Communications Lessons From Religious Movements: Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton at TED speaking on sympathy

The always apropos Maria Popova features Alain de Botton today on Brain Pickings, discussing a topic near and dear to this blog’s heart – on the lessons we can learn from religion for promoting secular movements:

The tension between secularity and religion has endured for centuries, infusing academia and science with a strong and permeating undercurrent of atheism. But if we can divorce the medium from the message, there might be some powerful communication lessons secular movements could learn from religious ones. That’s the premise behind Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, a provocative and thoughtful new book by modern philosopher, prolific author, and School of Life founder Alain de Botton, who recently made a passionate case for redefining success.

Religions have been practicing the marketing arts for thousands of years – inspired, of course, by their faith and the help of their Gods – and have perfected a lot of approaches that are applicable in other areas. Indeed, the key concepts I harp on in this blog – such as the use of stories to build empathy, the appeal to authority (and who is a higher authority than the Divine?), and the importance of purity and sanctity – apply directly to church sermons as well as political speeches.

Link: Brain Pickings

“Bad Is Stronger Than Good” Examples

My goal in this blog is to help progressives do a better job with their positioning, and to think about how their positions are coming across to more than just liberals. This is the first in what will be a set of “cookbook” or how-tos that will help you do this with specific examples.

In the context of the fundamental rule that “bad is stronger than good” I’ve been writing about, I want to articulate more of what our problem is as progressives. We have great policies that will improve our lives and the lives of future Americans. And because they are so great, we tend to sell them using “good” arguments – “this will make your life better.” And we also rely a lot on “this will make life more fair,” and “this will prevent harm to people.” So, those all sound totally like good ways to position things if you’re a liberal – it’s good, it’s fair, it prevents harm. But, if you look at those arguments through the lenses of things we know about real cognition, you see a lot of problems:

  • Bad is stronger than good makes “this is good” arguments much weaker than “equivalent” arguments that come from a “bad” standpoint
  • Moral dimensions – liberals are happiest with the fairness and prevention of harm moral dimensions, but less liberal people need more moral dimensions to get a complete picture – they need a purity/sanctity aspect, a membership in a group aspect, and a respect for authority aspect. Adding these dimensions can alienate liberals in some cases – this is slightly tricky – but can make arguments much more compelling to less liberal people.

There’s strong underlying evidence that everyone, literally, wants the goals of progressive policies – a majority of Americans wants public health care, for example. You have to phrase the question right, but if you do, you get the result that people think health care is a public good, and should be treated as such. But, if you simply make the argument that public health care is good for us, it’s more fair, and it will prevent harm to more people, that’s not a very strong argument.

How do you make it stronger? You invoke some group membership. Like “You probably have a friend who’s been bankrupted by a serious illness. And if you don’t, it could still happen to you.” This combines a “bad” argument (bankruptcy due to a serious illness) with a group membership argument (you or a friend of yours). You can invoke an anti-group membership argument, like “The Congress has one of the best health care plans in the world, paid for by you and me. Why should they have something they won’t give us?” That create a “bad group” versus “good group” dichotomy.

What about sanctity and authority in the health care argument? Well, “what would Jesus do?” Does Jesus think our healthcare should be controlled by the money-changers, which is what insurance companies have become? There are many Bible verses that could be used to talk about healthcare. And authority? Eisenhower and Nixon were both in favor of universal healthcare. So were the founders – at least Jefferson and Lincoln. (You might have to do some digging to find the writings or speeches to support concepts like universal health care, but there’s much that’s appropriate to this topic.)

One thing to note is that there are some particular authorities that work in this context, and some that don’t. Not just any president will do, of course. And no current politician is authority enough. You need to go back to Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington, or Jesus or Moses. Of course for smaller scale policies, you can also use the police and the military as your authority – and in particular you need to not flout those authorities in your positions and policies.

For purity and sanctity, Jesus is often good. But remember that part of this is just about cleanliness and anti-disgusting-ness. And about not breaking the taboo-related rules of society (public nudity was one I talked about a few posts ago).


Some Bads Are More Equal Than Others – Or Why OWS Protesters Should Keep Their Clothes On

Error 404 - Need to avoid tactical errorsCreative Commons License photo credit: mclapics
Error 404 - Need to avoid tactical errors

In my last post I talked about how “Bad is stronger than good” is playing out in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and elsewhere. But I also mentioned some specific tactical mistakes that some people in OWS are making, such as running around nude at OWS events.

In the context of attempting to make OWS a national movement that attracts people from across the political spectrum, people running around naked is a pretty big “bad.”

The reason it’s a bigger bad is related to a whole other set of cognitive concepts that Jonathan Haidt talks about in this TED Talk, which I will try to summarize. Haidt identifies five dimensions along which people make moral – and hence political – decisions. These dimensions are:

  • Fairness/reciprocity
  • Harm/care
  • Group membership
  • Purity/sanctity
  • Authority

Simply put, liberals weight the first two much more strongly than the last three (which many liberals weight negatively, in fact), while conservatives weight all five dimensions strongly – they are equally strong on the first two as liberals, but much much stronger on the last three.

Now, think about the 1%/99% message – the central message of OWS. It’s primarily focused on the first two or Haidt’s dimensions – fairness (it’s not fair that the 1% has been able to amass so much wealth), and harm (because I can’t get a job, I can’t take care of myself or my family). One immensely clever aspect of the OWS movement has to be to articulate the 1%/99% divide, since it also activates the “group membership” dimension – essentially everyone can recognize themselves as being in the 99%.

But OWS has problems with purity/sanctity – because it’s a bunch of people camping out, which is a dirty, smelly experience at best – and with authority – because it’s intrinsically in opposition to various authority figures, such as the police, the city governments, and the owners of the places like Zucchotti Park.

So when you add in a naked man, which is horrendous from a purity/sanctity point of view, and not good at all from an authority and group membership point of view, (and at best neutral on fairness and harm) you suddenly have a very strong set of Bad that outweighs, for conservatives, the fundamental position of OWS. And, to be honest, it doesn’t do much for the liberals who are supporting OWS in the first place either, although they are generally not going to judge.