Reasons, benefits and arguments are not just overrated, they are dangerous and counter-productive. Worse, they harm and kill people.
I know that sounds extreme. Bear with me.
Reasons-based change communications are everywhere. You know, the typical Quit advert, or anti-domestic violence advert, or anti-drug message. They’re all based on an implied argument that “You should change because X cost and/or Y benefit”.
The problem with “you should” messages is that they pressure people, and pressure causes resistance. And resistance means that fewer people end up doing healthy, safe behaviours. So more people are harmed than would would be the case without the communication.
Listen to this perplexed researcher in an experiment that examined the effects of health warning labels on fatty products: (1)
“Warning people about the harmful effects of fatty products only made them want to eat the fatty product more…Although people don’t mind being informed about the potentially harmful risks associated with products, they don’t like to receive unwanted advice about how they should behave.”(1)
This is called the Boomerang Effect. It’s backed by a massive weight of empirical evidence through meta evaluations of many hundreds of behaviour change programs. The basic idea is quite intuitive really: we humans are averse to acting on advice intended to change our behaviour, especially when we are the ones who most need the advice. Why? Because that advice implies that we have made wrong decisions. Inadvertently, the advice belittles us. The psychologist Elliot Aronson wrote that most people have favourable views of themselves: they want to see themselves as competent, moral, and able to predict their own behaviour (2). When they receive information that inadvertently contradicts those self-perceptions, they tend to deny and resist it.
So what might be a better approach?
Don’t try to argue people into change, instead show them HOW to start their journey.
People don’t need to be told why they should change. They need to be shown how to start
Mostly, anyone who’s going to change as a result of our efforts already knows the reasons why they should change. In fact, large numbers of people are already highly motivated to improve their lives and make a difference in their worlds.
For example 70% of smokers already want to quit; 90% of overweight young women want to lose weight; 70% of Australians think climate change is a pressing problem etc. What they lack is self-efficacy: the belief that they can successfully carry out effective actions, and get a result, without the risk of failure or embarrassment.
Helping people over the hurdle of just starting is a more powerful change intervention that lecturing them about costs and benefits.
How can we create that self-efficacy? Well, having relationships with peer role models is undoubtedly the best way, but self-efficacy is something that communication can contribute to.
The trick is to depict the necessary actions so clearly that a typical listener could say:
“I could do that!”
This is a critical point. It’s not enough simply to demonstrate a behaviour. What’s vital is that we genuinely create an “I could do that” moment for our audience. This immediately tells us that the action we depict has to be simple and within their capacities.
Here are some nice examples of self-efficacy building communications.
This is my favourite, from The Food Safety Information Council. Notice how unnecessary the slogan is at the end.
Shellharbour City Council gets it with this advert for their food waste collection service.
The Quit campaign just made its first positive anti-smoking advert (well done!). It creates self-efficacy by letting viewers rehearse effective self-talk. (Though notice how the makers couldn’t help lecturing in the last few sentences).
The beautiful thing about self-efficacy is that people willingly embrace new skills and abilities. We humans love to increase our power and agency in the world. Communications that increase self-efficacy therefore tend not to create resistance.
So next time we’re inclined to reason with our audiences, let’s think about creating an “I could do that!” moment instead. We’ll reduce the chance of resistance and create an opportunity for all to be part of the solution.
P.S. There’s another reason why ‘I could do that’ communications are a good idea.
Let’s say our communication reaches 30% of the target population, and succeeds in getting an amazing 5% of those viewers to click to the next stage, or download the app, or call a 1300 number, or whatever. That sounds good, but wait a minute! We activated only 1.5% of the target population. We actually reached another 28.5% of target population but failed to give them any meaningful role in the solution. We didn’t involve them at all! That’s a terribly wasted opportunity. By building wide self-efficacy with every communication we greatly magnify our impact by giving everyone a do-able role.
(1) Bushman, B. J. (1998) ‘Effects of warning and information labels on consumption of full-fat, reduced-fat, and no-fat products’, Journal of Applied Psychology 83, 97-101.
(2) Aronson, E. (1999) ‘Dissonance, hypocrisy and self-concept’, in E. Harmon-Jones and J. Mills (eds.), Cognitive Dissonance: Progress on a pivotal theory in social psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 103-26.