Strategies of Advocacy II: Psychology and Framing

It is often easy to think that you can achieve your goals and change people’s minds simply on the strength of your arguments. When you are working towards a particular cause, or trying to seek redress for a type of injustice, why wouldn’t the most sound logical arguments or the best objective evidence convince your audience of the change you are trying to enact?

However, persuasion isn’t quite so simple. Indeed, psychologists have noted how our opinions tend to be closely aligned to our personal identities and our most closely held beliefs. Therefore, understanding various aspects of human psychology is vital to ensuring that we frame issues effectively in our activism.

Psychology & Framing

What is this about?

It is often easy to think that you can achieve your goals and change people’s minds simply on the strength of your arguments. When you are working towards a particular cause, or trying to seek redress for a type of injustice, why wouldn’t the most sound logical arguments or the best objective evidence convince your audience of the change you are trying to enact? However, persuasion isn’t quite so simple. Indeed, psychologists have noted how our opinions tend to be closely aligned to our personal identities and our most closely held beliefs. This has been referred to as the “cultural cognition of facts”, where we interpret information according to how much it reinforces or threatens our deeper beliefs and identity.

Why is it important?

Understanding human psychology in this way means that advocating for your cause isn’t just about winning arguments. Indeed, this could even be disadvantageous to your cause, creating dissonance in your audience, which then grows into doubt and denial. Rather than persuading your audience you’ve made them more resistant to changing their minds.

What is an example?

This aspect of human psychology gives us some clues as to why certain issues are so divisive. The movement to repeal 377A serves as a good illustration of this. While there has been much progress in gaining support for the repeal, this has also generated much opposition. While the debate has spanned numerous elements, including the legal, moral, and political elements, much of it also hinges on what the opposing groups consider as fundamental to their personal identities. LGBTQ individuals might consider their sexual orientation as part of their core identities. Conversely, some religious groups might also see this as a threat to religious values they hold dear. Generating consensus or agreement thus means bridging these divides, not an easy task no matter the strength of the arguments one side might have over the other. Nonetheless, this does not negate the numerous other aspects of human psychology that one can tap on to advocate for one’s cause. In the subsequent articles, we will be exploring just that! 


Stoknes, The Roots of Denial: The Psychology of Identity

1. Narrative Power Analysis

What is it?

The power of stories lies not in the truth, but in the meaning to the audience. Hence, the greatest obstacle to convincing someone is not about what they do not know, but what they already know as existing assumptions and beliefs act as narrative filters. A narrative power analysis provides a framework to look into the foundations of narratives so that one has the perspective necessary to tackle them. 

Why is this important? 

Narratives help define what is normal, what is legitimate and what is politically possible. In other words, narratives are powerful in shaping how we view an issue and by extension, how we frame solutions.

How to do it?

Analyse the current situation based on these key questions. 

  1. How is the conflict being framed? Who is the conflict between?  
  2. Who are the key characters? Villians, Victims, Heroes?  
  3. What foreshadowing and imagery used? How does the story show us what’s important? How does story shows us the future? 
  4. What are the underlying assumptions? 
  5. What are the vulnerabilities of the story? Limits, contradiction, lies? What underlying assumptions can be exposed? 

What is an example? 

Confronting Chinese Privilege in Singapore:

Source: Hydar Saharudin’s analysis 

Current framing of conflict Descriptions of ‘Chinese privilege’ by Singaporeans tend to detail their daily encounters with its effects, hence are heavily anecdotal Popular commentaries on ‘Chinese privilege’ typically invoke North American ‘White privilege’. But this results in an over-reliance on Western racial dynamics to examine local race-relations. Unsurprisingly, such anti-racist endeavours have prompted vitriolic retorts from their detractors, who often indulge in confusing intellectual gymnastics.Public conceptions of ‘Chinese privilege’ risk lacking historical context and specificity
Key Characters Chinese majority, Racial minorities, Individuals who raise awareness about the existence of Chinese privilege 
Foreshadowing and Imagery/ How does the story shows us the future? We are able to confront racial inequities. Doing so would help us realise the ideals proclaimed by many Singaporeans—of justice, equality, and genuine racial harmony for all.
Underlying Assumptions Cultures and biologies of Singapore’s racial minorities are principally responsible for their marginal societal standingNo racial inequities. Complete meritocracy exists. Chinese pre-eminence was earned. 
Vulnerabilities/ What underlying assumptions can be exposed?/ Limits & Contradictions Our history reveals how Chinese pre-eminence was manufactured, maintained and expressed. Our history also shows us how non-Chinese narratives are diminished through political mechanisms (eg. policies designed with this intent like the residential racial quotas that reduced housing options for racial minorities while ensuring they remained numerical minorities in most constituencies). 


Boyd’s Beautiful Trouble 

New Mandala’s Article “Confronting Chinese Privilege in Singapore’ by Hydar Saharudin 

2. Reframing

What is it? 

Reframing is the process of replacing an old story with a new one by widening, narrowing or shifting the frame to a new scene entirely. 

Why is it important?

Framing an issue helps structure thinking about what the problem is about and how it can be addressed. It gives your audience a particular mindset about your issue. And mindsets are powerful; they govern future thoughts and action. Reframing is a way of altering the presentation of an issue to counter opposing views. This may improve your chances of solving the problem. 

How is it done?

  1. Conduct a Narrative Power Analysis 
  2. Come up with another story that exposes the faulty assumptions of the current narrative
  3. Design a reframing action that seeks to relocate the story eg. a campaign that seeks to inject certain slogans or messaging into the current discourse 

What is an example?

The LGBTQ movement in Singapore is a good example of how reframing has been used to alter the presentation of the issue to suit the political climate and appeal to the target audience. The conception of Pink Dot for instance was significantly influenced by a few key events- AWARE Saga, setback on sex education and the rise of a more explicit countermovement. These events demonstrated to to gay activists that the movement’s challenge is no longer simply about engaging the state directly, but also about a contest between the movement and countermovement to forge alliances with Singaporean society at large, which entails coming out even more boldly. Setback on sex education reaffirmed activists’ assessment- must demonstrate stronger non-gay, ally support to tackle the countermovement. 

With this context, it sets the basis for Pink Dot’s slogan “Freedom to Love” which further promotes the message that acceptance of diverse types of sexuality strengthens rather than polarise society and that Singaporeans from different backgrounds already accept homosexuality, contrary to countermovement’s arguments. In light of AWARE saga and countermovement’s claim that homosexuality threatens the basic values of the family unit and thus social stability, Pink Dot also links the implications of having the freedom to love to relationships with parents, siblings and friends. 


Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’ 

Community Toolbox’s Chapter 32 Section 5 

Boyd’s Beautiful Trouble 

Lynette Chua’s “Mobilising Gay Singapore: Rights and Resistance in an Authoritarian State”

3. Use others’ prejudices against them

What does this mean?

A prejudice is a mental shortcut that leads a person to make assumptions about others — assumptions that are often false in predictable, and therefore useful, ways. Sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism — all the -isms and the stereotypes associated with them — can be used in one way or another.

Capitalising on these false, harmful assumptions someone has of you, you expose their way of thinking and get away with certain actions they think you are incapable of committing. 

Why is it important?

Direct confrontation is not always the best or most effective way to run a campaign. Sometimes, by pretending to fit a stereotype you have, you get through to the enemy unconsciously.

How is it done?

  1. Know your enemy.
  2. Choose a certain prejudice they might hold and find someone who might fit that stereotype. 
  3. Have that someone present the stereotype to the enemy to twist them into agreeing with your cause.

What is an example?

The famous commercial “#LikeAGirl” by Always (a brand of feminine hygiene product) meant to empower women to break free of gender stereotypes by showcasing how such discrimination was embedded in our everyday lives. Teenagers, both male and female, were asked to “run like a girl”. In response, they performed very stereotypically effeminate behaviour. They later gave some much younger girls the same request, and they performed a running action normally. This contrast in behaviour showed how these stereotypes are learnt and not inherent to us. Hence, this encourages people to rethink and challenge the legitimacy of these stereotypes. 

Always #LikeAGirl generated considerable global awareness and changed the way people think about the phrase ‘like a girl’, achieving more than 85m global views on YouTube from 150+ countries. Prior to watching the film, just 19% of 16-24s had a positive association toward ‘like a girl’. After watching, however, 76% said they no longer saw the phrase negatively. Furthermore, two out of three men who watched it said they’d now think twice before using the ‘like a girl’ as an insult. 


Always’s #LikeAGirl Commercial 

Boyd’s “Beautiful Trouble”

D&AD’s Case Study on Always #LikeAGirl

4. Engaging Powerful Allies

What is it?

Allies are significant in helping you achieve your mission. They may be willing to share their resources and information with you to help advance your cause. The more allies you have, the more likely that the rest of the community will pay attention. There are many aspects to a powerful ally. At the end of the day, how powerful an ally is to your group really depends on the current needs of your group. Using an Ally Power Grid may be useful to recognising what type of power does a potential ally has and which allies are most useful to your group. In this infographic, we will be focussing on one type of power- authority. 

Why is it important?

As Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram showed in his experiments, people are highly influenced by persons of authority. In short, power refers to the process of social influence itself- those who have power are those who are most able to influence others. Therefore, it will be beneficial if you can present an authoritative voice for your campaign. This can convince both the people and the government that your cause is legitimate, well-prepared, and worth supporting. 

How is it done? 

Authority can be drawn from three types of power. They are particularly influential because they are likely able to result in the private acceptance of the opinion that was promoted. 

  1. Legitimate Power- Power vested in those who are appointed or elected to positions of authority eg. teachers and politicians 
  2. Referent Power- The ability to influence others because they can lead others to identify with them eg. a respected religious leader, a famous influencer 
  3. Expert Power- Represents a type of informational influence based on the fundamental desire to obtain valid and accurate information

What are some examples?

Minister K Shanmugam is a known ally for the animal rights movement in Singapore. In 2014, he publicly stated that more can be done to prevent cruelty against animals and encouraging responsible pet ownership. In that same year, a Bill to increase the penalties for animal abuse will be introduced in Parliament, to increase the current fine of S$10,000 to $50,000 for repeat offenders who abuse animals. Being the Minister for both the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Law, he represents an individual with strong legitimate power. 


The Milgram Experiment

Principles of Social Psychology: Influencing and Conforming

Community Toolbox: Recognising Allies

Today Online’s “Rise of animal abuse cases demands stronger measures: Shanmugam” 

5. Social cure

What is it?

As individuals living in social groups and communities, our behaviours are largely shaped by social norms. Put into context, the phrase “social cure”  speaks to the potential for people’s health and well-being to be sustained and enhanced by their social relationships — in particular, those that derive from their membership in social groups.

Why is it important?

It is generally much easier to do something if you’re doing it with a group of people. Conversely, we might often not act in accordance with what we think is right not because we don’t want to do it, but because no one else is doing it, making it much harder to undertake the course of action. Harnessing this power of social groups, and trying to influence behaviour on a collective level can be an effective way to gain momentum and support for your cause. On a larger scale of things, this will foster solidarity within activist circles that will not only develop collaboration between movements but also helps deconstruct oppression, by recognizing that everyone experiences it differently. 

How can it be done?

  1. Set up an easy-to-remember tagline for your cause (e.g. #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, We Are Ready/Freedom to Love by Pink Dot)
  2. Get a notable public figure or group to support your cause (e.g. Alyssa Milano for MeToo) 
  3. Use social media or word-of-mouth (i.e. peer pressure) which can be powerful tools in spreading your message and even mobilising a physical movement. 

What is an example?

The #MeToo movement is a prime example of how social groups can come together to address harm and injustice that they have experienced. By providing a platform for victims of sexual violence to speak out, it gave them a sense of solidarity and empowered many who had previously remained silent to speak out as well. This collective action showed how widespread of an issue it is and stressed the need for it to be addressed. 

“MeToo became a hashtag, a movement, a reckoning. But it began, as great social change nearly always does, with individual acts of courage.” – TIME’s editor on why The Silence Breakers were Person of the Year 2017.


  • The activist Tarana Burke started the #MeToo Movement more than ten years ago (2007), but it gained momentum in October 2017 when celebrity Alyssa Milano shared a viral tweet encouraging victims of sexual assault and harassment to speak out (in wake of Harvey Weinstein scandal, popular Hollywood director who was accused by multiple women of sexual harassment). This led to the rise of the hashtag #MeToo.
  • Ten days after the rise of #MeToo the conversation reached the floors of European Parliament. It was claimed that Brussels authorities ignored allegations of institutional harassment, assault and rape. This misuse of political power proves to be global. Sexual misconduct allegations emerge involving the American president, an influential governor of a South Korea province, and high profile British MPs to name a few.
  • On the 1st of January 2018, 300 women came together to sign a letter that originated the Time’s Up Movement to fight systemic sexual harassment. A few days later, Oprah delivered a powerful speech as first black woman to be honoured with The Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes.
  • 20 Jan 2018: Hundreds of thousands of women around the world take to the streets for the 2018 Women’s March; one year after the event was first held in opposition to newly elected US President Donald Trump.
  • The movement continues on today.


Boyd, Beautiful Trouble

Cialdini, “Social Proof” in Psychology of Persuasion

Social Identify Network “The Social Cure”’s “Solidarity Activism” 

Medium’s “The Anatomy of a Hashtag- A Visual Analysis of the MeToo Movement”

Wikipedia’s “Me Too Movement”

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