Try and Make Me Change.

Madeleine Gordon

We have all seen the ads telling people to quit smoking, but do they actually work or are they a waste of money?

Theory says that if by changing a behaviour you increase ‘good’ consequences and decrease ‘bad’ ones then you are more likely to change; which raises the question why are people still smoking? There are two main concepts that health promoters use to try and change behaviour. Firstly, behavioural theory can tell us why someone hasn’t altered their behaviour already and secondly, communication theory can tell us how to change behaviours. Let’s use smoking as an example:

There two main categories of smokers a) people who don’t intend to quit and b) people who intend to quit but have something stopping them from doing so. Group (a) is without a doubt the most difficult to change as it is harder to alter someone’s actions rather than encouraging them. With most of the cases of ‘non-intenders’ the best way to try and effect change is not to give new facts about smoking but to ‘prime’ their current beliefs about it. What I mean by this is instead of forcing new beliefs onto smokers, develop the ones they already have but may not be paying attention to. In this case, reinforcing the knowledge that their smoking has a harmful effect on others or that quitting shows their independence from cigarettes and the tobacco company may be two good strategies to try and affect change.

Contrasting this there is the group of smokers who intend to quit, but for some reason they can’t. To deal with these you need to work out what is stopping them and change that. For example, if it is cravings that are keeping them smoking there are plenty of gums, patches etc that can deal with this.

But what about communication strategies?

“A message is more likely to be accepted if it produces more positive than negative thoughts or if it leads to relatively little counter arguing” [Fishbein pp.13]

This means that you are better to promote the positive effects than the negative ones and that if you have a strong message it will be more difficult to counter argue with.

Framing describes the way in which you send your message. People are more likely to avoid risks if the benefits are emphasised eg. ‘You will increase your fitness if you stop smoking’. Conversely they are more likely to accept risks if the losses are emphasised eg. Smoking increases your risk of lung cancer. This is why you should promote the positive effects of not smoking.

Effective health communication doesn’t concern only communication theories but it is important to understand why people haven’t improved their health before. After you have figured this out it’s possible to determine how best to communicate your message and what frame to use. This makes me question why ad campaigns haven’t used this research and why people to continue to smoke?

Fishbein, M & Cappella, J (2006). The Role of Theory in Developing Effective Health Communications. Journal of Communications, 56, 1-17.

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3 comments so far

  1. Yvette Leong on

    Hi Madeleine,

    Thank you for your post! You brought your message across clearly, and in an engaging and easy-to-read and follow way. I felt that after reading your post, I had a better understanding of how we can use research (theory) to inform communication strategies (practice) in order to effect behavioural change.

    I found it interesting that Fishbein & Cappella said that people tend to avoid risks when a message is framed positively and accept risks when it is negative. This was also found by Fagley & Miller (1990), and they showed that it is not just the framing of a message that is important, but also the phrasing and words used within a positive or negative frame.

    For example, the statements “100 people will be cured if they use treatment A” and “there is a 2/3 chance that 500 people will be cured is they use treatment B” are both framed positively. However, people are more likely to support treatment A with the sure 1st statement rather than the risky 2nd. The opposite is true for a negative frame – people will more likely choose the riskier option in that case.

    As science communicators, we can use such research to help guide our framing and phrasing of messages. However, sometimes it is easier said than done and not all theory may be effectively applied to practical communication. Many other factors may interact with the framing or phrasing of a message to influence decision making. This may include gender, culture, personality and thinking styles (Fagley & Miller, 1990).

    Reference:
    Fagley, NS & Miller PM (1990). The effect of framing on choice: Interactions with risk-taking propensity, cognitive style, and sex. Pers Soc Psychol Bull 16, 496.

  2. Caitlin Love on

    Hi Madeleine,
    I really enjoyed your post and found it quite easy to read. I thanks you for explaining the content of the article in a language so easy to understand!

    I agree with Yvette that I found these outcomes very interesting. And that there are a number of articles finding the same outcomes….yet many ads and campaigns are still using scare tactics! It does seem puzzling.

    I think on an individual scale (using smoking as an example again) it may be a bit more complex (as Yvette suggested). For example if you went through a company that helps you to quite smoking they may need evaluate your personality, financial situation and even your nationality!

    But even beyond the scope of smoking in Australia I think alot more focus needs to be on the positive outcomes when trying to incur change in people. I think the scare tactic we see over and over on tv, billboards etc is becoming the norm and well to be frank, doesn’t scare many people anymore!

    Thanks,
    Caitlin

  3. madeleinegordon on

    Thanks Yvette and Caitlin,

    I totally agree that individuals need to be taken into account. Everyone has different experiences and values so to try and produce a scare tactic campaign to target all smokers would be near impossible. Outlining all the negative effects that smoking can have on your lifestyle probably isn’t the best idea as every individual is different and to try and come up with lifestyle complications for everyone would be incredibly difficult.

    The new ‘Quit’ campaign I feel is much better. As it describes processes that happen in the body and that don’t vary with changing values. Not only this but they are actually explaining how every cigarette you DON’T smoke is doing you GOOD.
    I think this is a fantastic idea as it puts a positive frame around the risk, hopefully encouraging more people to quit. What do you think of this new campaign?

    Madeleine


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