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Home » Get What You Want Without Threats: Tali Sharot at TEDxCambridge (Transcript)

Get What You Want Without Threats: Tali Sharot at TEDxCambridge (Transcript)

Tali Sharot

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.

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