right side of brain From Manuel de L'Anatomiste  Morel and Duval  1883
If You Want Fewer Abortions, Stop Talking About How Many There Are
Reading Time: 4 minutes

I’m using abortion as an example, but this bit of science applies to all political messaging.

What’s wrong with this headline?

55,772,015 Abortions in America Since Roe vs. Wade in 1973 - LifeNews.com_thumb[2]

I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. It shouts: “Everybody’s getting an abortion!” Even if connected with messages that say abortion is wrong.

In numerous studies, messages intended to discourage a behavior by promoting the number of people engaged in the behavior (called negative social proof) actually caused the behavior to increase.

In the most famous study by Robert Cialdini, Steve Martin, and Noah Goldstein, researchers wanted to reduce theft of artifacts from the Petrified Forest National Park. Theft of artifacts is a serious problem, and signs installed by the park service hadn’t helped.

The scientists believed the signs in the park were actually encouraging people to steal petrified wood. The park’s signs read:

“Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.”

To test their theory, the researchers placed two different messages in different areas of the park and marked artifacts in the area to track them. Here’s a description of the experiment:

The negative social proof sign said, “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest,” and was accompanied by a picture of several park visitors taking pieces of wood. A second sign conveyed no social proof information. Rather, it simply conveyed that stealing wood was not appropriate or approved, saying, “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest.” That sign was accompanied by a picture of a lone visitor stealing a piece of wood, with a red circle-and-bar (the universal “No” symbol) superimposed over his hand. We also had a control condition in which we didn’t put up either of these signs.

Goldstein, Noah J.; Martin, Steve J.; Robert B. Cialdini (2008-06-10). Yes! (Kindle Locations 372-378). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

The results: the negative social proof sign caused the number of thefts to triple!  That’s right, three times as many people took petrified wood from the area with the negative social proof sign.

The theory held. The National Park Service was actually encouraging people to steal, and anecdotal evidence bore this out.  The researchers learned of the wood-theft problem from a former grad student who took his fiancée to the park.

. . .  a woman he described as the most honest person he’d ever known, someone who had never borrowed a paper clip without returning it. They quickly encountered the aforementioned park sign warning visitors against stealing petrified wood. He was shocked when his otherwise wholly law-abiding fiancée nudged him in the side with her elbow and whispered, “We’d better get ours now.”

This study has been replicated repeatedly. When you tell people that lots of people are doing something wrong, you increase the number of people doing the wrong thing.

Use the Science of Social Proof Effectively

The authors of the study point out that more effective message would be the opposite of negative social proof. Instead of talking about 55 million abortions, talk about the declining number of abortions. Find statistics that show how unusual it is for a woman to get an abortion.

The incidence of abortion has been declining for over a decade, and it plummeted 5 percent in 2009 alone. The ratio of abortions to live births declines every year. The rate of abortions declines every year. Two-thirds of women never have an abortion. If trends continue, someday there will be no abortions in America.

Smoking Turned The Corner When They Stopped Talking About How Many People Smoke

For years, the CDC and the Surgeon General and all sorts of health groups complained that people just refused to listen to their messages on the dangers of smoking. As evidence, in the 1980s, they decried the large number of teens taking up cigarettes.  But they were wrong. People were listening. And here’s what they heard:

  • More teens smoking
  • Smoking up in 43 states
  • Despite the risks, Americans smoke more than ever

All of those messages told people “everybody’s doing it. Why aren’t you?” Or, as the grad student’s fiancée said, “we better get ours now.”

In the 1990s, the messaging shifted. Instead of talking about all the people smoking, they started talking about all the people quitting.

Suddenly, quitting became the in-thing. And fewer people smoked.

This Isn’t Just About Abortion Messaging

Back to Cialdini, et al:

More generally, political groups of all sorts misunderstand the impact of their communications by condemning the rise in voter apathy and then watch their communications backfire as more and more voters fail to turn up at the polls.

You should see all the emails, blog comments, and tweets I get that use negative social proof. “Most kids will vote for Obama no matter what.” “Most teachers are socialists.”  “Every kid under 30 was indoctrinated to hate Republicans.”

Those messages only increase the outcomes you don’t want.

I understand why people—even professional marketers—use negative social proof. They see a problem that’s big and growing, and they want to alert others of the danger.

That works if it’s an agreed upon danger. An angry giant descends the beanstalk. The wicked witch brews a potion to turn everyone into toads. The Cubs win the World Series.

But it doesn’t work if the danger is not agreed upon. Thirty-eight million Americans wear contact lenses! Okay.  So what?

To the 51 percent of Americans who call themselves “pro-choice,” the LIfenews headline is as ho-hum as the contact lens headline. To the smoker, hearing that more teens are smoking is a yawn.

Instead, flip the message over.  Only 16 percent of Americans smoke. Since 2002, there are more former smokers in the US than smokers. Eighty-eight percent of Americans do not wear contact lenses.

Back to Martin, Goldstein, and Cialdini:

If the circumstances allow for it, focusing the audience on all people who do engage in the positive behavior can be a very influential strategy.For instance, imagine you are a manager recognizing that attendance at your monthly meetings has gone down. Rather than calling attention to the fact that so many people are missing the meetings, you could not only express your disapproval for that behavior, but also highlight that those who don’t attend the meetings are in the minority by pointing out the large number of people who do actually turn up.

Goldstein, Noah J.; Martin, Steve J.; Robert B. Cialdini (2008-06-10). Yes! (Kindle Locations 390-391). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

I hope this news helps. I know there’s a tendency to shout out big numbers, but don’t shout big numbers unless you want them to get bigger. People do what they think others are doing. Call it the bandwagon effect, social proof, or monkey-see-monkey-do, the science is clear: calling attention to a behavior’s frequency will only increase it.

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