Awareness Is Overrated

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Think of the last time you were at a party and shocked your fellow guests with some dire statistic about the black-white incarceration divide or global warming or poverty in Brazil. What you felt at that moment probably wasn’t just empathy or sadness at the state of the world. No. If you’re honest with yourself, it mostly felt good to be the bearer of bad tidings. You were helping to raise awareness.

We’re living in something of a golden age of awareness-raising. Cigarette labels relay dire facts about the substances contained within. Billboards and PSAs and YouTube videos highlight the dangers of fat and bullying and texting while driving. Hashtag activism, the newest awareness-raising technique, abounds: After the La Isla Vista shootings, many women used the #YesAllWomen hashtag to relate their experiences with misogyny; and a couple months before that, #CancelColbert brought viral attention to some people’s anger with Stephen Colbert over what they saw as a racist joke. Never before has raising awareness about various dangers and struggles been such a visible part of everyday life and conversation.

But the funny part about all of this awareness-raising is that it doesn’t accomplish all that much. The underlying assumption of so many attempts to influence people’s behavior — that they make bad choices because they lack the information to empower them to do otherwise — is, except in a few cases, false. And what’s worse, awareness-raising done in the wrong way can actually backfire, encouraging the negative activities in question. One of the favorite pastimes of a certain brand of concerned progressive, then, may be much more effective at making them feel good about themselves than actually improving the world in any substantive way.

“We’ve known for over 50 years that providing information alone to people does not change their behavior,” said Victor Strecher, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. It’s something of a consensus among people who study behavioral interventions ranging from health to bullying to crime: There are a lot of reasons why people do what they do, but awareness of their actions’ repercussions ranks pretty far down the list.

There are examples everywhere. The government’s billion-dollar National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, launched in 1998 with the goal of “Pursu[ing] a vigorous advertising and public communications program dealing with the dangers of drug use by youth,” was a complete flop — to the extent of affecting kids’ behavior, it made them more likely to smoke weed or view doing so as favorable, according to a 2004 report. One study found no correlation between diabetes’ sufferers level of knowledge of how to keep their condition in check and their health outcomes. Another found that low-income families given information about federal financial-aid opportunities for college were no more likely to fill out FAFSA forms than those who weren’t (unless they were also provided assistance in filling out the forms — more about that in a bit). Calorie counts — as straightforward an example of the knowledge-is-power ethos as there is — don’t appear to work. Presentations geared to middle-schoolers aimed at raising awareness about the dangers of bullying also tend to be ineffective, the psychologist Hana Shepherd told me in an email late last year.

In the most unfortunate cases, raising awareness can have the opposite of its intended effect. The anti-drug campaign is one example, but there are others: In one study famous to social scientists, visitors to Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park appeared to be more likely to steal petrified wood when presented with information about the high frequency of other park visitors’ pilching, because the information “normalise[d] undesirable conduct,” as the researchers put it — if everyone else is stealing wood, who cares if I take some, too? (The same logic applies to promoting other sorts of environmentally conscious behavior.)

The authors of an International Rescue Committee literature review on preventing gender-based violence came to a similar conclusion: “Awareness campaigns [about gender-based violence] often propagate a descriptive norm that [violent] behavior is prevalent in the community, perhaps licensing violent behavior rather than activating behavior to reduce GBV,” they wrote. One of the co-authors, Laurie Ball Cooper, told me that the #YesAllWomen campaign could be an example of this. “If your focus is on how common the behavior is, you may actually reduce the likelihood of a bystander stepping in to to stop it, or you may reaffirm the perpetrator's belief that they can do whatever the undesirable behavior is without repercussion," she said. (Though she also pointed out that the campaign could have important goals beyond behavior change, like giving heretofore silent women a forum for relating what happened to them.)

So in these cases — and plenty of others — there’s an argument to be made that, on balance, it would have been better if people were less aware of the prevalence of the undesirable behavior in question, because that awareness may have only compounded it.

There is, of course, one obvious counterexample to the futility of awareness: If people aren’t even aware a problem is a problem, then awareness is certainly important. It would be silly to argue that the decades-long push to publicize the link between smoking and cancer, for example, wasn’t an important one. A baseline of awareness is a “nice first step” to behavior change, as Strecher put it, simply because it provides an underlying motivation.

The problem, though, is that once a certain level of awareness has been raised, there are rapidly diminishing returns to raising more of it. In most cases, undesirable behavior simply isn’t caused by a knowledge deficit. People don’t make decisions — and particularly not the quick or tired or reflexive ones that lead to so many non-ideal outcomes — in a contemplative, “System 2” manner. “What most of us don’t realize is that all of us are what psychology in the mid-'90s started calling ‘cognitive misers,’” said Dietram Scheufele, a professor of science communication at the University of Wisconsin — Madison. That is, “we all use as little information as possible to make any given decision,” relying on cognitive shortcuts or social cues or other not-particularly-intellectual factors to do so.  

Obesity is a prime example. There has been no shortage of information about the dangers of an unhealthy diet and significant weight gain, at least not in the U.S. As Ken Resnicow, a colleague of Strecher’s at UM’s School of Public Health, puts, it, “Very few patients believe they should be eating more French fries and milkshakes.” And yet people do, because French fries and milkshakes are delicious, because there’s often social pressure to eat them, because stress makes us seek out fatty foods, and for many other reasons that don’t involve a whole lot of deep thought or poring over statistics. Not because French-fry-and-milkshake aficionados don’t understand that they’re eating poorly.

What does work, then? How can we effectively alter the behavior of our cognitively miserly species? It completely depends. “In each context we have to be evidence-based and look [and] see what works, because for different groups of people, different things will work,” said Harold Pollack, a crime and health researcher at the University of Chicago.

According to Strecher, connecting the behavior change in question to some key part of a patient’s identity is what matters. “We have found that when people start reciting core values that they have in their life, or start thinking about very purposeful motives in their life that are very intrinsic motives to them — like, ‘I want to be a good father,’ ‘I want to be a good husband,’ ‘I want to be in control of my life,’ ‘I care a lot about my community’ — whatever those things are that are very transcending, purposeful issues, those actually motivate people to change,” he said.

One way to tap into all of this is through what clinicians call “motivational interviewing,” a form of rapport-building interviewing that seeks, as one overview of the practice puts it, the “identification, examination, and resolution of ambivalence about changing behavior. Pollack said that in the medical community, motivational interviewing and techniques like it “are playing a much more central role in people’s training than they did in the recent past.”

So maybe, on one hand, an office worker smokes because he likes the camaraderie of taking a few breaks with his co-workers during the day, meaning he faces a lot of social pressure to smoke. But on the other, he feels guilty when he does it around his daughter. An effective motivational interview might identify these dueling factors and, ideally, lead to the first step of the office worker agreeing to only smoke at work, with the eventual goal being getting him to cease entirely.

These principles can be applied to mass media like public-service announcements, too. Here’s a commercial from the U.K. National Health Service’s “Scared and Worried” anti-smoking campaign that Resnicow cited as a particularly effective example:

The ad has nothing to do with specific facts about the dangers of smoking — rather, it focuses on the emotionally loaded concepts of fatherhood and childhood fears. It works by hitting adult smokers who are parents where they'll feel it.

Another big focal point of successful behavioral interventions is social norms, which can be a powerful tool when wielded correctly. Shepherd, the anti-bullying researcher, and her colleague Betsy Levy Paluck at Princeton (who also co-authored the IRC review on gender-based violence), leverage them to tamp down on bullying.

Whereas many previous anti-bullying campaigns have involved largely ineffective and potentially counterproductive PSAs and films and presentations delivered to auditoriums of sleepy adolescents, Shepherd and Paluck’s approach is much more surgical. They go into schools, map the social networks there, and identify who the most well-connected kids are. Then they provide those kids with training about how to step in to prevent bullying when they see it occurring.

Why might this work better than simply relating grim statistics about bullying? Bullying abounds in certain schools not because most students approve of it, Shepherd and Paluck believe, but because of what researchers call the “pluralistic ignorance” effect — everyone thinks everyone else approves of it. So Shepherd and Paluck attempt to disabuse students of that notion by getting highly regarded members of the community to step in and disrupt bullying when it takes place.

Finally, in addition to often ignoring or misreading the impact of social norms and personal identity in shaping behavior, awareness-raising campaigns also do a poor job of addressing how the intersection of poverty and stress can lead people to make less than ideal decisions.

In the FAFSA study, for example, families who were informed of financial-aid opportunities and given assistance in filling out the forms had higher take-up rates, while those in the information-only group did not. Logically, this makes no sense — what’s a couple hours wading through a form written in bureaucratese in exchange for access to the numerous benefits of a college education? But for overworked, low-income families, it can prove to be a deceptively formidable obstacle. Researchers like Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan have shown that the stressors of poverty can severely tax “cognitive bandwidth,” making it harder to, for example, keep up with dense paperwork. (It isn’t that poor people have less bandwidth, but rather that they face more bandwidth-sapping stress and distractions.) So the idea that we simply need to inform families that they’re FAFSA-eligible sounds good — why wouldn’t they take advantage of this? — but ignores the reality of their situations.

What all these effective behavioral-intervention methods have in common is that they attack the roots of people’s behaviors in sophisticated ways, and as a result, they take a fair amount of effort to develop. Awareness-raising, on the other hand, is easier and more straightforward, and this can help explain why it’s so prevalent despite the dearth of empirical evidence it works. Activists and politicians and public-health officials are just as susceptible to cognitive miserliness as everyone else — they’ll often get nudged down the path of least resistance toward awareness-raising rather than carefully and empirically evaluate what works and what doesn’t. (It doesn’t hurt that it’s often easier to take credit for a splashy PSA campaign than for more under-the-radar interventions.)

On a more basic level, though, a lot of our infatuation with raising awareness can be traced back to the fact that it simply feels good. This applies not only to wonks working with low-income people — who, as Resnicow explained, often embrace condescendingly romantic sentiments like, “Ah, if only we could inform them!” — but to the heady feeling that comes with spreading word of this problem or that injustice to our friends.

Which brings us back to those hashtags and dinner parties and online videos. Generally speaking, all this awareness-talk isn’t hurting anyone, per se. But it mostly isn’t helping anyone either, and you should keep that in mind the next time you bask in the afterglow of an oh-so-aware tweet.