Communicators Beware: Why Do People Make Bad Choices? (part 1) Reply

We make bad choices because we lack the necessary information to make a better decision.  Right?

Several articles have appeared recently indicating that a lack of information usually is not the reason why we make bad choices.

your voiceExplaining this is a recent article from NY Magazine, Science of Us, called Awareness is Overrated.  In an age with marketers and politicians raising and mandating awareness of countless issues, we might assume that simply giving people more and correct information will change behaviors (e.g., think warnings on cigarette packaging or signs asking Singapore’s commuters to move to the center of the train). But according to Prof. Victor Strecher, “There are a lot of reasons why people do what they do, but awareness of their actions’ repercussions pretty far down the list.”

Science of Us takes this a step further and points out that awareness can actually increase the instances of undesired behavior.  The Atlantic, in an article titled Why Anti-Obamacare Ads Actually Increased Obamacare Enrollment, we see an example in which states where the highest advertising dollars were spent fighting against Obamacare displayed the highest levels of Obamacare adoption.

How can this be?

In the simplest of terms, when there is no awareness then negative messaging actually raises awareness.  Looking at negative reviews of books, The Atlantic article concluded that, “by making consumers aware of a book they would otherwise not know about…even the harshest review can be a boon.”  The same appears to be true of a new social program, Obamacare.  Ads against the program made people more aware.

So while there is benefit to raising awareness if target audiences are truly unaware, investing in awareness-raising communications has a point of diminishing returns.  The real-world examples are countless.

We know that fast food is generally not healthy, but we still love our Big Macs and pizza.  We know drinking too much is un, but look at what happens in every city in the world on every ladies’ night.  We know we should exercise and not accept too much stress from work, yet we don’t exercise and wake up in early morning hours just to check email on mobile devices.

We know better, but we still do it.  Awareness is not the issue and even more awareness will not change behaviors (or even worse, may even boomerang!).

From my professional perspective, the implications are twofold.

  1. We can no longer assume that awareness is an inherent good and that people make the wrong choice because they lack enough or the proper information.
  2. We need a disciplined, data-driven approach to better decide how to spend our communication dollars and exactly on what.

So if we don’t use our communications to raise awareness, then what should we be doing?  That is what I will cover in part 2.





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