Richard Darlington is Campaign Director in London and Head of Strategic Communication at Well Told Story and Well Made Strategy, in Nairobi, Kenya. He is also one of the founders and Editorial Board Member of WonkComms.

“Oh yeah, what you’re talking about is ‘pluralistic ignorance’.” That’s the first thing I’m told by the first academic I meet. It’s nine AM, I’m sat in a professor’s office in the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath and I’m about to have my mind blown.

Eight hours later, I’m filling out a feedback form, resting on a 400 page text book about attitude change that the Head of Department has gifted me as take-away homework. My head is fizzing with ideas. I’m rethinking assumptions I’ve made in my day job and I’m reconsidering professional habits I’ve picked up over years. 

It’s all thanks to the Institute for Policy Research (IPR). But I’ll be honest, when it was first suggested to me that I’d travel down to Bath and undertake the Policy Fellowship Programme, I was a bit sceptical. It’s kind of a long way to go, right? But I guess there are some benefits of putting the ‘out of office’ on and getting out of town. So what’s it for? You get to meet with, and speak to, academics in a variety of fields, doing research on the kind of policy areas or political challenges that you’re working on. But do they really understand what I do at work?

And that’s the brilliant part. There is, in the words of the Director of the IPR, Professor Nick Pearce, a “serendipity” in meeting people you wouldn’t normally meet and having conversations you wouldn’t normally have. It works both ways. It’s good for these academics to have people working in public policy come through their office and challenge how they think about their research. As one Senior Lecturer put it to me after I explained what I’m trying to do in my day job, “that raises some fascinating research questions.” 

You don’t just meet anyone. IPR asks you about what you do and what you’re interested in learning more about. Then they matchmake you with their extensive list of faculty and their published and current research interests. It’s like a geeky online dating service. Followed by a day of speed dating. Although, this being academic, the dates last an hour each.

And, like online dating, it’s a bit hit and miss. While perfectly pleasant people, two of three of the half a dozen I met, didn’t really leave an impression on me and I’ll probably be instantly forgettable to them too. But three of those one hour one-to-one tutorials (yes, I did have a little bit of post-grad flashback) stopped the earth on its axis. 

Like a lot of WonkComms types, I do a lot with digital and social media but I’ve always been very sceptical of ‘bots’ having any value to my work. But then I met a Prize Fellow with a PhD in political science who is working with IBM to develop algorithms to measure topic-specific ideological positions. Seriously. She’s made me think again. 

Equally, I assumed that if you want to change the mind of someone who disagrees with you, you should try to pull them towards your argument. Then I met an academic who told me about a clinical psychology technique called ‘motivational interviewing’, were you invite people to challenge their own thinking by exaggerating their views back to them. He told me that campaigners for peace in the Middle East have operationalised this through a technique called ‘paradoxical thinking’: taking an idea and extending it to an even further extreme, in order to encourage a reconsideration and ultimately promoting a more moderate point of view.

Finally, I met an academic working on a major research project on the affect of child salience on pro-social behaviour. We all know that kids work in all types of communications campaigns but they are measuring exactly when, where and how they work best. The way that the image of the ‘boy on the beach’ captured public attention and changed the migration debate is an example of how things can change for campaigners but also how progress can stall. 

Lots to think about. And at the every least, the next time I find my talking talking to someone who personally rejects something but is going along with it because they incorrectly assume that most of the other people in their group do too, I’ll know that what I’m up against. Because that’s ‘pluralistic ignorance’. 

This blog was originally published via WonkComms on 11 March 2019. 

Posted in: Culture and policy, Data, politics and policy, Evidence and policymaking, Science and research policy


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