Values & frames

Values & Frames Download PDF

One of the defining debates within the envir­on­mental move­ment over the past decade has been between those who believe that applying the tech­niques and strategies of mar­keting phys­ical products is the best way of pro­moting sus­tain­able beha­viour (social mar­keting), and those who have argued that this approach – trying to ‘sell’ cli­mate change – is ulti­mately coun­ter­pro­ductive unless the right under­lying values are tar­geted by cam­paigns, and unless the mes­sages are ‘framed’ in a way that encour­ages sus­tain­able beha­viours across the board.

So what are ‘values’ and ‘frames’, and why are they so important?

A value is usu­ally defined by psy­cho­lo­gists as a ‘guiding prin­ciple in the life of a person’ (Schwartz, 1992). Over sev­eral dec­ades, and through research con­ducted in over 60 coun­tries, there is now a huge body of evid­ence that shows the cer­tain values and beliefs tend to go together – while others tend to be opposed to each other. People who identify strongly with ‘self-enhancing’ values (e.g. mater­i­alism, per­sonal ambi­tion) tend not to identify strongly with ‘self-transcending’ values (e.g. bene­vol­ence, respect for the environment).

There are some important prac­tical implic­a­tions to this research: people who hold ‘self-transcendent’ values (espe­cially pro-environmental values, and high levels of altruism) are more likely to engage in sus­tain­able beha­viour (Stern, 2000), show higher con­cern about envir­on­mental risks like cli­mate change (Slimak and Dietz, 2006), are more likely to per­form spe­cific actions such as recyc­ling (Dunlap et al., 1983) and are more likely to sup­port cli­mate mit­ig­a­tion policies (Nilsson et al., 2004).

These mean that unless cam­paigns to pro­mote sus­tain­able beha­viour make an attempt to target ‘self-transcendent’ values, they may inad­vert­ently be pro­moting pre­cisely the types of per­sonal and cul­tural values that will make sus­tain­able beha­viour less likely. And this is why the way that mes­sages and cam­paigns are ‘framed’ is so important.

Intentionally or unin­ten­tion­ally, all inform­a­tion is ‘framed’ by the con­text in which it appears. This could mean the indi­vidual words and phrases that are used (some­times called ‘con­cep­tual framing’), and is more akin to the ‘spin’ that is put on a mes­sage (like describing a product as con­taining 50% less fat, when in fact it still con­tains more fat than any of its competitors).

But framing can also mean some­thing more sub­stan­tial, and this is called ‘deep framing’. ‘Deep framing’ refers to the con­nec­tions that are forged between a par­tic­ular com­mu­nic­a­tion strategy or public policy and a set of deeper values or prin­ciples (Lakoff, 2004), and offers one method of linking cli­mate change engage­ment strategies with self-transcendent values (Crompton, 2010). For example, put­ting a fin­an­cial value on an endangered spe­cies, and building an eco­nomic case for their con­ser­va­tion ‘com­mod­i­fies’ them, and makes them equi­valent (at the level of deep frames) to other assets of the same value (like a hotel chain). This is a very dif­ferent frame to one that attempts to achieve the same con­ser­va­tion goals through emphas­ising the intrinsic value of rare animal spe­cies – as some­thing that should be pro­tected in their own right.

There is now a growing body of work – much of it led by Dr Tom Crompton, Change Strategist for WWF – that has used these research find­ings about how values and frames impact on people’s beha­viours and beliefs, and applied them to the chal­lenges of cam­paigning on cli­mate change. In the resources list, some of these studies are briefly described. But here is a more detailed account of what Tom Crompton and his col­leagues have dis­covered about how to use frames and values to most effect­ively pro­mote sus­tain­able behaviour.

Crompton’s first piece of work was called ‘Weathercocks & Signposts’, and chal­lenged many of the assump­tions about how NGOs cam­paigned on cli­mate change. It was one of the first pub­lic­a­tions to ques­tion whether social mar­keting approaches were neces­sarily the best way of achieving the aims of envir­on­mental NGOs, given that social mar­keting often advoc­ates using financial/material incent­ives, which in the long term encourage values that are coun­ter­pro­ductive to pro­moting sus­tain­able behaviour.

His next report (with John Thogersen), ‘Simple & pain­less? The lim­it­a­tions of Spillover in Environmental Campaigning’, expanded on these argu­ments and examined another assump­tion that many envir­on­mental cam­paigns were based on: that starting with ‘simple and pain­less’ steps like unplug­ging phone char­gers or turning down the washing machine is an effective way of enga­ging people in the more sub­stan­tial sus­tain­able beha­viours like chan­ging their travel routines, or eating dif­ferent types of food. Crompton showed that the psy­cho­lo­gical evid­ence for a ‘vir­tuous escal­ator’ of beha­vi­oural change is lim­ited, at best.

In a short, down­load­able e-book with Tim Kasser, Crompton set out in more detail the social psy­cho­lo­gical evid­ence on how people’s sense of identify and their life goals affect their envir­on­mental beha­viours. It looks in detail at three of the main psy­cho­lo­gical drivers for envir­on­ment­ally destructive beha­viour (including mater­i­al­istic values and life goals, pre­ju­dice against the ‘out-group’ who are per­ceived to be telling them what to do, and coping strategies people use against the ‘threat’ of having to change their beha­viour). It pro­poses spe­cific strategies for dealing with each problem, and includes case studies from envir­on­mental campaigns.

Crompton’s work cul­min­ated in a recent, well-publicised report pro­duced for a coali­tion of third-sector organ­isa­tions called ‘Common Cause’. As well as the main report, a hand­book for cam­paign and com­munity groups was pro­duced, sum­mar­ising the central argu­ments in the report and trans­lating them into prac­tical tasks and recom­mend­a­tions. There is also a web­site that includes new com­mentary and fea­tures showing how the Common Cause thinking is being used in practice.

The central argu­ment of the Common Cause report is that for ‘bigger-than-self’ prob­lems like cli­mate change (i.e. prob­lems that may not be in an individual’s imme­diate self-interest to invest energy and resources in helping to solve), cam­paigns that propagate or endorse self-enhancing values may actu­ally under­mine the ‘common cause’ that links them. This means that there is a common cause that links not just dif­ferent envir­on­mental cam­paigns, but ‘bigger than self’ prob­lems across dif­ferent sec­tors (e.g., dealing with poverty).

Crompton and his col­leagues’ work on values and frames has started to alter the land­scape of cam­paigning on envir­on­mental and other social issues – it is well worth taking the time to read the work he has been involved in, and thinking about how its find­ings can be applied.


Crompton, T. (2010). Common Cause: The case for working with our cul­tural values. Surrey: WWF UK.

Dunlap, R. E., Grieneeks, J. K., & Rokeach, M. (1983). Human values and pro-environmental beha­viour. InW.D. Conn (Ed.), Energy and material resources: Attitudes, values, and public policy. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Lakoff, G. (2004). Don’t think of an ele­phant! Know your values and frame the debate. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Nilsson, A., von Borgstede, C. & Biel, A. (2004). Willingness to accept cli­mate change strategies: The effect of values and norms. Journal of Environmental Psychology 24, 267–277.

Schwartz, S. H. (1992). Universals in the con­tent and struc­ture of values: Theoretical advances and empir­ical tests in 20 coun­tries. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 25, pp. 1–65). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Slimak, M.W., & Dietz, T., (2006). Personal values, beliefs, and eco­lo­gical risk per­cep­tion.  Risk Analysis 26 (6) 1689–1705.

Stern, P. C. (2000). Towards a coherent theory of envir­on­ment­ally sig­ni­ficant beha­vior. Journal of Social Issues 56(3), 407–424.

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