Saturday, June 16, 2007

Made to Stick

I think it's safe to say that corrections sentencing is the best proof ever needed that bumper stickers kick evidence's a-s every time. The kindergarten kriminologists with their "do the crime, do the time" and "three strikes and you're out" even have inmates quoting them (remember all the sad and sympathetic reactions of jailees to Paris Hilton's tragedy?). What's the mantra we hear in every debate on sensibility? We have to be "tough on crime." And what does that mean? "Do the crime, do the time." Prison or jail. Anyone who thinks differently, anyone who looks at evidence and finds that prison and jail don't stop crime as effectively for most offenders as alternatives, anyone who looks at crime from the 60s on (you know, when we've built prisons and jails out the wazoo) and sees that we're still not back to those early 60s crime rates, anyone who notes that states that incarcerated less than others or not increasing at all saw as much or more crime reduction as those who did, anyone who looks at the current reemergence of violent crime despite all these lockups, anyone tired of incarceration failure rates of 40%, 50%, 70% that no business could, would accept, anyone who comes to the logical conclusion that crime has done pretty damn well in the time that we've been shorting other, more effective criminal justice needs like law enforcement and juvenile justice as well as decimating state and local budgets, well, those people are "soft on crime."

Mr. Spock would take up drinking. And this would turn him onto crack--what's the reality-based community come up with to counter "tough on crime"? We pledge to be "smart on crime." "SMART on crime." You know, like that kid in the sweater and thick glasses in grade school who always won the spelling bee and beat everyone at the blackboard on the addition speed drills. (Wait, that was me. Well, not the glasses. Then.) That kid who got his a-s kicked at recess every other day. That kid who did not grow up into a model for GQ. That's the best we've got. Let's be "smart on crime." While that may work on, as they say, "thinking people," to quote Adlai Stevenson, we need a majority. And people, "smart on crime" clearly ain't doin' it. (That dropped "g" can help folks put my accent to my writin'.)

Why not? You're talking fear here, overripened and cooked up by opportunistic and shameless media (popular and news), politicians, and advocacy groups, as well as a bureaucracy that needs crime the way priests need sin. If we were truly successful in reducing crime, look at the job and ego loss and undramatic stories of crime not happening and heroes not able to strut manfully (even the women) or look stern. It would rival global warming in its impact. Why do you think we know so much about crime prevention and fail to put the emphasis on it? Yes, rational people might be persuaded by evidence, but fear is to rationality as bumper stickers are to evidence (see above). As some of the studies we've noted here indicate, hawks win every argument from war to crime to immigration to space aliens when it comes down to "who protects me best?"--"tough" guys or "smart" guys. It's Red Sox v. Royals.

The problem for "tough" is that historically it tends to win only short-term victories, as crime and other foreign nations I could mention demonstrate well, as those who are "toughed" on get used to it and find ways around it. For some offenders and for the sense of justice for some offenses no matter who the offender, there is no alternative to "tough" (sorry, Paris . . . well, not really). But we do have all the evidence drunk and addicted Mr. Spock would ever need to conclude that, were we to start over from scratch with none of the sunk costs or entrenched motivating stories of underlying evil of some drugs, groups, areas, we would never create the system we have in order to stop crime. However, push come, that evidence no matter how articulately spoken just doesn't cut it against alternatives of 53,000 more "tough" prison beds. The only way reality will ever make headway against the myths and aggrandizement that permeate our corr sent policy will be to come up bumper stickers of our own. Not ones that just promote evidence but ones that will "stick" with the public better than the ones that now dominate popular thinking.

Which brings me finally to the book review you've been eagerly awaiting. Chip and Dan Heath's Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die should replace every criminological study and statistical report in the hands of anyone wanting to turn around our corr sent policy and get serious about protecting people. Their thesis is simple and stated in the subtitle, and their book is a history and instruction manual on the topic, well-written, quickly read, and hard to forget. These guys know that, for every stat you give or research you cite, you better have a story to go with it, one that meets clear "principles" for SUCCESs: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and stories. (Yeah, that's only one S at the end but notice that you will probably remember that, making it easier to pull up the acronym when you decide you need it.) IOW, you can't just assume that the superior logic and evidence of your message will win a debate. You have to make conscious and determined efforts to get that message to "stick."

With their own stories and memorable examples like Jared the Subway sandwich guy (and the fact that you know who I'm talking about and everything Subway wants you to know about him proves the point), they get messages like these across:

Sadly, there is a villain in our story. The villain is a natural psychological tendency that consistently confounds our ability to create ideas using our principles. It's called the Curse of Knowledge. . . .
This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has "cursed" us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind.
How can we make people care about our ideas? We get them to take off their Analytical Hats. We create empathy for specific individuals. We sow how our ideas are associated with things that people already care about. We appeal to their self-interest, but we also appeal to their identities--not only to the people they are right now but also to the people they would like to be.
The problem [with direct and abstract presentation of facts] is that when you hit listeners between the eyes they respond by fighting back. The way you deliver a message to them is a cue to how they should react. If you make an argument, you're implicitly asking them to evaluate your argument--judge it, debate it, criticize it--and then argue back, at least in their minds. But with a story . . . you engage the audience--you are involving people with the idea, asking them to participate with you.
In addition to creating buy-in, springboard stories mobilize people to act. Stories focus people on potential solutions. Telling stories with visible goals and barriers shifts the audience into a problem-solving mode. Clearly, the amount of "problem-solving" we do varies across stories. . . .
But springboard stories go beyond having us problem-solve for the main character. A springboard story helps us problem-solve for ourselves. A springboard story is an exercise in mass customization--each audience member uses the story as a springboard to slightly different destinations.
For an idea to stick, for it to be useful and lasting, it's got to make the audience:
1. Pay attention.
2. Understand and remember it.
3. Agree/Believe.
4. Care.
5. Be able to act on it.

The Heaths end with a "symptoms and solutions" section for common problems with messages not "sticking" and a helpful "reference guide" that should be tattooed someplace accessible for quick recall when debating and discussing corr sent policy issues. Because the time has passed for more research, more conferences, more reports, as the Little Hoover Commission famously said about the corr sent problems in CA. But the commission didn't link that message to anything sticky, and CA now has pledged $7 b. new dollars that could have gone to alternatives and improvements to get them out of their clear downward spiral to a tired and conspicuously failed "solution" backed by bumper stickers. IOW, too much talk, not enough action . . . hey.

If we are to counter the "prison as solution" meme that dominates so many states, we need to come up with something to undermine the foundational, default belief that prisons are "tough on crime." Our "Curse of Knowledge" is that we know all the alternatives that get rid of crime better and all the places where they've worked, but the average person, easily dissuaded from crime by their mental stories of what it would be like for them, sees it as the automatic fall-back when fear of crime outraces sense about it. And our slogans, like "smart on crime," just harken back to pasty intellectuals and bleeding heart hippies to people afraid their homes will be invaded and their children kidnapped, raped, and murdered. We might as well be chanting "soft on crime," "soft on crime," "soft on crime."

Better minds than mine (like the Heaths) will have to be brought in to really frame what the counter, better sticking messages should be. But, while I'm constantly using "better," I'll drop this one in as a starting point for a new direction on how we pursue safer crime and victim prevention and reduction with our limited and declining resources. How about starting to talk about doing "better on crime"? If people are worried about crime, then a message that plays to relieving that concern will do much better than one that says "You're scared? Well, our plan, based on well-done research, is to have more convicted offenders back in the community with you." Odd that that doesn't have the same impact as prisons. Instead, let's hit folks with something that pauses them and makes them think, "Wait, prisons don't stop crime as well as X, Y, and Z?? What are you talking about???" And then have Heath-approved messages to tell them.

Drop all the "costs" talk completely. I know from experience how hard that is when you're a fiscal conservative like me and also because you sound so smart when you cite the statistics. Stop. Frightened people don't care what their safety costs, especially when someone else is paying the bill. Acknowledge that people are willing to pay far beyond what Mr. Spock would on what will max out their community's safety. Go for "prisons don't protect you the way X will." Start pointing to all the guys who have been to prison and committed more crimes, start talking about prison as "crime college" and recidivists as having gotten their Ph.D's on crime in prison, start publicizing every offender whose treatment works, who is now a tax-paying instead of tax-guzzling citizen (I told you I'd steal that adjective, Prevention Works), who is raising kids successfully to keep them from following the parent's example. All those people exist. The guy who killed Polly Klaas and gave us "three strikes" was a perfect example of the first and should have been framed that way rather than as he was, setting the stage for far more Polly Klasses since and in the future.

Too many of us in this field have let our training and credentials blind us to the real concerns, doubts, and ignorance (not stupidity) of the people who ultimately support where corr sent policy goes in this country. We envision and develop beautiful and elaborate systems and structures and reports that will solve everything if only people weren't so stupid. The Heaths call us all out on all that. We do know what works and what can get us the max public safety for the resources we have. We do. Knowledge is not the problem. The message we deliver to gain support for that knowledge is. The people who resist reality for whatever selfish, heroic, misguided, whatever reasons and insist on policies that over and over prove counter-productive and harmful for the very concerns that motivate them have shown they will not be persuaded by our "knowledge." They respond to messages not grounded in reality but based on SUCCESs. We need to understand that and act accordingly. The Heaths have shown us how. It's time to act on it.

Let's make that message stick.

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