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Effective Advocacy: Understand How We Behave and Why

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“Confronting information that directly challenges existing beliefs can be psychologically threatening to people, especially if the information challenges their sense of identity.”  ~ Rachel Hillary Brown

We humans like to think that we make our decisions based on evidence and logic, but we are largely emotionally-driven, inconsistent beings.

We also want to be right, want to belong, and want to be perceived as good, successful people.

Studies show, for example, that many people believe that protecting the environment is important, yet they are likely to engage in eco-friendly behaviors only when the cost to them is relatively low.

And a 2017 poll showed that 47 percent of respondents support closing slaughterhouses—and 33 percent support a total ban on animal farming—yet the vast majority of people still eat animals and their products.

And a 2015 Gallup poll notes that 32 percent of people in the US believe that animals should be given the same rights as people (up from 25 percent in 2008), but our systems and institutions are responsible for the increased exploitation and deaths of literally trillions of animals each year.

There are also numerous factors that influence our decisions. For example, a 2013 study on how our consumer choices can affect our values found that people engage in “motivated reasoning,” which means they “change what they believe in based on what they want and how much they like something.” (Such as finding sweatshop conditions more acceptable and justifiable because we want a particular piece of clothing.)

In your advocacy, whether you’re building relationships with potential allies and partners, engaging with opponents, or seeking to influence a policy maker, it’s important to understand how and why people make the decisions they do.


Understand Social Psychology

“We all have the power to influence others. It is up to us, whether we are going to abuse that power to manipulate people or use it to help them.” ~ Abhijit Naskar

Social psychology looks at “how people influence each other’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.”

Researchers have identified numerous theories for how we are influenced, such as

  • Cognitive dissonance: When our beliefs, attitudes, and/or behaviors conflict, we often feel discomfort, which may lead us to justify, alter, or dismiss those beliefs and behaviors.
  • Just World theory: We may believe that we live in a just world, and thus, if someone has good fortune or someone is harmed, then they must have deserved it.
  • Loss aversion: We tend to fear losing what we already have.
  • Contribution ethic: When we take a socially responsible action, we can tend to feel that we’ve “done enough” and don’t need to take further action.
  • Attitude/behavior gap: We may have a significant gap between our attitudes about something and our actual behaviors.

Here are some additional examples of ways that humans can be influenced.

Understand Implicit Bias and Logical Fallacies

Humans also often make decisions based on biases and logical fallacies.

Implicit biases are unconscious attitudes and assumptions that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions. We can have implicit biases about both human and nonhuman groups.

Here’s a short (2.5 minute) video that briefly explains implicit bias related to racism.

And here’s a short (9.5 minute) video that explores the inconsistencies in our moral consideration of nonhuman animals. (While the video is somewhat problematic in its use of a utilitarian framework, it still offers some important insights.)

Logical fallacies are common errors in reasoning that are based on faulty logic.

Here’s a short (8 minute) video that briefly explains several of the most common logical fallacies.

See more logical fallacies explained here.

Understanding your own and others’ biases, becoming proficient in recognizing logical fallacies, and understanding how people’s beliefs and behaviors can be influenced, will help you avoid pitfalls that may harm your efforts and will inform your strategies so that you can take these theories into account.

For example, if you’re planning to meet with a legislator or policymaker about the exploitation and enslavement of children via what’s commonly labeled as “child marriage,” it would be helpful to first review information about the decision maker’s background, media appearances, and policy record to help you determine useful insights, such as the following:

  • What are their stated views about issues related to “child marriage,” the rights of children, and parental rights?
  • Do their stances reflect consistency, or is there cognitive bias?
  • Do they use any logical fallacies in their statements on any issues?
  • What biases do they exhibit?
  • What internal and external motivations can you discern?



Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us about Spreading Social Change by Nick Cooney
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini

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