Persuasive statistics: How to shock people into changing their behaviour

broadcast media

Statistics can be a great way to shock people into changing behaviour. But if handled incorrectly, they can also make people less likely to bother. Welcome to the precarious world of social proof.

The perils of ‘negative social proof’

There’s a TV campaign currently running in Victoria for WorkSafe. Beautifully filmed, the series of ads follow various healthcare workers — a paramedic and nurse among them — as they carry out their normal work duties, only to be assaulted by those whom they are helping.

The alarming statistic that concludes each ad is that 95% of healthcare workers have experienced verbal or physical assault (image one in the figure below).

While I understand the point they are trying to make — that violence is unacceptable — my concern is it may inadvertently normalise the very behaviour they are trying to curtail.


It has to do with ‘social proof’, the principle that people are persuaded by what other’s do.

Regardless if it’s good or bad, we tend to follow the norm. When the statistic or claim inadvertently works against the objective of attracting people to what you want them to do, we call this ‘negative social proof’.

For instance, telling Australians that 97% of us don’t eat enough vegetables (image two) reinforces it is normal not to bother. Likewise, letting us know 95% of people don’t wash their hands properly (figure three) and only 31% of us protect our income with insurance (image four), means we can feel more at ease with our neglect rather than less.

It’s not just percentages either. Image five is trying to motivate parents to give their adult children a subscription to Business Week so they can get savvy and afford to leave home. The problem, though, is they are normalising the issue of 18-34-year-olds staying at home by stating 22 million are doing exactly that.

Key takeaway

If you are considering using a statistic, make sure it normalises desirable rather than undesirable behaviour. People will feel comforted if they don’t think anyone else is bothering to do what you are asking, so to stimulate a desire to change, make them feel they are in the margins instead.

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