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Does Raising Awareness Change Behavior?

Awareness campaigns are everywhere, but they may not always be so effective

Whatever month it is now, you’re sure to be surrounded by a number of “awareness” campaigns. How do you get people to take action on a cause? The common response is usually to start by raising awareness. How can people act on something without knowing it’s a problem? The assumption is that once people know what the problem is, they will be motivated to behave in a way that mitigates the problem.

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A few months ago, there was a great article on this topic in Stanford Social Innovation Review. Entitled “Stop Raising Awareness Already,” it almost felt blasphemous to tell people to stop doing something that seems harmless and mostly charitable. The article focused on the flawed logic at the center of awareness campaigns - that is, the notion that changes in knowledge automatically produce changes in behavior. This assumption is of course too neat and simplistic considering the irrational and messy way in which most people really make decisions about how to behave. Not surprising, then, that simply raising awareness may be a part of the equation but is clearly not the entire answer to effecting real, widespread change in attitudes and especially behaviors.

Not only can awareness-raising be ineffective, we’ve written previously and spoken extensively about the ways in which attempts to increase knowledge can backfire. Often dubbed the “backfire effect,” researchers have found that in situations with extremely polarized viewpoints, simply approaching people with knowledge campaigns alone can lead to further entrenchment in previously-held views. In these cases, we can safely assume that we are solving for the wrong problem - people are not accidentally uninformed but rather motivated to ignore evidence that goes against a view that they want to hold, usually to fulfill a sense of identity or to help them fit into a group.

But there’s another way that awareness can cause harm. In certain instances, awareness campaigns can normalize the very behaviors that we’re trying to quell. This is particularly true when we’re dealing with adolescent populations, given teenagers’ strong desire to “fit in” with a perceived group norm. This leads us to a very important, but perhaps someone counterintuitive, question: Is there such a thing as too much awareness?

When Awareness Campaigns Lead to Harmful Behaviors

When we think about the most prominent and well-known examples of teen-facing awareness campaigns, we tend to think about entities like D.A.R.E and other similar campaigns and slogans like “just say no.” These programs tend to use scare tactics to alarm young people about the dangers of doing drugs. They also tend to focus a lot of time and energy on teaching adolescents how to resist peer pressure.

It’s become fairly clear that “just say no” and D.A.R.E.-type approaches to substance abuse don’t work very well. But beyond this finding of inefficacy, there’s another problem: the focus on sounding alarm bells about the serious, supposedly highly prevalent issue of substance abuse and on resisting peer pressure actually contributes to the well-known fact that teens tend to overestimate the extent to which their peers are using dangerous substances such as drugs and alcohol. In fact, teens tend to overestimate the prevalence of all kinds of bad behaviors among their peers, including substance abuse and unsafe sexual activity.

Rather than scaring them straight, these campaigns feed into such overestimation and actually push teens toward the same bad behaviors that programs like D.A.R.E. try to avert. This is because no matter whether the behavior is desirable or not, it is a common human phenomenon that we tend to fall in line with whatever attitudes and behaviors we perceive to be most common, even if they are not in fact that common. This tendency is equally true for both adults and teens, but it is especially prevalent among teenagers, who are particularly motivated by wanting to fit in.

Extensive focus on raising awareness about substance abuse among teens can lead to a perception that this is in fact an absolutely rampant in that population. It leads to a situation in which teens perceive that all of their friends are abusing substances when in fact this is a misperception and vast overestimation. Even as the program tries to explain to teens that the fallout from substance abuse is serious and harmful, it may actually be inadvertently encouraging more teens to consider using harmful substances simply as a by-product of representing the issue as something that has reached urgent crisis levels, which leads teens to believe that the behavior is much more common than it is. In these cases, it’s safe to say that there may be “too much awareness.”

A Better Path Forward

This does not of course mean that we should simply give up on trying to steer adolescents toward better behavior. It just means that our approach needs to be different when it comes to certain topics. In the case of preventing substance abuse, for example, there’s another way to go about one that requires focusing on the long-term game. Rather than emphasizing the behavior we’re trying to prevent, we need to spend more time understanding and fostering protective factors.

This means helping young people develop strong coping skills from a young age and reinforcing this consistently both at home and in school. It also means fostering environments in which young people feel heard, understood, and, most importantly, highly socially connected. And it means ensuring that all young people have at least one trusted adult to go to when they need more help. While none of these protective factors are elements of a young adult’s environment that can be fabricated overnight, they are some of the most effective tools we have to ensure positive outcomes for teens and young adults everywhere.

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