When someone won’t change their behavior, we may try to persuade them by fiat or information. Both approaches can work, but too often, they fail. Here are three reasons force and facts fail to persuade and what to try instead.
Last week a friend told me that her husband, an essential employee working on a project at which others have been infected with COVID-19, won’t wash his hands when he comes home from work. She’s exasperated and he feels hounded, believing her concerns to be overblown (none of those infected workers got very ill, apparently). If he doesn’t want to listen to his wife, she asked, then why won’t he at least listen to the public health experts?
Three particular factors came to mind as we talked. I want to share them with you because they offer insights well beyond behavior during coronavirus — they help us understand why people sometimes won’t change their behavior at work or home, even when we think we’ve given them enough push or particulars to motivate them.
1. Psychological reactance
Social psychologist Jack Brehm theorized that when we experience restrictions on our freedom, we are motivated to regain that freedom. Brehm named this “psychological reactance.”
Individuals who place high value on their freedom may react more strongly than others when they feel their freedom constricted. I wrote about this quite a bit in my book, The Conflict Pivot, describing how real and perceived threats to one’s independence are common triggers for resistance and conflict.
And as restrictions get stronger, are more widely applied, or are extended for a longer period of time, they can trigger even stronger pushback. It’s so important to humans to experience freedom of choice that even the way a request is framed influences the outcome.
For instance, if you want to convince a vaccine skeptic to vaccinate their children against measles, which approach works better, 1 or 2?
- “There is no connection between the measles vaccine and autism. I’ve read the studies.”
- “We spent 3 days in the hospital fearing we might lose our baby boy. He couldn’t drink or eat, so he was on an IV, and for a while he seemed to be wasting away.”
And if you want to persuade visitors to your restaurant to eat fewer unhealthy foods, which of these approaches works better, 1 or 2?
- To encourage healthy eating, we’re instituting a small tax on unhealthy menu items.
- To encourage healthy eating, we’re discounting healthy menu items.
Why is #2 in each example more likely to get someone to change their behavior? The words in #2 of the measles scenario, by the way, came from Megan Campbell, whose 10-month-old son suffered a life-threatening bout of measles.
In psychological reactance terms, the first options impose limitations on freedom of choice. The second options are more persuasive because, as research out of Cornell put it,
When policies seem to encourage good choices, rather than limit bad ones, we see a much more positive response.David just and andrew hanks, cornell university
2. Defensive avoidance
When I went vegetarian 30+ years ago I couldn’t understand why others didn’t want to hear the details of how animals are raised and slaughtered for consumption. I thought that if they only knew the details, they too, would make more humane decisions about what they eat. I learned very quickly that people not only didn’t want to hear those details but also thought I was unbalanced for wanting to know those details myself.
I wish I’d understood then what I know now: Humans are adept at selecting the information we’ll take in and the information we’ll avoid. We pay more attention to media sources that provide information consistent with our beliefs. We put off medical tests even when we’re high-risk for a disease. We avoid our financial portfolios when the market is down — the “ostrich effect.”
Adrian Bardon, author of The Truth About Denial, observed that,
In theory, resolving factual disputes should be relatively easy: Just present evidence of a strong expert consensus. This approach succeeds most of the time, when the issue is, say, the atomic weight of hydrogen. But things don’t work that way when the scientific consensus presents a picture that threatens someone’s ideological worldview. In practice, it turns out that one’s political, religious, or ethnic identity quite effectively predicts one’s willingness to accept expertise on any given politicized issue.Adrian bardon, humans are hardwired to dismiss facts that don’t fit their worldview
We tend to avoid facts and other information that may be painful to receive. 2017 research out of Carnegie Mellon pointed out that bombarding people with information like this is more likely to provoke defensive avoidance than receptive processing. Defensive avoidance is just what it sounds like — a decision to avoid information as a means of self-protection.
We tend to become more entrenched when someone challenges our closely held beliefs. Those challenges can feel like threats to our very identity and social circles. Research suggests that when people consume information that undermines their identity, that information actually triggers feelings of anger and dismay, making it difficult for them to digest the information and adopt new facts.
Denial doesn’t come from ignorance. Social scientists use the term “motivated reasoning” to describe the natural process of deciding what evidence to accept based on our worldview. Motivated reasoning is, as social psychologist Ziva Kunda said, the “tendency to find arguments in favor of conclusions we want to believe to be stronger than arguments for conclusions we do not want to believe.”
3. Rational-reasonable mismatch
Rational and reasonable are not the same thing. Researchers at the University of Waterloo uncovered a key factor in how we think about acting rationally in situations where a rational behavior rubs up against one of our social norms.
We associate rationality with logic, and we associate reasonableness with a “pragmatic focus on social norms” that are context specific (a social norm in our community, for instance, may differ from a social norm in our family). Said the researchers,
Irrational behavior may not necessarily be a sign of failure to understand…but rather an attempt to follow a competing folk standard of reasonableness.
IGOR GROSSMAN et al, Folk standards of sound judgment: Rationality Versus Reasonableness
As Sigal Samuel said in reviewing the Waterloo study, “When you see someone acting in a way that seems irrational and you’re tempted to write that off as a stupid mistake, think again. Maybe they’re not failing at rational decision-making. Maybe they’re succeeding at reasonable decision-making.”
Using these ideas to persuade someone to change their behavior
So if humans are susceptible to psychological reactance, reactive defensiveness, and rational-reasonable mismatch, what can we do to persuade someone to change their behavior?
First, we have to stop pushing. When we sense pushback to our request, we must resist the temptation to pile on more data, more reasons, more, more, more. It’s not getting in and it may be making things worse.
We can reframe our request to reduce restrictions on freedom of choice and amplify the connection to something they value. Here is Cornell University’s Dr. David Just with examples:
We should consider whether our appeals to rationality and logic are a mismatch with their social norms. If they are, we should appeal to reasonableness instead of rationality. We can start by figuring out how to align our request with their competing social norm or with a different social norm they value. This may take some work on our part, yet it can be a powerfully worthwhile investment.
We can tap the power of story. Stories are compelling ways to influence others. Research has born this out for years. I said in The Conflict Pivot,
Humans are natural storytellers. We tell stories to communicate and connect, entertain and educate, persuade and inspire, unite and divide, appreciate and demonize. Stories help us retain ideas and try new ones on for size. We use stories to understand and make meaning, constructing our world with their help. Australian psychologist Peter O’Connor says, “Not to have a story is in fact not to be human.”
Dr. Deborah Birx, Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the Trump Administration’s White House Coronavirus Task Force, is an excellent storyteller. It’s notable how frequently she uses stories to influence viewers of the daily televised briefings. Her stories make her scientific information accessible and drive the main point home. Here’s an example, the story of her grandmother during the 1918 flu pandemic:
Not just any story will do, of course. We’ve got to find the right story — the story that resonates with them and what matters to them. Public health and behavioral science expert Sara Gorman, co-author of Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us says that instead of flooding them with data and trying to make them do the work of changing who they are, we have to do the work of finding consonance between what we want and how they live in the world.