Knowledge alone doesn’t change behavior. What you need is motivation. And fear and warnings are not really helping.
We use fear to try to change our behavior. And this is not just us: fear appeal is commonly used throughout the health campaigns or policies. See for example the disturbing images on packs of cigarettes. They may prevent people from starting to smoke, but they’re unlikely to convince a smoker to quit.
We assume that by inducing fear, people will have a tendency to act. But science shows that warnings and threats have a limited impact on behavioural change.
If something scares us, the immediate response is to freeze or flee. Thus, we tend to shut down and try to eliminate the negative feelings by rationalizing.
You can easily rationalize warnings by telling yourself “I know that smoking is harmful, but I don’t feel particularly vulnerable to those risks, it won’t happen to me.” or “We all die someday. I’m going to make the most of my youth and enjoy myself.”
Tali Sharot, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, suggests that instead of using warnings, we should implement three principles that really drive the mind and the behavior: social incentives, immediate rewards, and progress monitoring.
We are social people. We care what other people are doing and we want to do it better. By seeing others doing positive things, we tend to want to do the same, and better.
Just seeing other people doing things isn’t enough to motivate us to do the same. Our brain needs rewards, and it prefers when it comes immediately. So between getting an immediate reward from eating a bag of chips and the future reward – that may or may not happen- of being healthy later, the brain will choose the former. By grabbing that cigarette or the bag of chips, you’re basically choosing something sure now rather than something that is unsure in the future.
Change happens when you get a reward now for doing actions that are good for you in the future. Studies show that giving people immediate rewards make them more likely to quit smoking and more likely to start exercising. This effect lasts for at least six months. Not smoking or exercising become rewarding. Because of this, they become habits and lifestyles.
By immediately rewarding ourselves and others for things that will have a positive impact in the future, we found a way to bridge the temporal gap.
The key here is to highlight the progress, not the decline. Instead of saying “if you don’t stop smoking, you will get cancer”, say “if you quit smoking, you will get better at sports”.
Seeing your progress also gives you a sense of control which will help you stay motivated.
While we still need to communicate risks to educate people, using positive forces to induce behavioural change has proven to be more effective in the long term. Although there isn’t not a one-fits-all solution, fear tends to induce inaction while the thrill of a gain induces action.
If you want to have more detail about the subject, check out Tali Sharot’s Ted Talk.