Does scaring people motivate them to change?
1: What is the effect of showing smokers graphic warnings on cigarette packs?
When doctors are asked this question, “In general, they believe that the images will decrease smokers’ desire for a cigarette and motivate them to quit,” writes Kelly McGonigal in her terrific book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.
Actually, studies show the warnings have the opposite effect.
“The most threatening images (say, a lung cancer patient dying in a hospital bed) actually increase smokers’ positive attitudes toward smoking,” Kelly states.
The images trigger fear. And, “what better way to calm down than to smoke a cigarette?” Kelly observes.
The physicians assume fear would inspire people to change their behavior, but being afraid motivates us to soothe our uncomfortable feelings and escape feeling bad.
2: “Another strategy that consistently backfires is shaming people for their unhealthy behaviors,” Kelly writes.
“In one study at the University of California, Santa Barbara, overweight women read a New York Times article about how employers are beginning to discriminate against overweight workers. Afterward, instead of vowing to lose weight, the women ate twice as many calories of junk food as overweight women who had read an article on a different workplace issue.”
There is a pattern.
“Well-intentioned doctors and psychologists convey a message they think will help; instead, the recipients end up overwhelmed, depressed, and driven to self-destructive coping behaviors,” she reflects.
3: Kelly is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. For years she “taught classes and workshops, conducted research and wrote articles and books… [telling] people that stress makes you sick, that it increases your risk of everything from the common cold to heart disease, depression, and addiction, that it kills brain cells, damages your DNA, and makes you age faster.”
Once people were educated on how bad stress was, the idea was we would reduce the stress in our lives, and this would make us healthier and happier.But that wasn’t the result.
“No matter the audience,” writes Kelly, “nobody ever came up afterward to say, “Thank you so much for telling me how toxic my stressful life is. I know I can get rid of the stress, but I’d just never thought to do it before!”
In fact, by talking about stress in this way, Kelly and her fellow psychologists were training people to see stress as toxic – which is dangerous.
Because new scientific research suggests it isn’t stress itself which is harmful, but our belief that stress is toxic that causes us harm.
Reflection: Think back on when I made a significant behavior change. What motivated me to make the change? What are the implications for me?
Action: Journal my answers to the questions above.