The fallout of England’s penalty shootout loss, including racism that has been directed at England’s penalty takers, highlights the need for interventions that speak across social and political lines, writes Tamim Mobayed (Executive MSc Behavioural Science).
The England football team’s march this summer in the Euro 2020 has been impressive. While they were unable to clinch the trophy, the team and their manager Gareth Southgate have won sporting and supra-sporting critics alike. In June 2021, Southgate, released an acclaimed letter to English fans on the eve of the tournament. Titled “Dear England”, the letter was an emotive call to fans, stirring them to support their players, but also, to avoid engaging in online abuse, and to be receptive to the players’ messaging on social issues. In mentioning his familial association with the British military, and his grandfather’s service, as well as his commitment to “Queen and country”, Southgate engaged in deft ‘Moral Foundational’ reframing, a technique that can be employed to persuade people on critical positions which they may not be typically receptive too.
Moral Foundational Framing
This technique combines the behavioural tool of framing, with the personality-centred Moral Foundations Theory (MFT). Framing was among the discoveries of pioneering economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. They found that valuation of options can be significantly influenced by the way in which options are packaged and presented, crucially, without changing any of the factual content of the information.
MFT posits that there are five moral values that can be found across cultures, though they are represented differently and to different extents between cultures (and religious and political groups). These five morals are caring, fairness, sanctity, (in-group) loyalty and authority. Those on the left of the political spectrum typically score highly on caring and fairness, and low on the three remaining values. Those on the right of the spectrum typically score highly on all five values.
A recent and contentious example of where moral foundational differences can be exhibited in society comes by way of debates pertaining to historical statues. Seen only through the lens of caring and fairness, it might seem “right” to take down any symbol, statue or otherwise, that might be offensive to some, and if the figure depicted engaged in offensive behaviours. When we introduce loyalty, authority and sanctity to the equation, it becomes a little less straightforward, and the value of not only preserving the statue, but celebrating its owner, can also seem “right”.
Overview of Southgate’s Application of the Reframing
Southgate decided to add a deft touch of reframing to the discussion that is currently raging within sporting circles pertaining to expressions of solidarity towards movements such as Black Lives Matter, and the ongoing debate around sportspeople “taking the knee”. Rather than appealing to the sympathetic (and largely converted) Left, Southgate has framed this as being about more than just social justice and equality. In his message to fans, he explicitly refers to his family’s relationship with the military, which would evoke sympathies with those who score higher on authority, sanctity and loyalty:
“For me, personally, my sense of identity and values is closely tied to my family and particularly my granddad. He was a fierce patriot and a proud military man, who served during World War II (…) The idea of representing “Queen and country” has always been important to me. We do pageantry so well in Britain, and, growing up, things like the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and royal weddings had an impact on me.”
He goes on to defend his players’ stances on “equality, inclusivity and racial injustice”, describing their voicing of opinions on the matter as a “duty”. By marrying his pleas to the fans to respect the players’ voices when it comes to social justice and social causes, with his familial ties to the military, and his appreciation of Queen and country, Southgate’s authority/sanctity/loyalty-steeped call could have appeal to those on the Right.
Backing from the Literature
Evidence to the efficacy of this form of reframing is increasing. Feygina, Goldsmith and Jost (2010) applied it to increase support for environmental causes, by reframing environmental concerns as an issue pertaining to (American) national patriotism.
Voelkel and his colleagues applied moral foundational framing successfully to the realm of both politics and economics. In terms of the political, Voelkel and Feinberg (2017) were able to negatively impact on conservative support for Donald Trump by framing messaging against him in a conservative value (loyalty), and were correspondingly able to impact on liberal support for Hilary Clinton by framing messaging against her in a liberal value (fairness).
Interestingly, Trump seemed to focus on appealing to both Liberals and Conservatives in his 2020 Republican National Convention speech, referencing the universal values of care and fairness (24 and 62 times, respectively), more than the more conservative-focused values of loyalty, respect and sanctity (12, 10, and 9 times). Ultimately, this framing did not lead to his success in the 2020 election.
Voelkel and Willer (2019) extended application of moral foundational reframing to economics; they were able to convince economic conservatives of the merits of liberal economic policies by framing them in conservative values.
Southgate’s now lauded letter offers an example of reaching across moral foundations in an attempt to persuade and bridge divides. While those on the Left of the political spectrum might take an issue with the championing of the military and the Monarchy, dismissing this approach ignores the growing body of evidence that highlights its efficacy.
Polarisation is increasing on a number of measures and speaking across aisles in language that appeals to the as of yet unpersuaded could be an effective remedy to this. Southgate’s deployment of reframing in relation to who could and should support equality and social justice could prove to be another example of successful moral foundational reframing.