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Why facts don’t persuade (on their own)

Penelope Gibbs
02 Aug 2016

The FrameWorks Institute has just published research, commissioned by Transform Justice (with ClinksCJA and SCYJ), which recommends radical new ways of communicating about criminal justice. First we need to understand people’s beliefs.

“There has always been crime and there always will be crime” is a common fatalistic belief, which stops people believing either that the system can be improved or that people can be rehabilitated.  It’s also a belief that permeates the communications of campaigners.  It is hard to believe things can get better when conditions in prisons seem to be getting worse.  But we need to inject some optimism into our messages if we are to change the debate.

We should also stop relying on facts and evidence to persuade.  In the Brexit campaign, voters were deluged with facts from both sides, but in the end voted according to their deep seated beliefs.  The “fact” that Britain sends £350 million to the EU every week was used by the Leave campaign to imply that the EU sucked money out of the British economy.  It wasn’t true in that more than half of this money came back to the UK in the form of subsidies etc.  Many media outlets pointed out that the claim was untrue, but still didn’t change people’s minds. “In a survey conducted by ICM Unlimited, we asked 449 respondents in an online panel whether they had heard the claim “The UK contributes £350 million a week to the EU” and over 75% reported that they had heard the claim many times. Of those who had heard the claim, half had heard or read materials to suggest the claim was false. However, despite hearing that the claim was false there was resistance to processing the claim as factually incorrect. Amongst Leave supporters who had heard the claim was false almost 50% rated the claim as strongly or mostly believable” (Susan Banducci and Dan Stevens).

So it doesn’t matter whether we are pre or post fact. If people have strong beliefs, facts alone are unlikely to sway them.  Facts are believed only if they fit in with existing beliefs.  A strong belief people hold about crime is that it is a choice – that those who commit crime generally rationally weigh up the chances of being caught and sanctioned versus the benefits to be gained from the crime.  But for most crime (except perhaps fraud), the act is by no means a considered choice.  Yes, everybody has free will, but much crime is spontaneous, and very little rational.  Unfortunately, if you believe crime is a choice, then you are also likely to believe that deterrence (harsher punishment) works. Which it doesn’t, precisely because most crime is spontaneous.  FrameWorks suggests avoiding any inference that crime is a choice, or the buzz words which may trigger that belief (such as agency or personal responsibility).  This will be a huge challenge – much of desistance theory is based on giving individuals the power to shape their lives.  But the more we imply that crime is a choice, the less people will understand the social drivers to crime, and the capacity of the criminal justice system to reduce crime.

Reframing is a powerful new approach to communications, which asks us to radically change the way we use words.  Change is always hard, but it will be worth it to change the debate on criminal justice.