Tali Sharot – Cognitive neuroscientist
We all have some behavior that we would like to change about ourselves. And we certainly all want to help someone else, change their behavior in a positive way. Maybe it’s your kid, your spouse, your colleague. I want to share some new research with you that I think reveals something really important about what gets people to change their behavior.
But before I do that, let’s zoom in on one strategy that I think you probably use a lot. So, let’s say you’re trying to stop yourself from snacking. What do you tell yourself? Well, most people in a monologue will say, “Beware. You’ll be fat.” And if this was your kid, you would probably tell him that smoking kills and, by the way, he’s in big, big trouble.
So, what we’re trying to do here is we’re trying to scare ourselves and others into changing their behavior. And it’s not just us. Warnings and threats are really common in health campaigns, in policy. It’s because we all share this deep-rooted belief that if you threaten people, if fear is induced, it will get them to act. And it seems like a really reasonable assumption, except for the fact that the science shows that warnings have very limited impact on behavior.
So, graphic images on cigarette packets, for example, do not deter smokers from smoking, and one study found that, after looking at those images, quitting actually became a lower priority for smokers. So, I’m not saying that warnings and threats never work, but what I’m saying is that, on average, they seem to have a very limited impact.
And so, the question is, why? Why are we resistant to warnings? Well, if you think about animals, when you induce fear in an animal, the most common response you will see is freezing or fleeing; fighting, not as much. And so, humans are the same. If something scares us, we tend to shut down and we try to eliminate the negative feelings. We might use rationalizations. For example, you might tell yourself: “My grandpa smoked. He lived to be 90. So, I have really good genes and absolutely nothing to worry about.” And this process can actually make you feel more resilient than you did before, which is why warnings sometimes have this boomerang effect.
In other times, we simply put our head in the ground. Take the stock market for example. Do you know when people pull their head out of the ground to look at their accounts — not to make a transaction, just to log in to check their account? So, what you’re seeing here, in black, is the S&P 500 over two years, and in gray, is the number of times that people logged in to their account just to check. And this is data from Karlsson, Loewenstein & Seppi, it’s control data for all the obvious confounds.
So, what do we see? When the market is high, people log in all the time, because positive information makes you feel good, so you seek it out. And when the market is low, people avoid logging in, because negative information makes us feel bad, so we try to avoid it altogether. And all this is true as long as bad information can reasonably be avoided. What you don’t see here is what happened a few months later, in the financial collapse of 2008, when the market went drastically down and that was when people started logging in frantically, but it was a bit too late.
So, you can think about it like this — it’s not just finance: In many different parts of our life, we have warning signs and bad behaviors now. And they could potentially lead to all these bad outcomes later, but not necessarily so, because there are different routes from your present to your future, right? It can go this way, it can go that way.
And, as time passes, you gather more and more information about where the wind is blowing. And, at any point, you can intervene and you could potentially change the outcome, but that takes energy and you might tell yourself: “What’s the point about worrying about something that might happen? It might not happen.” Until we reach this point, at which time you do jump into action, but sometimes it’s a little bit too late.
So, we wanted to know, in my lab, what type of information does leak into people. We conducted an experiment where we asked approximately 100 people to estimate the likelihood of 80 different negative events that might happen to them in the future. So, for example, I might ask you: what is the likelihood that you will suffer hearing loss in your future? And let’s say you think it’s about 50%.
Then, I give you the opinion of two different experts. So, expert A tells you: “You know, for someone like you, I think it’s only 40%.” So, they give you a rosier view of your future. Expert B says: “For someone like you, I actually think it’s about 60%. It’s worse.” So, they give you a bleaker view of your future. What should you do? Well, you shouldn’t change your beliefs, right? Wrong.
What we find is that people tend to change their beliefs towards a more desirable opinion. In other words, people listen to the positive information. This study was conducted on college students, so you might say: “College students are delusional, right? We all know that.” And surely, as we grow older, we grow wiser. So we said: “OK, let’s test that. Does this really generalize? Does it generalize to your kid, to your parent? Does it generalize to your spouse?” We tested people from the age of 10 until the age of 80, and the answer was yes. In all these age groups, people take in information they want to hear — like someone telling you you’re more attractive than you thought — than information that they don’t want to hear. And the ability to learn from good news remained quite stable throughout the life span, but the ability to learn from bad news, that changes as you age.
So, what we found was that kids and teenagers were the worse at learning from bad news, and the ability became better and better as people aged. But then, around the age of 40, around midlife, it started deteriorating again. What this means is that the most vulnerable populations, kids and teenagers on the one hand, and the elderly on the other hand, are the least likely to accurately learn from warnings.
But what you can see here is that it doesn’t matter what age you are, you can be 20, 30, 40, 50 or 60; everyone takes in information they want to hear more than information that they don’t. So, we end up with a view like this of ourselves. Our mistake as teachers, as mentors, as employers is that, instead of working with this positive image that people so effort-fully maintain, we try and put a clear mirror in front of them. We tell them: “You know, the image is just going to get worse and worse and worse.” And it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because the brain will frantically try to distort the image, using Photoshop and fancy lenses, until it gets the image it’s happy with.