Within its short existence, the internet has grown into the largest repository of knowledge ever known. With a few quick keystrokes and the click of a button, you’re able to access information on a vast array of topics, whether it is obscure historical facts, the career of an actress, or anything in between. Unfortunately, the internet has a darker side as well. Conspiracy theories, rumors, outright lies, and false information abound. The advent of social media has only increased the reach of these falsehoods and increased their potential to wreak havoc on a brand’s image. When these situations arise, it might seem obvious to simply dispel them with corrective information. However, a recent study has called into question the efficacy of this approach and highlighted the potential for it to backfire.
The study, Effective Messages in Vaccine Promotion (Nyhan, Reifler, Richey & Freed, 2014), evaluated a variety of approaches to convincing parents to vaccinate their children: a narrative about a baby who nearly died from measles, an image of children afflicted with the diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine, textual information about the diseases, and corrective information dispelling the link between vaccination and autism. These approaches had not been previously tested because it was believed that the importance of vaccines would be self-evident to the parents once medical professionals presented them with the scientific information and potential dangers. Interestingly, and alarmingly, however, none of the approaches actually increased the parents’ intent to vaccinate future children. In fact, the narrative and the image of the diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine actually increased parental concern about possible vaccine side effects and strengthened their belief that vaccines could be a cause of autism. The corrective information, on the other hand, did successfully lower the belief that vaccines could cause autism. Unfortunately, it also decreased the intent to vaccinate future children among the parents who were the least favorable towards vaccination (and thus the families that the information would most benefit).
The researchers ascribe these seeming incongruences to the respondents justifying their anti-vaccination stance by marshalling their knowledge about other potential vaccine dangers. Essentially, these messages did not exist in a vacuum. When the respondents were confronted with information that contradicted their beliefs and facts that they held to be true, they compartmentalized it and interpreted its importance alongside pre-existing knowledge.
These findings underscore the difficulty in trying to alter a person’s perceptions and behaviors. The assumption that you can simply change someone’s mind by beating them over the head with fear-based messages or by providing them with evidence to correct their faulty information is extremely risky. These campaigns need to be very strategic and well-researched in order to succeed. Going with your gut and not checking that your instincts are correct can be a recipe for disaster. We have seen many hastily thrown together ad campaigns trying to persuade people to jump the fence fail miserably. The campaigns not only failed to convert their audience but also resulted in a more hardened stance.
There are often deep-seeded factors behind people’s beliefs and the choices they make. If you are not taking the time to test those messages and understand how they are interpreted by your audience, then you risk seriously jeopardizing what you are fighting for in the first place.