So, You Want to Change the World?

Sep 24, 2020

A female speaker presenting to an audience.Rethinking default mental models for communication

Dr. S. Scott Graham

Assistant Professor in the Department of Rhetoric & Writing at UT Austin

September 25, 2020

Think about the last time you changed a lightbulb. What did you do first? I hope it was turn off the switch. Maybe you’re super safety-minded and even turned off the breaker. Safety is the key here, after all. You obviously don’t want to get electrocuted. But let’s take a minute to think about the thought process behind flipping the switch.

On a basic level, you know having an open circuit is an electrocution hazard—one best avoided. You don’t want power flowing through the broken lightbulb when you go to unscrew it. Flowing? That’s an interesting word. Does electricity really flow? So, I’m going to be honest with you here for a second. When I change a lightbulb or install a new fixture, I think about electricity like it’s water. I imagine it flowing through pipes, and I dam up those pipes (flip the switch) at certain times to make sure I don’t hurt myself. Sure—deep down—I know electricity is about electron transfer along conductive materials. But electrons don’t really matter when I change a lightbulb. I don’t need to think about orbital shells to get the job done. It’s extraneous information.

Mental models like electricity-as-water aren’t really correct, but they are extremely useful. We use mental models all the time to filter out unneeded information and focus our attention on the job that needs to be done. Most of the time, mental models are helpful, but sometimes your default mental model gets in the way. Let’s say I need to swap out a stick of RAM in my computer. Electricity-as-water isn’t going to cut it. If I don’t think about electricity in more sophisticated ways that involve static discharge, I might just fry my motherboard. The water model is the wrong model for this job.

All of this brings us to communication. Think about “communication” as a concept. What does it mean to you? What does it look like? What comes to mind? I have a guess: tin-cans and a string. OK, maybe it wasn’t this exact image for you, but I’d guess it’s something quite similar. One of the most common and popular models of communication is the transmission model. The transmission model is just what it sounds like. It involves picturing communication as sending information to a receiver or audience. Most people rely on this model most of the time, and it usually works.

The transmission model is just what it sounds like. It involves picturing communication as sending information to a receiver or audience. 

The transmission model of communication tends to focus the writer or speaker’s attention on a fairly limited range of communication tasks, such as ensuring message clarity. Now certainly, making sure your message is clear is important, but it’s not everything. Most people can remember a time in their life when the transmission model led them astray, even if they didn’t realize that’s what was happening at the moment it was actively occurring. For many, the transmission model of communication has caused significant problems in a personal relationship. If clearly communicating information is all you do, you’ll probably miss out on essential emotional issues involved.

Similarly, the transmission model of communication just isn’t the most effective for social change. Most people working for social change start out using a mental model of communication based on the transmission model—the deficit model. The deficit model basically assumes that if only people knew what you knew, they would make the same choices that you make. The model assumes that the problem is a lack of knowledge, and so works from the starting point that the best remedy is the clear transmission of correct information.

There’s one huge problem with this: it doesn’t work. Psychologists, social scientists, and communication researchers have piles of evidence from hundreds of studies that all pretty clearly indicate that trying to fill people’s heads with the best information available seldom results in positive or meaningful change. People don’t like to be told what to do. They especially don’t like it if they already like what they are doing, and you want them to do something else. This is the psychological phenomenon of reactance, and it’s best summed up by this sign:

People don’t like to be told what to do… This is the psychological phenomenon of reactance…

I totally want to throw a rock at this sign, and I know you do too.

So even if you’ve got the right information, just telling people isn’t going to change their mind. In the same way my electricity-as-water mental model won’t work for swapping out RAM, the transmission model doesn’t work for social change. So, what to use instead? There are a number of different mental models for communication—each optimized for a specific set of situations. When thinking about social change, the place I like to start is the unending conversation model. While this idea comes from an old-school humanities scholar (Kenneth Burke), it turns out the approach is well validated in more contemporary research.

Here’s Burke describing how he imagines communication:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

The Philosophy of Literary Form (110-111)

The unending conversation model has several key benefits for social change:

  • It helps us move from monologue to dialogue. Rather than thinking about social change as a process of broadcasting information at people who are doing it wrong, it helps us think about a conversation, about give and take with a community. And, perhaps, most importantly, it reminds us to listen first.
  • The unending conversation model also moves us from audience accommodation to respect and engagement. If information transmission is the goal, packaging is the practice. All too often, that just becomes “dumbing it down.” Starting off by thinking of a community you want to help as “dumb” is never a good place to start. Rather, by starting from a position of genuine respect, you can let community members frame their own needs and provide the context for productive new beginnings.
  • Burke’s model of communication also shifts attention from institutional to relational credibility. There’s an old joke about being terrified of the sentence, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” People don’t trust institutions easily. People trust people, and they trust people because of long-established relationships. Social change requires trust, and trust requires relationships. It’s about people more than facts or institutions. This is another reason why Burke’s model gives us a better place to start.
  • Finally, a conversational experience is a persuasive experience. Overcoming reactance is about listening, building trust, and then helping people shape their own future. Conversations are where all this work happens. Do yourself a favor. Skip the bullhorn. Skip the transmission model.

S. Scott Graham is a professor of rhetoric and writing at The University of Texas at Austin. He and his rhetoric and writing colleagues are developing new HDO Certificate Programs focused on digital storytelling, writing for social change, collaborative writing, writing for small business, and several other topics. Click Here to be notified when these programs launch.


UT Austin