change of heart":

1) the preference for inaction

According to reseach, as the number of alternatives to choose among increases, inertia grows as well : The more options that are presented to us (in company retirement accounts, in choice of entertainment, etc.), the more likely we are not to choose anything, or to stick with whatever we were doing before (an experiment showed that when given a two-choice alternative between highly attractive packages, people predominantly chose to subscribe to one or the other, and that the more choices they were given, even with ever better conditions, the less they chose to subscribe to any).

this obviously is a huge challenge for campaigners for change. I can hardly think of a campaign which has used this bias that was not a conservative campaign. But it is a major concern we have to factor into our work so we can successfully work around it.

2) loss aversion

It's the fear of losing what you already have. In general people the fear of losing something largely outweighs the drive to gaining something, in part because once we have something (an object, ethical value, et cetera), we start to value it much more highly.  In one experiment students were asked whether they prefer to have a chocolate bar or a mug, items with equal monetary value. Pre-testing showed students had no preference for either item. The chocolate bars and mugs were then distributed randomly. Students were then asked if they trade in the item they’d been given for the item they hadn't been given. Despite having no initial preference, students were willing to trade for the other item only 10% of the time (Thaler and Sunstein)

It is important to note that loss aversion only plays this powerful role once a person has experienced ownership of something. When it comes to advocacy messages, a meta-analysis published in the « Communication Yearbook » found  persuasive health messages framed in terms of loss overall no more persuasive than those framed in terms of gain : for example a message such as « smoking cuts off an average of five years of your life » is likely to be no more effective than « not smoking will add five years onto your life ».

This loss aversion has also been coined "psychological reactance" by University of Kansas  psychologist Brehm who wrote “people become motivationally aroused by a threat to or elimination of a behavioral freedom. This motivational state is what is called psychological reactance. It impels the individual to restore the particular freedom that was threatened or taken away.”

Other biases

I should also mention:

1) Selection bias

Research has shown that we are only listening to facts that can rationalise decisions that we have already made. People will often intentionally ignore messages that contradict what they believe, a phenomenon that makes it even harder to persuade others of our point of view if they already hold a different one.

2) Contribution bias

The contribution bias refers to the feeling that many people have that "I have done my part on issue A, so it's okay for me to ignore issues B C and D »

In addition people often overestimate the amount of good they've done. Combined, these phenomena make it hard to move people beyond small actions for the one or two preferred causes.

There are certainly a lot more biases at work, and maybe totally different ones in other social context, about which it would be great to hear others here


Today I wanted to share some insights into a different framework for VALUES analysis:

The recent theory developed by Shalom Schwartz from the University of Jerusalem concerns the basic values that people in all cultures recognize. It identifies ten motivationally distinct types of values and specifies the dynamic relations among them and explains where they come from. 

The theory identifies 6 main features of values:

(1) Values are beliefs linked inextricably to affect. When values are activated, they become infused with feeling. People for whom independence is an important value become aroused if their independence is threatened, despair when they are helpless to protect it, and are happy when they can enjoy it.

(2) Values refer to desirable goals that motivate action. People for whom social order, justice, and helpfulness are important values are motivated to pursue these goals.

(3) Values transcend specific actions and situations. Obedience and honesty values, for example, may be relevant in the workplace or school, in business or politics, with friends or strangers. This feature distinguishes values from norms and attitudes that usually refer to specific actions, objects, or situations.

(4) Values serve as standards or criteria. Values guide the selection or evaluation of actions, policies, people, and events. People decide what is good or bad, justified or illegitimate, worth doing or avoiding, based on possible consequences for their cherished values. But the impact of values in everyday decisions is rarely conscious. Values enter awareness when the actions or judgments one is considering have conflicting implications for different values one cherishes.

(5) Values are ordered by importance relative to one another. People’s values form an ordered system of priorities that characterize them as individuals. Do they attribute more importance to achievement or justice, to novelty or tradition? This hierarchical feature also distinguishes values from norms and attitudes.

(6) The relative importance of multiple values guides action. Any attitude or behavior typically has implications for more than one value. For example, attending church might express and promote tradition and conformity values at the expense of hedonism and stimulation values. The tradeoff among relevant, competing values guides attitudes and behaviors. Values influence action when they are relevant in the context (hence likely to be activated) and important to the actor. 

The values identified are











The papier linked above provides detailed description of each. 

It would be great to hear on this conversation how organisations have been practically using these values to frame their messages