Why is change so difficult to achieve, even when it seems to be the best solution for a certain problem? We could start by recalling human nature that is usually risk adverse. Probably this derives from our genetic memory going back thousands of years when deviating from a known routine and venturing into the unknown could jeopardize one’s life. Currently, we still tend to be more comfortable with what we know rather than entering uncharted waters. Hesitation and uncertainty that typically accompany changes are also often coupled with a degree of “mental laziness”, as it always takes an extra effort to change old habits in favor of new ones.
Many development managers, and even some professional communicators, tend to think that media and messages can be very effective in promoting change. At the basis of such belief are two basic assumptions 1) the power of media and 2) the over-rated belief that human beings act rationally. I tend to disagree with both assumptions. Media are certainly powerful in “framing” issues and ways of thinking, but not in bringing changes in behaviours. I also fail to see humans as fundamentally rational beings and I concur with my high school philosophy professor who used to say “there is nothing more irrational than to think that humans are rational beings.” Or maybe they could be defined as rational, if rational can be considered to be something in the best interest of each individual. But if different individually-based rational behaviours are not complementary with each other, or, even worse, conflict with each, how can they still be considered rational?
For example, at the onset of the current housing market collapse in several countries, a few homeowners started to default on their mortgage payments and a few others started to sell their houses, bringing down the prices. It became clear that the housing market would take a hit and that individuals had to sell as soon as possible to minimize their losses. But if that made sense at an individual level, it could hardly be considered rational behavior at a collective level, since it would further worsen the housing crisis, causing even further losses many homeowners.
The acknowledgment that human behaviours cannot always be considered rational helps to take into account a broader range of possible motivations and appeals, thus designing more effective communication strategies and messages. It is not enough to design messages appealing to the rational side of the mind, as it is often done when disseminating factual information. Even when they are effectively crafted and packaged in the appropriate media and they reach the intended audiences, such messages might not achieve the intended change. For example, if we know that poor hygiene causes many diseases and that by washing hands we can eliminate at least 50% of such illnesses we should not assume that simply passing this information through nicely packaged messages would be enough to have audiences adopt safe practices. If that was indeed enough to achieve change we should wonder why after 30 years of message bombardment very little has changed in term of key behaviours in water and sanitation (as well as in other areas). The reason for this is what I have been discussing above, plus a few other factors which I intend to discuss in my next posting.
Photo Credit: Flickr user David Reese