a needle and a vile of vaccine for small pox

Self-identity and Behavior Change

Maria Konnikova at The New Yorker recently wrote a synopsis of some really interesting studies that investigate how to get people to change their behavior or their opinions about important topics. The unifying principle and the insight these studies give us is really important so I thought I should share.

The central study she focuses on looked at how to improve vaccination compliance. As you probably know, vaccination compliance is challenged by a persistent rumor of a link to autism. The study compared four possible interventions to increase vaccination compliance. One gave people the facts about vaccination – there is no scientific evidence of any link between vaccination and autism. The second gave people the science – the dangers of the diseases that vaccines prevent. The third went for the emotional strings – photographs of children that had suffered from these diseases because they weren’t vaccinated. The fourth used a single visceral story – a dramatic case about an infant that had almost died because she had not been vaccinated.

So which do you think worked best? My bet was on the single story. As much as I wish that the general population were swayed by science and by data, I have read too many studies that found that visceral stories work better. That is why organizations like Save the Children don’t tell you that your money will feed a bunch of children, they let you sponsor a single child and get personal and individual letters and photographs from that child.

You know what? Not only did NONE of them work, they actually backfired – fewer people expressed an intention to get vaccinated than the control group that got none of these interventions!!!! The nuance that jumped out at me is that people who already had a predisposition to get vaccinated were more likely but those with a predisposition not the get vaccinated were less likely. Essentially, whatever opinion we had going in was stronger, even though all of the interventions were pro-vaccination.

Why did this happen? The answer is what I generally refer to as self-identity resonance. We don’t like to be wrong, especially about things that matter. So we accept evidence that supports us (i.e. confirmation bias). But we counter-argue against evidence that contradicts our self-image related beliefs and in the process believe our original position even more.

The article than surveys similar studies on global warming, politics, racial prejudice, crime, and each time finds similar results. False beliefs, she concludes, are based on self-identity. This phenomenon emerges no matter which side of the debate you are on.

So what can we do as information designers or communicators? It is tempting to throw up your hands and surrender to this irrational behavior. But instead, we can use this self-identity link to our advantage. Take the answer you want to promote, such as “vaccinate your kids” and tie it to their self-identity. The most famous example that I can think of was the series of cigarette commercials that flipped the “break-the-rules-to-be-cool” image that leads a lot of adolescents to start smoking. They framed smoking as a way that big tobacco companies manipulated you into becoming pawns in their game. In this frame, to achieve a “break-the-rules-to-be-cool” self-image, you had to resist their manipulation – by not smoking. Rather than presenting science, data, emotion, or stories, they targeted self-identity.

How can we use this for vaccinations? How about “Are you the kind of person who protects your children? If so, get them vaccinated.” Well – something like that.

Image credit: “Smallpox vaccine” by James Gathany used under public domain

4 thoughts on “Self-identity and Behavior Change”

  1. This really resonates but in a slightly different context. Over the years I’ve struggled with the best way to present evidence showing the impact of ergonomics. After believing I was the weak link and would find acceptance if I only explained things more clearly, I realized something else was at work. I summarize is thusly: “It’s very hard to change beliefs with facts.”
    That said, I too would have thought one of the emotional appeals in the study would have had a greater impact – but perhaps the emotional investment, or belief, associated with one’s views is stronger than facts and even stronger than an contrary emotional appeal. Of course I could be wrong.

  2. Thanks for the comment Tim. I think you are on-target here. The first step in your presentation-preparation should be to predict (maybe with an audience persona exercise) whether the evidence is aligned with their self-identity, contrary to it, or irrelevant. In the first case, your job is easy. In the last, you can use your usual persuasion skills. It is the second one that presents a different kind of challenge. If you know some things about their self-identity (they are the “innovation guy”, or they are the “efficiency guru” or whatever) you have to frame your persuasion as a way for them to enhance this talent rather than to oppose it.

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