Busting some myths: why myth busting doesn’t work

Whenever we hold a brainstorm to find ways to talk to people about welfare the most common idea that comes up is ‘why don’t we just present the truth about benefits?’ In theory this makes perfect sense; once presented with the facts people will simply see the light and revise their view of welfare recipients.

If only it was that straight forward.

The truth about myth busting, as we like to call it, is that people simply do not act rationally; they do not ponder the facts and revise their view accordingly. This is because the vast majority of people are led by the automatic, irrational, emotional side of their brain; in behaviour change theory this is called ‘system one’.

The reflective, rational, logical side of the brain is referred to as ‘system two’ and is much smaller than the automatic side. In other words, humans are built for action rather than thought. Or to put it another way, the more people have to think about something the less impact it has.

One of the key lessons we’ve learnt from recent seismic events is, if you find the right message, system one can be easily engaged to override system two.

Don’t get me wrong, facts and stats have their place. They work really well for people already bought in to your mission and values, such as supporters, who want to know the detail and rational policy solutions.

Stats can even work for politically salient audiences as a way of amplifying emotional triggers. For example, in our General Election campaign we used stats showing house price increases in a local area combined with the emotional trigger of the impact these increases will have on future generations. This was part of a wider campaign that saw housing shoot up the agenda as voters connected house price increase with the emotional driver of their children missing out on homeownership.

But when talking about trickier, more emotive subjects like welfare for example – where language used in the media, such as ‘scrounger’ and ‘benefits cheat’, has created a heuristic short cut that elicits an immediate negative emotional response – no rational clarification, for example that the level of fraud is actually quite small, will cut the mustard.

I’ve written before about the need to understand the world from the viewpoint of people who aren’t necessarily touched by issues in the same way as us and our clients. Similarly, the vast majority of people will not engage with facts and stats – no matter which side of the political spectrum they come from. And as a result we need to adapt our approach and understand how to engage with people’s system one.

In the case of welfare, along with a number of other sensitive issues, emotive headlines that appeal to the automatic side of the brain will always win out over a well-reasoned fact based headline. This creates a bias which confirms people’s perceived truth i.e. they feel there is a lot of abuse in the system even when in reality there isn’t. Whenever the media talk about ‘scroungers’ it creates a simple short cut that confirms this truth.

Furthermore, as soon as we present the statistical evidence to prove the headline writers wrong we find that people’s system one takes over – it’s not even a conscious thing, as its name suggests the automatic side of the brain is subconscious by nature.

The natural human inclination, when someone tells you you’re wrong when you believe you are right, is to defend your truth no matter what. This urge to dig one’s heels in, can in fact be made even worse when someone thrusts back with a stat. How many times have you thought or heard someone say: ‘Well you would say that wouldn’t you’; or ‘I don’t believe that’s the true number’; or ‘you can’t trust statistics’; or, a straightforward ‘that’s a lie’.

People’s perception of truth is their reality and not a myth to be busted – it’s as simple as that – and to argue against that reality is both futile and counter-productive. In fact, it can be downright self-defeating.

This is highlighted by our campaign to take the sting out of the public debate around welfare. We’ve held quite a few focus groups on attitudes towards benefits and this comes up every time.

When asked to come up with a phrase that sums up welfare some people will measure the social proof, weighing up the acceptable thing to say, and politely suggest things like ‘it’s a helping hand’, ‘support’ etc. Some will even try and make a rational case, but ultimately – especially in a group dynamic – the majority of people will override this rational side with the easy, automatic heuristic that chimes with their truth. As soon as one person says something like ‘abuse’, ‘scroungers’, ‘cheats’, ‘the system is broken’ it gives everyone permission to do the same, and then the floodgates open.

Working in the charity sector there’s a danger you only speak to very similar people and therefore respond with arguments or campaigns that only speak to them.

If you want to shift attitudes beyond your supporter base it’s important to understand views outside your bubble – no matter how uncomfortable – and, importantly, the emotional, irrational, system one that drives attitudes and behaviours. Confronting people and telling them they are wrong on some issues isn’t going to work, but telling people they are right is obviously just as problematic. That is why you have to find a middle ground.

I will talk, in a future blog, about how we’ve tackled this in our campaign to take the sting out of the public debate on welfare. But one key lesson for us, at the centre of our planning, is to understand the drivers for people’s beliefs and behaviours. Understanding the world from every perspective is essential in creating authentic, emotionally engaging content that is effective in shifting attitudes.