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Backfire!

Posted By David Shapiro, Thursday, January 01, 2004
Updated: Friday, February 15, 2013

It can happen. Research shows that what you say when urging responsible behavior can backfire—easily. None of the research was specifically about electrical safety, but there’s every reason to believe it applies. Fortunately, if you have the intelligence it takes to earn a license, what you need to keep in mind to avoid this risk is not going to be over your head.

A basic purpose of IAEI is to promote electrical safety through public education, so this is a job we want to take on increasingly, as we can make the resources available. If you work for an organization that puts out its own safety messages, such as a jurisdiction or a utility, the information that follows will help you contribute to making them more effective.

I’ve received heartfelt mail from contractors about the need for public awareness. They’re upset that home-owners don’t recognize the risk they face from using installers who are ignorant of the NEC, or from not getting work inspected, or who don’t see that fraudulently applying for a homeowner’s permit to cover a contractor is a sucker’s game. Publicity about the need to use licensed electricians, and to pull permits, barely makes a dent. Messages about extension cords and octopus adapters are heeded less than we might wish. Utility messages about staying away from power lines are ignored, tragically, far more frequently than anybody would like to see.

Dr. Robert Cialdini, a psychologist at Arizona State University, performed and published much of the research identifying the problem. He and his colleagues warn that public service announcements and similar communications can deliver a muddled message. Here’s a rather unkind way I might put the paradox: "So many people imitate lemmings that if you give the impression most everybody else is doing something, however unwise, most of your audience will keep on doing it themselves.” Think back, and you may recall your mother having had a pithy saying about that, perhaps the rhetorical, ". . .and if all your friends decided to XXX, would you XXX?”

So in one sense, at least to pundits who are cynical about human nature, this is not news. Nonetheless, even classy-looking, award-winning promotions have ignored the problem. This is why the researchers figure the TV spot, "People Start Pollution, People Can Stop It,” named the 16th best commercial of all time, may have missed the boat when it showed a trashed environment, which some could read as demonstrating that it is normal to pollute. (The ad was created long before this research.)

There’s a natural inclination to grab interest by talking how bad things are. This can mean pointing out how rarely folks do what they should: do you exercise your own circuit breakers? A modest admission of this failing, however, is not something to bring to people’s attention—not if you want to change their behavior. Tell them how dangerous it can be to take the risk; tell them about people who have regretted doing so; but don’t focus them on how normal it is to take chances. "Yes, I know almost nobody checks for lamp cords that could get pinched by furniture; it is a nuisance.” Maybe this message will encourage certain people to do what they should, because they like feeling extra-virtuous; but it doesn’t work overall, certainly not in the context of public-service announcements.

This failure of good intentions is heartbreakingly real. College girls exposed to a public-awareness program featuring their peers who had eating disorders showed more anorexia and more bulimia than before. Teens warned about how many adolescents were killing themselves ended up considering suicide as more of an option, not less. Warning tourists about how bad a problem vandalism is in a federal preserve increased the likelihood that they would steal mementos.

Here is what does work.

If most people really do the right thing, say so, so that the lemming effect will work in your favor.

Use negative wording, yes, negative, because negative information often carries greater weight. People notice it, pay more attention to it, and count it more heavily than the same content put in positive terms. I think of this as the "Mama spank” effect. Our messages don’t have to be complicated, hostile, or pessimistic. It’s the simple difference between saying "Remember to test your smoke detectors” and "Don’t fail to test your smoke detectors.” Sure, if you want to condition habit change, it is good Skinnerian policy to reward efforts in the right direction, rather than focusing on punishment. This is a different context.

Add novel information, if you have something rele-vant. Here’s an example. Ed Krawiek, an electrical engineer, told me that on field tests, ten percent of GFCIs did not trip. A third of smoke detectors did not operate. Most of the detectors that failed to sound did have their backup batteries, and most of those batteries had ade-quate juice. If they didn’t, they were replaced and the units were retested. The test was performed by spritzing them directly with artificial smoke, and then trying the TEST button only if the smoke did nothing. It may well be even worse than the matter of a third having failed: given how many failed altogether, there is no particular reason to believe that all of the two-thirds that did alarm ultimately in response to the go-no-go spritz test actually retained their calibration and would alarm as early as needed in response to a fire. Pushing the TEST button is the way the manufacturer intended for these devices’ function—and calibration—to be tested.

This information certainly made me sit up. Sharing some part of this, with luck, will emphasize to an audience how risky it is not to test. Certainly it is far more useful than telling them how few folks actually test their devices regularly, even though the latter information is implicitly implied by the field test’s findings.

Find a hook that will remind people of what they need to do, later on. They may not act on your message right now, may not be in a position to do so. Here’s an example that presupposes a public service message containing a visual. Maybe you can trust that your audience cleans their bathrooms thoroughly once a week, or once a month. An image of a sponge, cleaning the sink, showing the GFCI above it, and a message saying "Push the TEST button,” might stay with them long enough to do some good.

If you can add humor (without being inappropriate), that can help get a message through.

Finally, don’t take a chance on your message backfiring via the lemming effect. To repeat the concept I started out with, if "four out of five dentists” (speaking metaphorically) will break off a third prong when they don’t find grounded receptacles, let’s just keep that number to ourselves, and focus on the possible severe consequences of ignoring grounding.

In summary, to get the most clout for each shout, we can’t overlook what all the folks who really understand how to move the public toward healthier behavior do: one, tell people that the action we urge is popular and important; like a Terrible Two, grab their attention with some non-rude form of "No!”; three, interest them with news and humor, if any fits; and four, give them a hook that will help them remember what they need to do.


Read more by David Shapiro

Tags:  Featured  January-February 2004 

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