Dr Tom Crompton: Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Values in Environmental Communication

Dr Tom Crompton

By Bhavani Prakash

Dr. Tom Crompton is a Change Strategist at World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) UK, and if you’re intrigued by his job description, suffice it to say he has been involved in some cutting-edge research on going to the heart of what should be the approach of communication campaigns – of environmental organisations and those of the non-profit sector in general.

Dr. Crompton stresses the importance of engaging people’s intrinsic or non-materialistic values, versus extrinsic or materialistic ones, to achieve lasting and positive behaviour change. He is one the people behind the project called Common Cause: The Case for Working with Cultural Values.  Much of his work can be found on the thought-provoking website called Values and Frames.org

EWTT: How did your interest in human psychology and environmentalism evolve?

Dr. Tom Crompton: I have worked at WWF-UK for ten years .The first five years, I worked on international trade and investment policy – for example, World Trade Organisation (WTO) law. I was convinced then and am still convinced now that the international trade regime is crucially important from the sustainability perspective to ensure that we are producing and trading in more sustainable products with lower carbon footprints. Several senior negotiators were themselves deeply convinced for the need for more fundamental change to the trade regime on a sustainability basis but they’d say, “look, our hands are tied, we don’t enjoy the political space, we don’t experience public political pressure for more proportional change” and as a result the change that we saw was small.

I think that forced us really to reflect on what is it that creates  political space and pressure for more proportional change, what is it that motivates people to engage with the political process, whether it is to lobby with members of parliament or to demonstrate on the streets or however else they may express their political frustration. Some social psychologists came back to us and said that one of the things they see as missing at the moment from environmental campaigning or indeed third sector campaigning generally, is an understanding of values and the importance of values in underpinning people’s commitment to engage in political process and to express concern about social and environmental issues.

EWTT: In this context can you introduce the work you do with the Common Cause Project

Dr. Tom Crompton: We’re working to open debate with a wide range of third sector organizations – not just environmental organizations but also development and disability organizations, children’s charities and animal welfare charities – about the cultural values that seem to consistently underpin expression of concern about a wide range of social and environmental issues.

One implication of this work is that we should be designing or shaping our campaigns and communications, and indeed our entire external engagement, in a way which helps to engage and strengthen those values. These are values which almost everybody seems to hold already. It’s a question of bringing them to the fore, because they underpin not just our concern about environmental issues,  but also the concern about a wide range of other social issues.

It seems that when we activate what psychologists call extrinsic values -which are concerns about things like wealth or social status or image, those values tend to suppress the importance that  people attach to intrinsic values, or values associated with social and environmental concerns.

So there is an antagonistic relationship between these two sets of values.  From that we suggest it is important that NGOs think carefully about the occasions in which they may be drawn to appeal to extrinsic values in the course of pursuing a particular campaign outcome. For example, drawing attention to the money that might be saved through increased energy conservation measures like turning down the central heating thermostat or drawing attention to the social image or status that might be achieved through buying a luxury hybrid car. These are messages that may be effective in encouraging uptake of that particular behavior but are likely to have collateral damages.

This work also points to the possibility of beginning to work across a wide range of NGOs in new coalitions, with groups which hitherto have not really collaborated. Many NGOs can find common cause to engage those more intrinsic values and begin to tackle and remove those things which tend to engage and strengthen extrinsic values.

For example, we might find common cause in tackling an influence which currently serves to strengthen unhelpful extrinsic values at a cultural level, namely, the impact of advertising. We have begun to build a coalition of NGOs working again on a very wide set of issues to ask what’s the role of advertising in potentially frustrating emergence of greater public engagements and more  stronger expressions of public concern on all of our issues. But we might also work to help strengthen intrinsic values – for example, working with those who set the standards for teacher-training to introduce work to help children reflect on the importance of kindness in their lives.

Image Courtesy: ValuesandFrames.org

EWTT: Our society has become so materialistic. Is there a danger that there may be no common ground if we don’t address the ‘what’s in it for me?’ Are people going to listen to messages for less materialistic values?

Dr. Tom Crompton: There are several dimensions to that question and it is a very critical question.  You wouldn’t embark on what we are suggesting unless you are convinced that the problems we confront are really quite immense and will require really fundamental changes in terms of the level of ambition we show to respond to those problems.

If you really believed that a few behavioural changes in the private sphere in terms of domestic energy efficiency savings or a bit of green consumption were going to be sufficient to tackle a problem like climate change, or if you believe that increasing people’s willingness to donate to development charities was really going to be sufficient to tackle the problem of global poverty, then you probably look at what we are proposing and suggest that it is too ambitious.

So the first thing to say is that the scale of challenge that we are confronting at the moment would require an ambitious response and at the moment we are not seeing that level of ambition.

The second thing to say is that whilst it’s true that on some indicators, it seems that some cultures are becoming more materialistic, and are holding those extrinsic values to be more important, in most nations, people still hold intrinsic values to be more important. In the UK, if you ask people what’s important to them they first and foremost mention those intrinsic values. They voice the importance of the connection to friends and family, they talk about self- direction, the importance of self -determination and creativity, they talk about sense of social justice and the sense of environmental concern. Extrinsic values such as wealth or power rate less importantly.  The evidence also seems very clear that these intrinsic values are there in everybody to be engaged.

We recently conducted a study with psychologists from University of Cardiff where we took 750 ordinary citizens from the Cardiff community, and asked them what values were important to them, we gave them a value survey and we picked the top 10% for whom the extrinsic or materialistic values were most important.

We then asked half of these people to reflect for a few minutes on the importance of affiliation to friends and family, the importance of  broad-mindedness. We made no mention of the environment. We asked the other half to reflect on the importance of wealth or popularity. Then we interviewed each participant about climate change, amongst other things.  We transcribed the interviews and sent them a linguist who analysed the interviews without knowing whether a participant had been asked to think about intrinsic or extrinsic values.

We found  that even though these people were by disposition more inclined towards extrinsic values, simply asking them to pause for a few minutes  to reflect on the importance of affiliation towards  friends and family or broadmindedness led to a statistically significant increase in the extent to which they saw climate change as being something that they felt they had some personal responsibility to address and something that they wanted to see addressed because of its importance for a wider society and not just for their own self- interest.

What we take from an experiment like that, and it corroborates several other lines of evidence, is that those intrinsic values matter for a lot for people and that it’s possible to engage them even in the short term. We are not necessarily talking here about changing in values. It’s more about thinking carefully about which values people already hold, which of these underpin a greater commitment to express social or environmental concern, and engaging with these in the course of our campaigns or communications.

EWTT:  Companies often say they are bound by short-term results, such as sales targets or increasing shareholder returns, which relate to the extrinsic values you talk about. They tend to initiate sustainability initiatives only if it makes financial sense. How do you convince them to undertake them because it’s the right thing to do?

Dr. Tom Crompton: It is a challenge certainly. What we are suggesting goes beyond the business case for sustainability. It goes beyond simply pointing to those things that it’s in a business’s short-term economic interests  to do, for example increasing energy efficiency or supply chain efficiency in a way which will simultaneously save money. We need to move to a situation where the responsibility that companies have to the societies in which they operate is seen to extend beyond simply making money.

Many companies are already demonstrating willingness to go beyond the business case for sustainable development and are taking unilateral action. It is of course easier for family owned companies or cooperatives to do that than it is for publicly owned companies, but even in the case of publically owned companies there are examples where at the very least they come together and demand a regulatory intervention or legislative intervention in order to shift the level of the playing field.  In the UK, The Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change calls of government to enact new and longer-term policies to tackle climate change. Members of this group recognise that some steps to tackle climate change incur economic costs. But if together they can change the level of the playing field then these competitive costs could be equally shared across the competitors.

The other thing is to widen our concept of what corporate social responsibility means, to recognize that companies have a responsibility not just with immediate material foot prints of their activities –  how much carbon do they produce, how much tropical rainforest is cut down in the course of them sourcing their raw materials – but also with what you might call mindprint. Mindprint includes impacts on cultural values, and that’s affected in a whole range of ways: the way in which a company advertises, the values that are activated in the course of using the products it manufactures, or how a company manages decision making processes. These include their HR practices and internally recognizing that many people work for business and that it is an important part of their lives. When you spend 40 hours a week in a business, the culture of that business is likely to impact your values as an individual. So there is a whole range of ways in which we are arguing businesses have a responsibility to look at not only their footprints but also their mindprint, which may be even greater than the impact that they have through their direct environment impacts – their footprint.

EWTT: Can businesses exploit intrinsic values in their advertising, and can this cause harm?

Dr. Tom Crompton: Many businesses are well aware of the importance of intrinsic values in building a loyal customer base and clearly those intrinsic values are the ones often reflected in terms of a company’s brand or its advertising. A lot of advertising appeals to intrinsic values in terms of strength of family relationships or connection to nature. The report we produced last year called ‘Think of Me as Evil’ was an attempt to open some of these ethical debates as they relate to advertising. Nobody knows for sure what the cultural or social impact of advertising that appeals to intrinsic values are, but some of the social psychologists we have worked with constructed quite persuasive arguments that actually such ads may be unhelpful. What these ads may actually serve to do is to increase people’s cynicism about intrinsic values or to create the impression that those values, when they come from elsewhere, are being deployed manipulatively in order to get them to do something; whether that’s to buy a product or to show some act of kindness.  So it seems that there are dangers in deploying intrinsic values in pursuit of commercial interest.

EWTT: What about the behaviour or governments? How do you convince governments to look for alternative indicators of growth outside of GDP or overcome their fear of losing competitive advantage?

Dr. Tom Crompton: I agree with you fully on this. Those were precisely the constraints we hear from senior policy makers or decision makers in the trade regime. We would be arguing that at least for us in the UK we should be taking a unilateral stand in multilateral negotiations in order to help change the regime. What we hear constantly is that, “Oh well, we don’t have the political capital”,  or “there would be competitiveness costs to the industry”: exactly the arguments which you have just been advancing. I suppose I just come back again to our starting point. One of our responses to that degree of political paralysis is that the change we need isn’t going to occur without far more vocal and powerful citizen engagement. It isn’t going to happen unless more people are writing to their MPs, or unless more people are out in the streets demonstrating; unless it is made clear to the political leaders that their own political future depends upon being more ambitious in responding to these things – even though there are economic costs. So our question at the outset was: What is it that underpins increased citizen engagement? What is it that underpins citizen concern? And this brings us back to values.  If a diversity of third sector organizations come together to ask how it is that our cultural values influence our collective responses to social and environmental problems, they could have a profound impact on public debate.

Policy makers don’t enjoy the political space and public pressure for more ambitious change. So this whole work from the outset has been premised on the grounds that we need to find ways to increase public engagement on these issues. I don’t think governments are ready to embrace the scale of response that is necessary to respond to the challenges. But that said, there are certainly opportunities for governments within this and we have been engaging several governments on precisely this agenda.

The Welsh government is, for example, currently asking what are the narratives they have set down nationally within Wales around sustainable development?  They have recognized that they have adopted a series of environmental policies in a piecemeal fashion, so we have a charge on plastic bags, for example, but they recognize as  well that there are some fundamental limitations to what you can achieve by picking individual actions which are often quite modest in terms of their environmental impacts. They see the need for some sort of national narrative around sustainable development. Should this be constructed around the economic opportunities early investment in green technologies such as wind provides, that might give a country a competitive edge? Or should it be built around a sense that Wales has something important to contribute to the world as a small country that is light on its feet and has a strong sense of community and social justice? Clearly, I would argue for the latter.

In the case of the UK government, we are hearing that they too are frustrated by the limitations of a piecemeal approach to reducing individual’s carbon footprint for example. So they are confronting the fact that whilst they may urge people to insulate their loft on the basis that they will save money, they are finding at the same time that if people are insulating their loft solely to save money, there is no particular reason why the money that they save shouldn’t be spent in turning the central heating thermostat up and enjoying a warmer house or flying off to enjoy a weekend break: all of which are more carbon intensive activities. We have to look carefully at the values we are appealing to in trying to change private-sphere behaviours.

EWTT: What do you have to say about the way one should engage on social media?

Dr. Tom Crompton:  Social media is only one way in which third sector organizations impact on cultural values, albeit an important one, and the most easily changed. I think that there are many others, including policies that they are campaigning for, the way in which they campaign, the way in which they organize their own organizations and their own internal policies.

Online groups might begin to look at the values that they appeal to in the course of constructing their online requests for people to sign petitions: what’s the impact of these values on the longevity of people’s engagement, and the success with which they encourage people to actually sign the petition?

My expectation would be that they would be likely to build a more loyal relationship with their supporters when that relationship is premised on connecting with people’s intrinsic rather than their extrinsic values. There may be instances where you can successfully encourage large numbers of people to sign a petition on the basis of their self- interest, but I would argue that those supporters are likely to express a less general, or less systemic concern about a wide range of social and environmental issues,  particularly where those depart from their immediate self- interest, and they are likely to make for less durable relationships. They are likely to be more fickle.

EWTT: How do you intend to take your studies forward? What’s the broader vision for the kind of work you do?

Dr. Tom Crompton:  Our aim is to engage in the first instance a wider swathe of NGOs in this debate. In the UK at least, there is a huge appetite for this at the moment. We have already run over 60 workshops for different NGOs in UK from a very wide range of different issue groups and interest groups. That work will continue in terms of engaging third sector organizations in this conversation. It’s increasingly becoming an international conversation. We recently ran a series of workshops in a number of Scandinavian countries as there is an appetite there to begin to put together hubs of NGOs who are working on these issues and building a conversation in those countries. We are going to be running workshops soon in Australia; we have got workshops in Brussels, possibly in Canada so there is an increasing international interest which we haven’t really gone out to court, this is interest which has come to us really.

Part of what we are doing is deepening our already extensive relationship with academics on the evidence. Hitherto that evidence base has been drawn largely from social psychology but we are aware that social psychology represents only one route into this discussion. So we want to increasingly work with people from other disciplines, political science, psychotherapy, anthropology, and neurosciences and we are beginning that process. We are doing more research ourselves in terms of taking real NGO communications and asking what the impacts of those are. For example, we have put together a consortium of all the main UK conservation groups and we will be working with a psychologist and a linguist to analyse our entire external communication over a 6 month period to ask “what are the values that we are activating at the moment in the course of those communications”.


About the Interviewer:

Bhavani Prakash is the Founder of Eco WALK the Talk .com.  She is a sustainability speaker, trainer and writer can be contacted at bhavani[at]ecowalkthetalk.com. Follow Eco WALK the Talk on Facebook, TwitterLinked IN and YouTube


Further links you may be interested in:

WWF: Common Cause Report

Values and Frames.org 

Video link here

EWTT: Joe Brewer: An Interdisciplinary approach to understanding complex issues


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Posted by on May 28 2012. Filed under Behaviour Change, Climate Change, Climate Change, Communities and Governance, Consumerism, Government Policy, Green Activism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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