May 19th, 2017

Making people aware of a bad behavior makes people more likely to engage in that bad behavior. Our mothers were wrong: if everybody is jumping off the bridge, of course you’re going to want to jump off the bridge, even if doing so is blindingly stupid.

Yes, yes. I know that that is counter intuitive and makes no sense. But Oliver Burkeman, writing in When raising awareness backfires for The Guardian, makes the case:

The underlying issue here is a big headache for anyone involved in “awareness-raising campaigns”, and for anyone trying to solve a social problem: making people aware they’re doing something bad doesn’t necessarily make them more likely to stop. Sometimes, that’s down to the frustrating perversity of the human mind: for instance, there are some signs that scary campaigns against smoking or overeating backfire, not least because they make people anxious, and when smokers or overeaters get anxious, the first thing they do is… Well, yes, exactly. But often it’s simply because the greater the number of people engaged in a given behaviour, the less wrong it feels. Even campaigns against something as obviously criminal as domestic violence, research suggests, may prove similarly self-sabotaging: being an abuser feels less shameful when you know you’re not alone.

There is also more than a little oppositional psychology at work here. If you want someone to not do something, your first step ought not to be telling them not to do that. Burkeman gave me the headline when he concluded:

Consider this column an awareness-raising campaign about the limitations of awareness-raising campaigns. Which means I’ve probably made matters worse.

Make sure that you read the comments on this one. There are some possible insights into President Trump there.


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