New research has found that ‘Just Say No’ public health campaigns to stop people drinking, smoking or taking drugs may have the opposite effect.
Studies found that the unconscious mind often fails to register the negative part of the message, meaning these campaigns could in fact encourage the very behaviour that they wish to deter.
Mark Earls, author of the book ‘Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature', explained to The Drum that “there’s quite a lot of research in addiction work to support the fact that showing the targeted behaviour -even in heavily negative frames - can actually prompt it.”
Researchers worked with a group of volunteers, all of whom were smokers, and asked them to look at a number of photographs, some featured “no smoking” signs in the background.
The subjects desire to smoke was then measured by a test where they were shown several images of objects including cigarettes and asked to ‘approach’ or ‘avoid’ them. Those shown photographs containing “no smoking” signs were quicker to approach smoking-related images, those shown neutral photographs without “no smoking” signs showed no preference for the smoking-related images.
Earls added: “Real people can be frustrating to behaviour change campaigns - they don't respond in the straight-forward way that we'd like them to and very often see very different things in the campaigns we run from what we intend.
“All too often behaviour change seems more concerned with persuading people to do the "right thing" than in how they perceived and process messages and information from their environment and most of which won't be the message being sent.”
The research found there to be no difference in the behaviours of those who had spotted the “no smoking” signs in the pictures and those who saw the same photographs but did not consciously notice the signs.
Earls concluded: “This debate shows how important it is to understand how the people whose behaviour we want to change actually respond to their environment and any changes in it if you actually want to change anything.
“In which context, I'm reminded of the importance that 12-step programmes place on creating a new social network for those looking to become and remain clean and sober. Neither researcher nor campaigner really deal with this aspect of changing the environment.”