Off the Shelf: Information Is Not Enough

In The Science of Speaking, I note that it’s not enough to simply give your audience the right information and hope that this will be enough to change their behavior.

In Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing, Doug McKenzie-Mohr and William Smith cite some pretty sobering data that backs up this claim.

For example, in a classic study in which participants were exposed to a three-hour energy conservation workshop that showed them it was easy to conserve energy at home, while participants “indicated greater awareness of energy issues, more appreciation for what could be done in their homes to reduce energy use, and a willingness to implement the changes that were advocated,” when researchers visited the participants’ homes to follow up, they found that in all but a few cases, the participants’ “behavior did not change.” Other studies have found similar results.

“But,” you might say, “these people didn’t hear my pitch! I can make them a true believer!” Maybe you can, but unfortunately, even this is unlikely to help. For example, when 500 people were interviewed about their personal responsibility for picking up litter, 94% said they felt they had one. But when this sense of responsibility was actually put to the test with a piece of litter planted by a researcher outside the interview location, only 2% actually stopped to pick it up.* Many other studies have confirmed that environmental actions are only loosely correlated with environmental beliefs, where they are at all.

If information alone doesn’t lead to action, what are we to do? This research suggests that it’s important to go beyond simply informing your audience to applying the persuasive techniques described in The Science of Speaking and Fostering Sustainable Behavior. It is only by consciously crafting persuasion that you will have a good chance of succeeding in it.


* This is quite reminiscent of the famous “good samaritan study,” which was recently described by Glenn Geher at Psychology Today.

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