It’s Almost Impossible to Convince People They’re Wrong

havells-donato-coffee-maker-medium_ecb222da030f33ad5cd34b39cc82d77bThe Havell’s coffee maker add and mHealth successes are just two examples of how it’s so much easier to introduce a new product, service or information if it ties in with the target audience’s aspirations.


The human tendency towards willful ignorance is not a new discovery. This has often been observed (in more friendly terms) in public health practice – whereby people cling to incorrect information and unhelpful practices about vaccination, climate change or the economic benefit of large families. How do you work against this to deliver new information, new practices or new products that could save lives?


In a recent New Yorker article (worth reading the full-version here), Maria Konnikova has an interesting piece on the science of correcting people’s erroneous beliefs. A study from 2013 gave people incorrect information, and then provided correct information right away. It found the only people willing to change their beliefs were ideologically predisposed to do so. If people had a contrary belief, they distrusted the new source.


If information doesn’t square with someone’s prior beliefs, he discards the beliefs if they’re weak and discards the information if the beliefs are strong.”


The research found that false beliefs are closely tied to people’s self-identity and aspirations: what kind of person I am and what kind of person do I want to be?


“It’s only after ideology is put to the side that a message itself can change, so that it becomes decoupled from notions of self-perception.”


This doesn’t lead us to a dead-end. People are more open minded to changing their beliefs if it is preceded by “self-affirmation”. Somehow a general reflection on happy and positive memories makes people more open to accurate information.


Maria Konnikova points that these findings are hard to put into practice, it’s difficult to get people to reflect on happy moments in their lives and then provide information on vaccines (for example).


However, I don’t think it’s that hard – certainly the advertising industry are very good at it. For example, recent adds for kitchen appliances from Havell’s tie in very nicely to women’s aspirational self-perceptions (I don’t understand Hindi well, but it’s still great to watch!)



misinformation-580This lends itself to the general maxim that any new information or innovation should be sure to tie in with people’s aspirations.


This is well understood in the area of new technologies and health, where the uptake of mHealth has a lot to do with it’s link to health worker aspirations, rather than a massive improvement in health outcomes (on which results are still pending). Mobile-phones increase the status and respect given to front-line health workers, making them enthusiastic participants in mHealth interventions. I have observed this with two BMGF funded interventions; CARE’s Continuum of Care Services application, and BBC Media Action’s Mobile Kunji intervention.


The Havell’s coffee maker ad and mHealth successes are just two examples of how it’s so much easier to introduce a new product, service or information if it ties in with the target audience’s aspirations.





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  1. Jeroen
    Posted May 24, 2014 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Hi Anna,
    Not sure what you mean by vaccinations, as some countries over vaccinate and we need to convince people to let children have some diseases as a child to fine tune the immune system. But interesting article and I think you are right. I wonder what aspiration we can use in the climate change area.

  2. Richard Schurmann
    Posted June 1, 2014 at 5:01 am | Permalink

    Jeroen seems to be on the wrong track. I don’t think that he understands what an inoculant is. The WHOLE idea of immunization is that the benefits that he cites are obtained without the risks of the disease. There is no further beneficial “fine tuning” of the immune system to be had by experiencing the horrors of the disease.
    How do you take into account the aspirations of your subject when you are dealing with a climate change denier?

  3. Sophie
    Posted June 1, 2014 at 6:57 pm | Permalink – measles stats from the WHO. Why would anyone want a child to have a dangerous disease when there is a safe and effective vaccine? Or claim that it is harmless? 122,000 children too many died needlessly in 2012! I have had this discussion too many times with anti vaxxers and there is no convincing them 🙁

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