Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance: Why Graphic Anti-Smoking Ads Are Not Only Disturbing, But Ineffective

I don't know if it's only the New York metro area that has these PSA commercials: An older man is shown gasping for breath as an on-screen message warns about the dangers of emphysema. The NYC Quits initiative has several other unsettling PSAs about the effects of smoking, but this one is particularly disturbing to me. If I am watching the TV while doing something else, I am always snapped out of it when I hear what sounds like someone in the middle of a slow, horrible death. I am not a smoker and it makes me feel absolutely terrible inside. I sincerely wish that this well-meaning organization would consider the well-being of everyone in their vicinity and not bombard us with such graphic depictions of suffering. I do know smokers, whom I have no control of, and I do not wish to be reminded of their miserable, likely future.

But for the record, these commercials will not have the intended effect. The New York government obviously did not consult with psychologists before broadcasting these messages, because they have been shown to be counterproductive to such causes. (Perhaps they consulted with the tobacco companies instead, who are well aware of this effect when they generously fund "anti-smoking" ads.) Cognitive dissonance is a well-established concept in psychology. It's really just a fancy phrase for any discrepancy between reality and what we want to believe. Basically, it causes extreme anxiety and people will go to great lengths to get rid of that feeling.

You would expect that to be good for fear-based messages, right? Well, not exactly. If you think about it, it's much easier to change our beliefs than to change reality (i.e. our behavior). People are not inclined to make changes in their lives, so instead they just convince themselves that their behavior is acceptable. This leads to two possible less ideal effects of messages trying to scare us into new behaviors, in this case smoking:

The smoker completely physically turns off the message or mentally tunes it out. The easiest thing to do is simply not to listen. Most smokers probably change the channel every time that commercial comes on. They may also focus their attention on something else, or retire into their minds. To them, there is little benefit in viewing such images and a lot of costs. They are avoiding the anxiety of cognitive dissonance.

After viewing the message, the smoker makes up excuses why smoking is still okay and the message is not credible. Once the damage of the message has been done and cognitive dissonance established, people will go to great lengths to rationalize their behavior so they don't have to change it. They may discredit the message: That scene was exaggerated and no one suffers THAT much; they must have ulterior motives; they are not scientists. Or they may downplay the importance of the facts: There will be a cure by the time I'm old enough to get that sick; my grandfather smoked his whole life and he's 105 years old. Of course, the bottom line is that smoking often leads to disease and suffering, and it only makes sense not to do it. But people who don't want to change can come up with rationalizations against even the most obvious facts.

So is there a solution? Yes. Research has shown that if we offer messages that only induce moderate levels of fear and offer easy steps to take action, people will be a bit more willing to consider the messages and possibly make changes. At least NYC Quits is offering free resources for quitting. But they really need to tone down their message. It would be much more effective if the man was maybe lying in a hospital bed talking to us about his disease, or maybe if the commercial was at someone's funeral rather than in the middle of their bitter death.

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