by Michelle Guillemard
As health writers and communicators, we often write content designed to change behaviours and perceptions in order to create better health outcomes.
And, in the process, we may need to debunk a myth or two.
That’s why it’s increasingly important for us to know the most effective tactics that help to correct misinformation in order to inspire behaviour change.
When I was collecting information for my Introduction To Health Writing course, I decided to explore this idea in more detail.
During my research, I came across a powerful article in the Washington Post about why some forms of debunking don’t work.
The author, Emily Thorson – who’s an assistant professor of political science at Boston College – argued, “even successfully corrected misinformation creates belief echoes: effects on attitudes that persist even when you know that a piece of information is false.”
A great deal of research has examined how and why people refuse to accept corrections, she wrote.
One piece of research, published in 2012 in the journal Psychological Science In The Public Interest, explored misinformation and its correction.
A group of researchers from the University of Western Australia’s School of Psychology reviewed the cognitive factors that often render misinformation resistant to correction.
The research team concluded using repeated retractions to reduce the influence of misinformation risks a “backfire effect”.
They also argued this backfire effect increases when the original misinformation is repeated in retractions, because it becomes more familiar.
But while belief echoes and the familiarity of repeated information can hinder debunking efforts, readers can also choose not to accept corrections because of their own cognitive biases.
“When it comes to politics, most people tend to engage in a process called “motivated reasoning,” meaning that their existing attitudes (for example, their partisanship) affect what facts they choose to believe and which arguments they find convincing,” Thorson wrote.
She also explained how motivated reasoning is part of why many people incorrectly think vaccines cause autism, among other things.
Belief echoes and motivated reasoning. These two notions definitely help to explain why it can be so challenging to debunk a myth in order to change an ingrained perception.
So, if we do want to debunk a myth or change an unhealthy behaviour, what can we do?
Debunking isn’t just about clarifying misinformation and setting the record straight – it’s about the end goal, which is to change reader perceptions and behaviours.
This is something that’s incredibly challenging to do when it comes to vaccination, diets – and, yes, even politics.
We know that simply stating the facts in order to debunk a myth doesn’t change behaviours. (Neither does ranting, insulting, or mocking – yet unfortunately we see these behaviours time and time again in the online world. Unfortunately, the science community seem to be the perpetrators a lot of the time.)
An enormous amount of research is conducted in areas like heart health and weight loss – resulting in the seemingly obvious conclusions that a healthy diet and exercise go a long way in preventing many lifestyle-related illnesses.
Yet it’s so hard for many to make these simple choices of eating healthy food and exercising. Preventable lifestyle diseases are the top killers in the Western world.
If debunking myths and changing behaviours was as simple as stating facts, our world would be a much healthier, happier place.
In fact, it’s far more complex than that.
Behaviour change starts with understanding your reader, showing empathy, and drawing on the power of positivity.
And an important part of this is about understanding your reader in order to explain the ‘why’.
Writing for the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences Foundation, Suzanne Bouffard highlighted how research suggests people need a causal explanation of why a previously-held belief is inaccurate, or of why the competing factual information is true.
“When people read such an explanation, they are more likely to believe and retain the correct information and to remember it a month later,” she wrote, citing vaccinations and autism as a prime example.
Explaining the ‘why’ shows an understanding of, and an empathy with, your audience – but there are other techniques that are thought to be highly effective when it comes to debunking myths.
What else helps to debunk myths?
The Western Australian researchers found a number of effective techniques for reducing the impact of misinformation, and they provided a list of recommendations in their article.
Here’s what they advised health professionals to consider – and be aware of:
- Consider which gaps in people’s mental event models are created by debunking and fill them using an alternative explanation
- You could use repeated retractions to reduce the influence of misinformation – but be aware of the backfire effect
- On that note, emphasise the facts you want to communicate and NOT the myth
- You could also provide ‘an explicit warning’ before mentioning a myth – this helps to ensure readers are cognitively ‘on guard’ and therefore perhaps they’ll be less likely to be influenced by misinformation
- Keep your writing simple and brief – use clear language and visual support
- If the myth is simpler and more compelling than your debunking, it is ‘cognitively more attractive’ – and, you’ll risk that backfire effect again
- Ask yourself if your content is threatening to the worldview and values of your readers – the stronger your readers’ beliefs, the harder it is to change their behaviours
- The most receptive readers are those who don’t have strong fixed views
- Reduce any potential ‘threatening to the audience’s worldview’ by writing in a ‘worldview-affirming manner’ – be positive, focus on opportunities and benefits and not risks or threats, and encourage self-affirmation
Writing in The Conversation, Climate Communication Research Fellow John Cook, from The University of Queensland, also looked at how to debunk a myth effectively.
He highlighted two contrasting case studies in debunking climate myths.
“One adopted a top-down approach, attempting to reach the public through scholarly research and mainstream media,” he wrote. “The other took a bottom-up approach, raising awareness through a widget embedded on a wide range of blogs. Both were conceived as slow burn communication, with both achieving long-term impact.”
Including these best practice-tips in your writing should help to slowly encourage behaviour change in your readers.
Think about the way you communicate with your audience currently. What can you do better? What can you do more of, or less of?
If you work mainly on social media, it’s hard to do all of those things at once when you have limited space and restricted word limits.
Start slowly, and experiment with your audience.
Engage with your readers, take the time to understand where they’re coming from, and lean why they have such strong beliefs. Listen before speaking, in other words.
Read more about debunking here:
Want to learn more about clear, effective health & science writing?
Check out my 4-week online course, Simple Health & Science Writing.