Research & Insights

Don’t Listen. (It Might Be Good For You.)

Ever wonder why your best-intended and undoubtedly thoughtful communications efforts to get people to change their ways—like adopt more healthy behavior—seem to be hitting a wall?

It could be that even if your messages are reaching your target audiences, your audience is purposefully avoiding doing what you’re telling them to do.

According to researchers at the University of Florida, when it comes to getting people to do things differently—especially if it requires them to change behaviors they do not want to—they become like ostriches with their heads in the sand.

“People sometimes manage threatening information by proactively avoiding it,” write Jennifer Howell and James Shepperd, psychologists at the University of Florida, in the 2013 issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

To learn why people avoid information that’s meant to be beneficial, Howell and Shepperd asked undergraduate students to participate in a variety of medical tests to learn their risk factor for a fictitious disease. They found that when students were told that receiving the results would result in having to undergo long, invasive, or unpleasant therapies–like taking medication for the rest of their lives–fewer wanted to know what their risks were. The researchers found that “across all studies, participants more often avoided feedback when it could obligate highly undesirable behavior compared with mildly undesirable behavior.”

Howell and Shepperd attribute this response to autonomy – what the researchers describe as people’s need to be in control of their lives and free of obligation to make changes. In other words, it’s better not to know something if the price of knowing threatens their ability to be in control of their lives

“Because a sense of autonomy is such a central aspect of the self, people naturally react defensively to threats to their autonomy,” Howell and Shepperd say. “[P]eople often respond to messages they perceive as constraining their behavior by behaving in ways that are directly counter to the message.”

In short, people avoid information that obligates them to make a change or take action that they do not want to make–even if it is in their best interest.

So the next time you plan a campaign, think about what you are asking people to do and try to find a way that doesn’t make them feel threatened.

Annals of Behavioral Medicine, April 2013

Jennifer L. Howell and James A. Shepperd, University of Florida

Posted: October 2, 2014
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