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Think Accountability

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

As follow-up to CommGAP's workshop "Generating Genuine Demand for Social Accountability Mechanisms" we're working on publishing an edited volume on this issue with Berkeley-Professor Taeku Lee. Looking through the chapters for this book I puzzled over a quite original approach to accountability: information processing. Arthur Lupia, one of our authors and Professor at the University of Michigan, takes a cognitive approach and explains how people's beliefs have to be changed in order to make them demand accountability.

Lupia argues that in order to make accountability effective, the target population needs to think in ways that lead it to demand greater accountability. In today's information cacophony that means that people need to pay attention to messages that advocate for accountability. A stimulus needs to draw attention, then it must be processed and stored in long-term memory. Civic education and communication campaigns need to apply methods that increase the likelihood that the need for accountability will be remembered by the people, otherwise they're unlikely to demand it.

There is quite some research that can give practitioners advice on how to design messages so that they will make their way into long-term memory. The Elaboration Likelihood Model, suggested by John Cacioppo and Richard Petty, identifies two routes of cognitive processing: a central and a peripheral one. Information that passes through the central route will be processed with much thought and elaboration, and it's likely to be stored in memory. Information that goes the peripheral way is more likely to be associated with characteristics of the message, less so with the actual information. We all know this from advertising: some ads are very cleverly done and funny, but have nothing to do with the product that's actually being advertised. In the end we remember the ad, but would be hard pressed to say what it was about.

Some research suggests that messages are more effective when they are perceived as realistic and when the audience feels that they have learned something from it. When promoting behaviors that aim at preventing something, "loss frames" work well. That means implying that something bad will happen if you don't do a specific thing. On the other hand, "gain frames" work when a good state is supposed to be affirmed. It's the exact opposite of a loss frame: something good will happen if you do engage in a specific behavior. Marty Fishbein and Joe Cappella from the Annenberg School for Communication have summarized these and other findings for campaigns in health communication.

I actually set out writing this post because I was surprised about this specific approach to accountability. Most people who work in the field would apply quite different methods, such as citizen report cards. Hardly anyone starts by thinking about the brain. I wonder, and would be interested in our readers' opinions, whether this approach could be quite helpful for people working on the ground on creating citizen demand for accountability. It makes sense to start on the cognitive level when you want to change people's behavior. But has anyone ever tried this in practice?