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If the Message Doesn’t Fit, You Must Resubmit

What Behavioural Science Can Teach Us About High-Stakes Communications

I may be a behavioural scientist by training, but I did minor in communications way back in my undergrad days. And if there is one thing I learned in all my communications courses, it’s that communication is a two-way process in which a message is delivered AND received. Key in this equation is that the message is received.

Even if a message is delivered, without message reception, communication has not taken place.  When a message is not received it is a failure on the part of the communicator to tailor their message to the audience in question. There are many ways a message can miss its intended target. Some of the most common reasons have to do with demographics. Messages tailored for women may not reach women. Messages tailored for Torontonians may not reach Torontonians. Messages for Millennials may not reach Millennials — you get the point. Often times you have a good message but it’s not hitting the right audience and goes unreceived.

One of the less commonly understood reasons for communication failure is a mismatch between the message and the psychological makeup of the audience. The number of potential mismatches between a message and an audience, on a psychological level, is vast. And of course not all of these potential problems can be accounted for. However, the watchful eye of a trained behavioural scientist can mean the difference between successful communication and communication failure.

For example, take one small slice of behavioural science—the field of self-regulation. For our purposes, self-regulation refers to how individuals moderate their behaviour in response to the environment, based on predispositions or external factors.

Many years ago, my mentor at Columbia University, Tory Higgins, developed an influential theory of self-regulation called Regulatory Focus Theory. Now, after a couple of decades and many thousands of studies later, the theory is a validated framework that people continue to use. It is widely used in the seemingly esoteric world of scientific-academia but also in the “real-world” like business schools, advertising firms, and communications agencies.

Here is a very simplified explanation of how Regulatory Focus Theory would work within the context of communications: When communication is framed to match psychological states (i.e., ensuring the communication has the proper ‘fit’) people tend to feel more positively about the things that they are judging than when there is a mismatch (i.e., the psychological state does not match how the communication is framed).

Although there was a long history of using fit in the study of communications, my own academic research was among the first published work to apply fit to the study of forgiveness.1  

What I found back then was that after an interpersonal transgression had taken place (e.g. an argument), apologies that communicate a psychological state that is consistent with the recipient’s psychological state tend to elicit more forgiveness. Conversely, apologies that communicate a psychological state that is inconsistent with that of the recipient tend to elicit less forgiveness. Essentially, if your response fits the individual you have wronged, they will receive your apology more readily.

Recently, fellow researchers have taken things one step further and applied these findings to crisis communication to achieve greater consumer forgiveness. 2 In a series of thoughtfully designed experiments, these researchers found that “Guilt-framing communication results in higher forgiveness than shame-framing for angry consumers, whereas shame-framing communication results in higher forgiveness than guilt-framing for fearful consumers.”3 What this means is that it may be beneficial for communications to be crafted in a manner that conforms to the aforementioned pairing of emotions (i.e., guilt with anger/shame with fear). However, the results of early-stage research should always be approached with caution until they are replicated by other independent researchers.

But this doesn’t mean that some of the insights from this research can’t immediately be leveraged. In fact, I would argue, there is opportunity to at least reduce the potential for negative outcomes by simply keeping these findings in mind. For instance, when crafting communications for consumers who are feeling angry, avoid communicating shame or using phrases associated with it. And when crafting communications for consumers who are feeling fearful, avoid communicating guilt. The early research shows this could be a far more effective way of communicating with consumers.

This is but one small example of how communications can go wrong without an understanding of and ongoing relationship with behavioural science. I wouldn’t go so far as to say  that without a behavioural scientist on staff you are unlikely to ever know something like this, but having us around certainly helps. At the very least, we can provide you with data-driven rules of thumb for communications. For example, when a message does not fit, you must resubmit.

Knowledge of behavioural science and current findings within the academic/scientific literature can mitigate risks associated with mismatched messages and the unintended consequences that follow. This is why the very best communications are guided by research and have a deep understanding of behavioural science.


Navigator has a team of dedicated, Ph.D.-level behavioural scientists on staff who regularly conduct research and assist clients with crafting communications that not only hit the mark but avoid rubbing people the wrong way.



1 – Santelli, Alexander G.; Struthers, C. Ward; Eaton, Judy. Fit to forgive: Exploring the interaction between regulatory focus, repentance, and forgiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 96(2), Feb 2009, 381-394.

2, 3 – Yaxuan, Ran; Haiying, Wei, Qing, Li. Forgiveness from Emotion Fit: Emotional Frame, Consumer Emotion, and Feeling-Right in Consumer Decision to Forgive. Frontiers in Psychology, Vol 7, Nov 2016, 1-16.


Gaining Followers – In More Ways Than One

As part of its internship program, Navigator asks its interns to write a blog post about the intersection of communications and an area of personal interest. This week, Meredith Wilson-Smith examines the interplay of art, politics, and marginalization.

Intersectionality, systemic oppression, internalized misogyny: what do these terms have in common?

Maybe they all made you roll your eyes and write this article off as pedantic. But their shared application to marginalized communities relates to one central question: who do you support? As technology develops and expands, this question becomes increasingly relevant.

Politics worldwide have polarized. It takes a couple of clicks to directly contact a politician, and debates are radicalized as people quickly and anonymously spread oftentimes discriminatory viewpoints. We’ve seen this throughout the past year, during the 2016 US presidential election and the 2017 French presidential election. Though these events have inured us to radicalization, they’ve revealed a lesson: dichotomy insulates communities. People are increasingly discouraged from communicating or empathizing with communities outside their own. To express this, they turn to the Internet.

Freedom of speech doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Politically-engaged people seek accessible platforms to express their opinions. Social media is malleable and easily connects like-minded individuals. But it’s dangerous to cloister yourself. As similar viewpoints stoke one another, the buildup of increasingly inflammatory opinions can fuel a harmful collective rage.

Sociologist Alberto Melucci used the term “cognitive liberation” to describe the “awakening of an individual’s awareness of the issues surrounding a movement and a reframing of the world through that issue.” The knowledge that one is not alone inspires a collective demand for solidarity and mobilization in the face of subjugation. Online communities turn otherwise marginalized experiences into a collective narrative that propagates action among group members. As individuals are inspired by peers, they’re initiated into the same movement and gain a link to thousands of others. This is happening on both the left and the right among groups who are confronting both real and perceived subjugation.

One of the darker elements of this mobilization is the ease with which hate crimes can easily be organized online. Canadian anti-Islam group III% found its roots in a Facebook group. Since their founding, members in the U.S. and Canada have been arrested for numerous offenses. These include shootings at Black Lives Matter rallies and an assault at a Canadian Journalists for Free Expression event. During the US election, several pro-Trump rallies were organized through Facebook events, with attendees such as Internet-famous Kyle Chapman (known amongst the alt-right as “Based Stickman”) urging followers to “smash [protestors] on sight”. Arguably most significantly, the “Unite the Right” Rally recently took place in Charlottesville. The far-right gathering in Virginia killed three people, injured at least 38, and, critically, was largely organized online.

Not all Internet-organized protests are prejudiced and violent. The 2017 Women’s March to advocate for gender equality and human rights was planned over Facebook. An estimated five million people participated worldwide. No arrests were made. And the fact that this protest immediately followed Donald Trump’s inauguration raised an interesting point about the increasingly gendered nature of partisanship.

The Week columnist Ed West makes the point that the difference between the social justice left and the alt-right is one of the most gendered divides possible. As 53% of men dominated Trump’s voter base and women voted overwhelmingly to elect Hillary Clinton, the candidates’ disparate views drove their supporters’ gendered radicalization.

Clinton’s female supporters rallied out of fear of Trump’s anti-female braggadocio, as he undermined women’s legal, healthcare, and employment rights. They found solace in the accessible feminist communities of the left online. Similarly, Clinton’s achievements threatened many of Trump’s white, male voters. Her gender, ambition, and socioeconomic class represented a voice they couldn’t relate to at a time when they already feared change. Thus, many Trump supporters united to blame those races, sexual orientations, and religions unfamiliar to them. They hid their fears with a username as alt-right forums assuaged their insecurities with reassuringly homogenous faces and viewpoints.

Trump’s supporters respond to directness and uniformity. This is reflected in the political right’s passionate yet plainspoken statements and calls to action. Trump’s blunt threats towards North Korea, such as a promise to bring “fire and fury” via nuclear bombs are the new normal in politics. When President Trump banned foreign aid for groups abroad that provide abortion counselling (or those that so much as mention the word “abortion”), he did so surrounded by six smiling men in suits. Photo ops with Trump’s all-male staff strategically bank on the support of his largely homogenous voter base as evidence of the fulfillment of the president’s male-centric promises.

As “social justice warriors” (as Trump’s supporters derisively call those on the left) represent a more vocal and diverse community, their online manifestations take different forms. The female existence was politicized long before the Internet, but recent Internet art culture is allowing those ideas to spread like wildfire. The social left — particularly established feminist groups — are using the same platforms as the alt-right in order to express and distribute their thoughts in ways that respond to and resist the oppressive climate within which they live.

At a time of international political instability, women aren’t guaranteed safety. When left-wing and feminist groups have attempted to counter alt-right protests with their own, women were openly attacked by male alt-right protesters.  The Internet has become a place for women to carve out the autonomous spaces that aren’t otherwise available to them in the public sphere.

Consider Cindy Sherman, the American artist who photographs women in common female personas, from middle-class housewives to sullen teenagers. The artist emphasizes femininity to the point of absurdity, alienating viewers by distorting the familiar. Sherman’s art proves the fruitlessness of crafting a false identity despite the expectation for women to appeal by doing so. It’s fitting, then, that Sherman made an Instagram account this year, as women have been forced online to defend their self-identity and find community. Using face-editing apps that women often use to improve their appearances, Sherman distorts her face grotesquely. Posting these pictures publicly in a culture where the US President casually calls women “fat”, “flat-chested”, “unattractive”, and “crazy” is defiant. As Sherman shares that defiance with thousands of followers, she makes a statement against the culture that diminishes women by politicizing their appearance.

      The Guerrilla Girls are another example. The anonymous group of feminist artists has fought sexism and racism in the art world for over 30 years. When they began in 1985, the group collected data about female representation in museums and made posters reflecting their discontent. Their discussion of issues such as tokenism and the wage gap in the art world reflected the attitude towards women in the larger sphere of employment. With the advent of the Internet, the group has been able to recruit new members, connect with museums, and host workshops and exhibitions to continue to fund and publicize their activist efforts.

      Radicalization is common today. Female artists such as Sherman and the Guerrilla Girls are viewed as “radical” because they challenge existing social norms and institutions that hurt women from outside the political process. Their digital communication has personalized and politicized the consumption of and response to feminist art. Even if art isn’t explicitly feminist, it’s being increasingly consumed through a political lens as feminism proliferates online through left-wing activism.

      It’s arguably dangerous that individuals are radicalizing as politics radicalize. The Internet surrounds them with communities eager for their opinions. Art expresses emotion – it incites and mobilizes. In that case, it could be argued that feminist art online perpetuates the emotionally-motivated culture of violence. The dissemination of accessible and political art is powerful. But a potential threat doesn’t equate evil. Art is also often opaque in its intent, leaving interpretation up to the viewer. This means that one art piece online can bring together communities with vastly varied knowledge and experiences. Those people have the capacity to engage with, learn from, and listen to one another. In that way, art reduces radicalism.  

Art should be encouraged to thrive online. The Internet is an egalitarian aggregator of voices, which gives it limitless political weight for candidates and protestors alike. Individual works of art don’t reduce misogynistic behavior. But thanks to the online networks we use daily, the social awareness of art-centric communities does make a difference. They educate and unite. In a culture where the new normal is nuclear threats and neo-Nazi rallies, there’s comfort in that connectivity.