Amy Williams, Jeremy Clarkson and the Assimilation-Contrast Effect

Ever heard of the Assimilation-Contrast Effect?

Kevin Keohane introduced me to this fascinating idea earlier in the year, which is grounded in Social Judgement Theory, developed by Muzafer Sherif and Carl Hovland in the ‘60s.

Basically, the idea is that, when confronted by potential conflict, individuals or groups will tend to approach it with either a ‘latitude of acceptance’ or a ‘latitude of rejection’.

What fascinates me about this – and what is particularly relevant in the sphere of change communications – is what it says about the importance of the way information is communicated and by whom.

Rub people up the wrong way – e.g. by being too partisan or aggressive – and the receiver finds the information objectionable, even if it’s fairly close to what they believe themselves. (Mike Klein’s observation in his upcoming 55-Minute Guide about the tendency for organisations to send in someone they trust to deliver messages to sceptical audiences, rather than someone the audience trusts, certainly speaks to this.)

This is the so-called contrast effect, and I suspect we may have seen a classic example of it last night with voting for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year.

As a keen and highly competitive sportsman myself, my own personal view is that recognising outstanding sporting achievement requires meeting three critical criteria:

  • Winning. Decidedly un-British, I know, but to those who say ‘It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part’, I say ‘Bollocks!’ If you haven’t actually won anything then you don’t even deserve to be on the shortlist.
  • Something that displays unbelievable mental and physical fortitude. Sorry, Phil Taylor, but impressive as 15 world darts titles is, chucking a few arrows at a board isn’t even in the same league as the tests that the likes of Mark Cavendish and Jessica Ennis put themselves through.
  • Genuine rarity. The achievement has to be put in some sort of comparative context that indicates just how mind-bogglingly brilliant it is.

For these three reasons – plus the fact that she actually has a personality (the clue’s in the title of the award, folks!) – I cast my vote for the utterly fantastic Amy Williams.

Winning? Check. And as winning goes, an Olympic gold medal is about as good as it gets.

Tackling something properly big and hairy? Check. Hurtling head-first down a bobsleigh run on a glorified tea-tray at 90mph, with your nose just an inch or two off the ice certainly qualifies!

Genuine rarity? Double-check. The first British woman to win individual gold at a Winter Olympics in nearly 60 years, and someone who can’t even train on the ice beating folks who were born on the stuff!

And yet…

Amy didn’t even make the top three.


Judging from the chatter on Twitter, I suspect it might have something to do with the fact that her celebrity champion was Jeremy Clarkson – a man with the intellectual sophistication of a boiled potato, the sporting credibility of a Teletubby, and a well-established track record of pissing people off.


4 thoughts on “Amy Williams, Jeremy Clarkson and the Assimilation-Contrast Effect

  1. Indy

    More boringly, horse racing, darts and summer athletics have more mindshare than winter athletics. In the past, Nicole Cooke has had years that put Lance Armstrong’s domination in the shade, but no more of a sniff of success in SPOTY than Amy has had.

    Also, winter olympians suffer from it being nearly a year since their triumph to the popularity contest…

    My point – you could have had Tony McCoy, Jessica Ennis, and [name popular, sophisticated, sporting figures of your choice] campaigning for Amy and it still wouldn’t have got her anywhere.


  2. Indy

    I suppose the communications import of what I’m saying is that you have to be aware of the competing narratives. If you’ve got an underdog narrative then conventional tactics (like finding the right spokesperson) are only a hygiene factor. You’ll still need something different to make the breakthrough.

    Too often in business, the leadership assumes that whatever they say is automatically the dominant narrative… but that often isn’t the case.

    [SPOTY metaphor – Wayne Rooney scores 3 goals to drag England to a 3-2 victory over Spain in the World Cup Final – now that’s a dominant narrative]


  3. Owen

    Its all about class Dan and the populist vote. I have not recently been to a pub that had its own bob sleigh run … and actually come to mention it I haven’t been to a pub south of watford with a dart board… however many do exist still in the North of England, and apparantly they now have telephones as well. I can’t think of anything more middle class as the ‘BBC sport personality of the year award’.. I think the grumbling in the press has more to do with the advancement of two utterly plebian sports as darts and horse racing.



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