Cultural cognition: an essential tool in communication strategies

image of a brain with a lot of pieces working as a clock mechanism

As a communication professional, I have discovered that integrating certain theoretical concepts from other social sciences can make a significant difference in the design and implementation of communication strategies.

Having notions of cultural cognition is one such example, as it equips us to change both the narratives, ideas and reactions of our audiences. By applying it flexibly and creatively, we open the door to creating more inclusive and authentic communication strategies, moving step by step closer to a message that has the desired impact and where every voice is valued.

In this blog, we will dive into how cultural cognition becomes a powerful tool used to develop strategies to help us achieve communication objectives in a variety of sectors.

What is cultural cognition?

Cultural cognition is a branch of social science, which delves into the study, analysis and in-depth understanding of how people interpret and understand the world through their individual cultural and cognitive frameworks, which influence the way they perceive and relate to their environment. This allows us to unravel the complex web of associations that people make when connecting new information with their previous experiences and acquired knowledge. 

In the field of strategic communication, data is everything, but by understanding cultural cognition, we unlock the ability to communicate more authentically and resonantly. This understanding, through research and detailed analysis, becomes an indispensable resource for developing effective strategies. Acknowledging and respecting the diversity of cognitive and cultural frameworks is crucial to any communication effort that seeks to positively and sustainably impact diverse communities and audiences.

This discipline not only allows us to understand what information is relevant to different groups, but also guides how we should present our messages to make them more powerful. Cultural cognition directly influences the success of communication campaigns, development projects and marketing strategies, among others, allowing messages to be not only heard, but also understood and accepted.

Strategies to capitalise on cultural cognition in communication

The techniques and approaches I will explain here are inspired by the principles set out in the book ‘The Art of Activism: Your All-Purpose Guide to Making the Impossible Possible’ by Steve Duncombe and Steve Lambert, adapted and applied from my professional experience to effectively influence cultural cognition and enhance the goals of any project.

1. Telling stories to rebuild realities

In the field of strategic communication, using narrative is much more than just telling a story. Effective storytelling creates a bridge between the sender and the receiver, making it possible to convey facts, but also to build positive associations and empathy. This type of communication is crucial because it goes beyond simply presenting facts or statistics.

For example, Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” campaign used narrative to show how humans often have a distorted image of ourselves in terms of both our appearance and our capabilities. By presenting two portraits – one based on a woman’s description of herself and one based on a stranger’s description – it highlighted the discrepancy between self-perception and external appreciation, thus addressing cultural norms and expectations around beauty.

Well-chosen and well-told stories have the power to change perspectives, challenging the idea that ‘if people knew this information, they would act differently’. In reality, people are not a court that reacts to the mere presentation of evidence; they respond to narratives that engage their empathy and allow them to form positive associations. The stories we choose to tell can address the reality of how people think, impacting their perceptions and their willingness to change or take action. You can learn more about Storytelling on my blog.

2. Learning to listen to understand and connect

In the context of cultural cognition, learning to listen actively is fundamental to understanding how people interpret their world and which stories resonate with their cognitive and social biases. This skill is crucial for professionals seeking to influence and truly connect with their audience. By listening, we not only pick up on prevailing narratives, but we can also identify how our facts and messages can fit within the stories already existing in the minds of the audience.

It is essential to avoid listening only to familiar sources, as they can be misleading. However, it is also important to recognise that too much listening can be counterproductive. Finding the right balance in listening allows us not only to understand the associations people make, but also to identify where in their ‘stories’ our ‘facts’ may fit, allowing us to build a more meaningful connection and more effective collaboration. I encourage you again to read another of my blogs on active listening.

3. Navigating and harmonising contradictions

Within cultural cognition, it is important to recognise that people often have complex and sometimes contradictory beliefs and thoughts. Each person is like a jigsaw puzzle of ideas that may not fit together perfectly, but together reflect a wide variety of experiences and perspectives.

Rather than trying to challenge these contradictions head-on, it is more effective to seek out and highlight the views that align with our communication objectives. This means finding areas of agreement and using parts of existing beliefs that support what we want to communicate.

When we treat these contradictions with sensitivity and understanding, we can create more productive conversations and open doors to change. This approach reduces resistance and uses the diversity of thoughts and experiences to enhance our communication strategies, leading to more fluid and harmonious change. Managing these situations requires a detailed understanding of how people interpret and balance diverse information within their own cultural and cognitive contexts.

4. Rewriting the collective narrative

The challenge of changing entrenched narratives can be effectively addressed by rewriting the collective narrative. This technique involves using familiar stories and characters to introduce and reinforce new values and perspectives. By building on narratives already known and accepted by the audience, we can guide a subtle shift in perception and underlying values.

This strategy, which combines the disruption of old stories with the creation of new ones, can be applied in communication campaigns and collaborative projects, allowing people to experience and participate in renewed narratives. For example, using archetypal characters in awareness-raising campaigns, but presenting them in different contexts or in unexpected roles, can challenge pre-existing ideas and pave the way for the acceptance of new ones.

For example, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s ‘Master of None’ tackles issues of identity, immigration and cultural diversity in a fresh and new way, offering a perspective that challenges common stereotypes in mainstream television. The series uses comedy and drama to present stories that reflect the experiences of people from diverse cultures, rewriting collective narratives about diversity and inclusion.

By rewriting stories in this way, we not only change the narrative, but also encourage the audience to see the familiar from a new perspective, thus facilitating the adoption of new values and behaviours in a more inclusive and real communication process.

5. Using surprise to awaken awareness

In our daily lives, we often operate in an ‘autopilot’ mode, where our reactions and decisions are based on pre-established cognitive patterns and biases. Breaking this automatic cycle is essential to bring about meaningful cognitive change. This is where the surprise factor comes into play, a powerful catalyst to jolt consciousness and stimulate deep reflection. By presenting information or experiences in unusual or creative ways, we challenge normal expectations and open windows to new ways of thinking and perceiving the world. This tactic of surprise can transform the way audiences process information, moving them out of their cognitive comfort zone and encouraging them to rethink their habitual assumptions and impressions.

6. Balancing the familiar and the innovative

Finally, it is essential to find the right balance between the familiar and the innovative. While surprises can elicit greater cognition, too much bewilderment can result in rejection or confusion. The best strategies often involve presenting new or challenging ideas within familiar frameworks or using recognisable cultural symbols to facilitate understanding and acceptance.

In short, the practical application of cultural cognition is a complex field that requires an understanding of human narratives, attentive listening skills, and a willingness to adapt and shape stories in ways that promote understanding and cooperation.

book with the phrase Hear what people are really saying written

Stories and beliefs: The formation of our mental frameworks

Our minds are designed to tell stories. We form mental associations that allow us to quickly process information and make decisions. These stories and beliefs become the lens through which we see the world and react to it.

The ‘Kuleshov effect’, for example, illustrates how the story we create in our heads is based on the connections we have made between images or bits of information. This tendency to seek out and favour information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs is known as ‘confirmation bias‘. Similarly, the ‘Matlock method’ highlights how our decisions and actions are influenced by cognitive and social biases, demonstrating that we are often not as rational as we think we are. Recognising and working within these narrative frameworks and cognitive biases is crucial to communicating effectively and promoting change.

By understanding how people form and adhere to their beliefs, and how these biases influence their decisions, we can begin to build bridges to new ways of thinking and acting.

Not everything goes

It is essential, however, to stress the importance of ethics in the strategic communication process. Our approach must always be based on sound ethical principles, which implies presenting information in an honest and transparent manner. The primary objective is to facilitate genuine understanding and dialogue, avoiding practices that may result in distortion or misrepresentation of the truth.

Rather than leaning towards tactics that could be perceived as manipulative, we strive to build strategies that respect the intelligence and autonomy of our audiences, thus promoting a genuine and constructive exchange of ideas.

person with two puppets

Conclusion

Cultural cognition teaches us that to communicate effectively, we must go beyond simple message content and superficial intuition. We need to do extensive research, listen actively and understand deeply how our audience, with their different backgrounds and experiences, will interpret and connect with our message. This means recognising that what is effective in one context or for one audience will not necessarily be effective for another.

Today I wanted to show you how cultural cognition can define the success of our communication projects, because an effective strategy is not just about creating slogans or making engaging content; it is about understanding and genuinely connecting with our audience, ensuring that each message not only informs them, but also engages and motivates them in a meaningful way.

Do you have experiences on how cultural cognition has impacted your project? Share your story in the comments and let’s build a learning community together!

Related Entries: