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.

From the Lab: Scientific Advocacy

In The Science of Speaking, I wrote, “Whereas our scientists and engineers often protest the pitch …” There’s an important, unanswered question here: why do our scientists and engineers protest?

There are several possible reasons for this.

First, many scientists and engineers believe that pitching is something they shouldn’t need to do—it’s their job to generate ideas, and someone else’s job (sales and marketing) to sell them. This belief is understandable, but ultimately wrong: as I note in the book, everyone engages in persuasive speaking, even if they don’t think about it in those terms.

Second, there is a significant subset of scientists who believe that pitching is something they shouldn’t do (note the deletion of the phrase “need to” here). They believe that scientists should stick to science and not get involved in advocacy. This is because they think that getting involved in advocacy will harm their credibility as scientists and perhaps even the credibility of the scientific community as a whole. Based on these assumptions, some have even gone so far as to say that science and advocacy are fundamentally incompatible.

Thankfully, a recent scientific study (published just this past weekend) thoroughly debunks this myth.

In a randomized controlled experiment, John Kotcher and his colleagues tested public reactions to six different advocacy statements made by a scientist—ranging from a purely informational statement to an endorsement of specific policies. Here’s what they found:

We found that perceived credibility of the communicating scientist was uniformly high in five of the six message conditions, suffering only when he advocated for a specific policy—building more nuclear power plants (although credibility did not suffer when advocating for a different specific policy—carbon dioxide limits at power plants). We also found no significant differences in trust in the broader climate science community between the six message conditions.

As the researchers conclude, “Our results suggest that climate scientists who wish to engage in certain forms of advocacy have considerable latitude to do so without risking harm to their credibility, or the credibility of the scientific community.”

Hopefully, this research will encourage more scientists to speak up and share not only their brilliant findings, but also their recommendations for how we can apply them!