Values and Frames

This article looks at a Values and Frames approach to changing people’s attitudes on social issues and asks if it is an approach that the left in Scotland could learn from. It gives a brief overview of attitudes of people in Scotland to redistribution and social protection and shows how these attitudes have changed over time.

It goes on to highlight research emphasising the importance of engaging people’s values as a basis for effective campaigning. It introduces the concept of frames as a means of influencing people’s values. And finally, it suggests some ideas about how to make this approach relevant to left projects in Scotland.

So what attitudes do people in Scotland have towards progressive policies in Scotland? It’s an important question, especially for those of us on the left.

There is some evidence that Scottish attitudes to social protection and inequality are more ‘social democratic’ than in England. But the difference is not huge ( For example, on inequality the number of people in Scotland who agree that ‘government should redistribute income from the better-off to those who are less well off’ is 43 per cent In England the number is 34 per cent.

In Scotland, the number of people who support increasing taxes and spending more on health, education and social benefits has fallen from a majority of 55 per cent in 1999 to a minority of 40 per cent in 2010.

The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey asks people about levels of benefit for unemployed people and invites them to say which of these two statements come closest to their view: “benefits for unemployed people are too low and cause hardship’ or ‘benefits for unemployed people are too high and discourage them from finding jobs?’. In 1999, 37.4 per cent of people thought benefits were too low, 32.3 per cent thought they were too high. In 2010, 27.4 per cent of people thought benefits were too low, 44.4 per cent thought they were too high.

In 2010, the survey asked people in Scotland whether they agreed with this statement: ‘Large numbers of people these days falsely claim benefits’. Some 49 per cent of people agreed strongly with this statement and 28 per cent of people agreed slightly. Just nine per cent disagreed slightly and seven per cent disagreed strongly. So it is clear that attitudes towards redistribution and towards people who rely on social protection have hardened significantly over the years.

Two questions arise from this: how has it come about; and how do we change it?

For some years, many civil society organisations have been involved in work looking at the importance of engaging people’s values as a necessary step in effective campaigning. This has been largely focused on changing attitudes to environmental issues and issues around international aid and development. This work is perhaps best highlighted in the UK by the organisation Common Cause.

In both action and thought, people are affected by a wide range of influences. Past experience, cultural and social norms, and the money at our disposal are some of the most important. Connected to all of these, to some extent, are our values – which represent a strong guiding force, shaping our attitudes and behaviour over the course of our lives. Our values have been shown to influence our political persuasions; our willingness to participate in political action; our career choices; our ecological footprints; how much money we spend, and on what; and our feelings of personal wellbeing.

The importance of people’s underlying values in their attitudes to poverty and inequality in the UK has been repeatedly highlighted in research. People’s beliefs around why poverty exists and to the need for Government intervention to redistribute wealth in society are closely linked to their values:

Qualitative research has highlighted the importance of collective versus individualistic world-views in influencing attitudes to inequality and redistribution. For example, those who hold individualistic world-views are less likely to support redistribution.

Cognitive scientists have looked at people’s values and placed them in categories that may be useful to us in thinking about campaigning on these issues.

We see that ‘Social Justice’ and ‘Equality’ are part of a set of values around ‘Universalism’. This would suggest that, if we want to change people’s attitudes to redistribution and social protection; we should be focusing our efforts on strengthening this value.

One way to influence people’s values is through frames:

Frames offer one way of activating positive values. They have a rich academic heritage, having first come to prominence in the mid-1970s. Put simply, we understand things, mostly subconsciously, using frames. In language, for example, our ‘frame’ for a word is not just its dictionary meaning but also all the other things we know, feel or have experienced in relation to it. When we hear a particular word or encounter a specific situation, the dictionary meaning and all those other bits of knowledge and experience are engaged in our brains. This is the ‘frame’ for a word or scene – and hence it is thought that frames can engage values. (

This means that the language we use and the frames they come with have to be chosen with care and – if we are interested in strengthening people’s commitment to social justice and equality – should be designed to engage Universal Values.

Cognitive psychologists sometimes plot our values on a circle like this:

So let’s go back to the first of the two questions we raised above. People’s attitudes to social protection in Scotland have hardened significantly over recent years – how has this happened?

A Values and Frames approach perhaps gives us an insight. People’s attitudes might have changed because conservative forces have been successful in creating frames that engage values contrary to those of Universalism and Benevolence, strengthening values on the opposite side of the circle. Research supports this theory, finding that rising stigma of people on benefits is probably linked to negative frames found in the media ( per cent20Stigma per cent20in per cent20Britain.pdf).

The cognitive linguist George Lakoff has done a lot of work looking at how conservatives use frames and language to appeal to values that help them achieve their policy goals. For example, conservatives in the US stopped talking about tax cuts and started talking about tax relief:

Think of the framing for relief. For there to be relief, there must be an affliction, an afflicted party, and a reliever who removes the affliction and is therefore a hero. And if people try to stop the hero, those people are villains for trying to prevent relief.

Taxation therefore becomes the affliction; something to be avoided, something we need to be saved from. This engages values around Power and Achievement, strengthening them, and weakening those around Universalism and Benevolence.

If we use the muscles of our arms regularly, they strengthen. The research suggests that we can strengthen certain values in the same way, simply by activating them on a regular basis. That is what frames do. They use metaphor and association to engage certain values.

If we want to strengthen the Universal Value, we can use frames that are designed to engage it directly. But research shows that activating neighbouring values on the circle – around Benevolence and Self-Direction for example – has a spill-over effect. It strengthens those vaues, but also the neighbouring Universal Value.

On the other hand, if we use frames that engage values opposite to the Universal Value on the circle, like Achievement or Power, this will strengthen those values and weaken the Universal Values. And – like building muscle – this process does not happen overnight. Values have to be engaged repeatedly and in a consistent way for them to be strengthened significantly.

Let us look at the second question we raised above. How do we change people’s attitudes? A good starting point is that the research shows that these values are universal.

…values are not character types. Each of us is motivated by all of these values, but to differing degrees. (

That means that everyone – even the most right-wing of us – have Universal values that can be engaged by appropriate framing. This should be be a cause for optimism.

Lakoff makes a series of recommendations on framing to people who are interested in more progressive policies. He says they should avoid using the language of conservatives. They should not use the phrase tax relief for example – because when people hear a frame, even in a context where it is being criticised, it engages the associated values. In one book, he recounts telling his students not to think of an elephant.

I’ve never found a student who is able to do this. Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an image or other kinds of knowledge: Elephants are large, have floppy ears and a trunk, are associated with circuses, and so on. (Don’t Think Of An Elephant, 2004)

Lakoff’s work is useful, but it is of its time and place. His popular books are designed to influence people in the Democratic Party and those around them towards using a Values and Frames approach to political campaigning. The situation in Scotland is obviously different and the framing he recommends in his work may not be suitable here.

For the left in Scotland, a Values and Frames approach towards campaigning could provide ground for common efforts. We can see that the values underpinning the kind of society we want to see are shared, whatever tradition we come from. A single campaign explicitly designed to strengthen values around Universalism and Benevolence, instead of campaigning on particular political issues, could have real impact.

It could involve political parties, trade unions, campaign groups and third sector organisations. It could be built for the long-term, engaging values over an extended period. It could be created with the input of psychologists, writers, artists and people with skills in rhetoric. And once people’s values move, there is the potential for their attitudes on a whole host of politicial issues to move as well.

A final thought. Much of this article has been focused on the idea of using framing in external campaigning to engage values. But some groups in Scotland have also been working on strengthening appropriate values of individuals in other ways. WWF Scotland’s Natural Change Projecti helped leaders in education re-connect with nature in an attempt to get them to think about the importance of teaching about sustainability. Are there ways that we on the left can strengthen the individual values on which a new society will be built?