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What ICA Thinks: 2c

Image Change

Behavior changes when images change


The concept of an “image” and its relationship to behavior has been foundational to all ICA programs since its very earliest days. It has provided the underlying theoretical framework for ICA’s educational and facilitation programs as well as its community development work. Though many have written about images, the key source for ICA has been the work of Kenneth Boulding.


Behavior is based on the way people see themselves in the world. It’s a matter of self-perception, self-story, self-image – all of which are phrases that point to the same thing. For example, it could be said that the unilateral tendencies and actions of the U.S. government are consistent with an image of rugged American individualism. Images are created through the reception of ‘messages.’ People continually incorporate, or discard, new messages into their accumulated understanding of themselves in the world. Messages come in many forms: verbal, visual, and experiential. Education is an elaborate process of conveying various ‘messages’ about particular subjects. Messages come in varying degrees of strength: one reads all the time about the negative health effects of fatty foods. Yet these messages often only mildly alter one’s prevailing self-understanding and behavioral choices about diet. A heart attack, however, is a much stronger message for influencing a shift in one’s diet or exercise routine.


Images of self-understanding change continuously. Most involve minor adjustments as new pieces of information (messages) are aligned with an existing image. Inconsistent messages that challenge a firmly held image are usually ignored. Sometimes, especially if received several times from differing sources, or if the message is strongly experiential, ‘doubt’ begins to emerge as the contradictory messages gain prominence. Radical change occurs when an established image is replaced by a totally new self-understanding. When images change, behavior changes. This understanding can be summarized in five points: 1) people operate out of images, 2) images govern behavior, 3) images are created by messages, 4) images can change, and 5) when images change, behavior changes.


An aim of ICA’s work with communities has long been to enable a shift in mindset from passivity (e.g., waiting as ‘clients’ to receive services; self-images of being ‘victims’) to becoming active agents of their own development. This most often has been by encouraging collaboration among groups and individuals through collective action planning and implementation. The ICA GreenRise Building sends practical messages about the possibility of living in greater harmony with the Earth with the installation of 483 solar panels on its roof. This solar project is one very large message that challenges widely held images that hitherto either cause people to ignore climate change or fall into a sense of overwhelming hopelessness.


Image change informs the design of ICA programs. The “symphony chart,” for example, has long been used at ICA in preparing lesson plans and facilitating events. Session objectives are set by analyzing operating images of those involved and determining activities to occasion potential image shifts. Learning activities of the session — which convey messages to reinforce, or challenge, an image — are then formatted into five segments. The “Kaleidoscope Design Palette” is a valuable update of the symphony chart for designing meetings, events, and multi-level projects (see annex).


Resources for continuing the conversation:

  •  Boulding, Kenneth (1956), Chapter 1 of The Image: Knowledge in Life and Society, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. (related article in annex).
  • Cooperrider, David (1990), “Positive Image, Positive Action: The Affirmative Basis of Organizing,” in Srivastva, S., and Cooperrider, D., Appreciative Management and Leadership: The Power of Positive Thought and Action in Organizations, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. (related article in annex).
  • Packard, E., Patterson, M., and Stallman, J. (2010), “The Evolving Resource of Imaginal Education: Releasing Maximum Potential of Individuals, Organizations, Programs, and Communities.” (annex).