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Communicating to Help Change High-Risk Behaviors

While apathy can be just as hard to overcome as outrage, the challenges arise from different human tendencies.

If you’ve ever had to communicate to stakeholders whose emotional reactions far outweigh a scientific risk, you know that listening and empathy are keys to success. But what about when you’re addressing stakeholders who are “underreacting” to risks, such as residents living in high-radon risk zones who don’t test their homes, or employees who wear respirators only when their supervisor shows up?

When you are communicating risk for the purpose of ratcheting up people’s concerns and prompting behavior, you’re practicing the opposite of outrage. You’re not helping people calm down, you’re trying to get them adequately concerned, so some of your challenges are going to be very different. Among the obstacles you will face:

  • Cognitive Dissonance – We search for ammunition in support of our behaviors, even when we know they’re wrong.
  • Habits – When natural negative consequences of unsafe practices (e.g., injury, death) are weak, delayed, or infrequent, our habits for taking shortcuts are positively reinforced over and over again.
  • Confirmation Bias and Optimism Bias- Selective exposure and selective attention are our first lines of defense against information we don’t want to know about. Moreover, we all think that we’re smarter and luckier than the average person; yet, statistically, that can’t be true.

While some techniques for successfully overcoming these obstacles are consistent with overcoming outrage (e.g., providing more direct control to stakeholders and testing your messages first), others may require using techniques outside of tradition. These include:

  • When making recommendations, frame minimum precautions with less protective and more protective options.
  • Stress self-efficacy—when people are confident that they can do something, they will be more inclined to try.
  • Be willing to capitalize on motivations that aren’t related to the issue, such as people’s desire for social acceptance.