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Showing the benefits of protection is important when talking about risk
How do we encourage people to protect themselves against risk? This is an issue that we regularly encounter in a variety of settings. In health there is a range of conditions that have relatively low incidence but the consequences of getting them can be severe. Or in finance we may have a relatively low probability of losing our job but the effects of that would be painful. And as climate change bites then more people may need to consider taking steps to prevent environmental risks such as flooding.
But how do we encourage people to get vaccinated, take out insurance or take steps to protect their houses? All of which are to prevent the likelihood of a low possibility event but one which may well have severe consequences. It is well known that Temporal Discounting indicates we tend to discount future probabilities and focus instead on near term risks; Construal Level Theory suggests psychological distance can impact how people think of events -- when more psychologically distant, making them more abstract rather than concrete and less likely to take tangible steps to act.
So how can we effectively address this? One aspect is to encourage people to understand what the risks are. Showing examples of what can happen by not protecting ourselves helps to increase the salience of the risk, bringing it to our attention but also make it more concrete in our minds. This means we are more likely to focus and take action.
While this ‘set-up’ is a logical and necessary step, we argue it not sufficient as any set-up also requires a resolution. Focusing people on the problem is one side of the equation – what we then do to mitigate it is another. There is a danger that even if the ‘set-up’ works and people recognise the risk, they may not take the action that mitigates it. Part of the reason for this is that by having greater awareness of the risk creates fear which can, at times, lead people to actively ignore it or distract themselves it. While there typically is a call to action in communications about risk, we observe that it can often be quite functional: ‘contact us’, ‘call your doctor’, or ‘visit this website’ are hardly rousing calls to action
More can be done to encourage people to act: a key part of this is helping people to understand how they can feel in the future if they take mitigation steps. With that in mind we can consider the feelings that come with protection and not having to worry about the risks. This ‘peace of mind effect’ is an important one as it then completes the cycle of set-up and resolution. We have used this to good effect on a variety of projects, including recent work on vaccination creative copy.
There are a couple of additional look-outs in executing this. First, it is well known that taking preventive measures is something that tends to need active advocacy or endorsement by a trusted person. People tend to need to sold-to rather than proactively purchasing themselves. We all need assistance to make this happen.
Second, when talking about peace of mind it is easy for the creative execution to get detached from talking about the specific risk – and spin off into more general and abstract notions of freedom and lifestyle. Our take is that the ‘peace of mind’ needs to be firmly related to the protection from the very tangible and specific risk, otherwise it becomes very abstract and starts to lack relevance.
One final consideration is that risk mitigation measures can come with some costs. It may be monetary (purchasing a vaccine or insurance policy) but there could be other cost considerations such as inconvenience or possible side effects. This is certainly a very live issue in the case of vaccination. Interestingly, recently published research suggests that having a very open conversation with people about vaccines about the possible side-effect ‘costs’ did not have a negative effect on intentions to receive one. Indeed, there is some evidence that being transparent in this way actually increases participants’ sense of feeling informed regarding the decision which may well serve to build trust over the longer term.
Helping people to navigate risk effectively is one of our most important tasks: while living with risk is clearly part of everyday life, there are some risks that are well-known and can be easily protected against. It is in these instances that people are often minded to enact protection but fail to take the necessary steps – behavioural science offers some useful opportunities to remedy this.