05 Mar Can Communications Change Minds?

I heard a great story yesterday morning on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition (When it Come to Vaccines, Science Can Run into a Brick Wall). The story focused on Brandon Nyhan’s work. Nyhan is a professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. He has been studying why messages intended to debunk cultural myths with scientific truths can actually backfire.

Nyhan studied 1,700 parents who believed that the MMR vaccine can lead to autism. He found that for those parents who are most convinced that these vaccines can lead to MMR, the message actually makes matters worse. What is even more interesting is that the message can initially work. It actually makes them think the vaccine may be safer than thought. But what is remarkable is that in the end, the net result is they become even less likely to take the desired action.

Nyhan believes that when these parents are confronted with a message they do not like, the have a superfluous initial agreement, but the message also challenges their sense of self which in turn erodes their self-esteem. It may even challenge other beliefs and constructs, causing a cascading effect. Once their sense of self is challenged by the message, the mind then fights back against the new information. They might even seek other information that debunks this new information, and in the end, their initial resistance to the message is fortified.

This is very important insight for those involved in developing messaging relying on factual and scientific information to debunk myths. By trying to debunk myths directly using facts and logic, the result may be just the opposite of what is intended.

A more effective path might be to understand how that specific myth relates to other beliefs, myths and constructs within that individual’s self, family and culture. By understanding the underpinning of the myth, a less confrontational message can be crafted using a more empathetic approach. The empathetic approach should be crafted to not challenge the sense of self, but to compliment or enhance the sense of self. Thus avoiding the negative counter reaction to the message.

Written by Mark Capper, president of Kompas Strategy

Kompas Strategy