• Tel: (403) 705-7734
  • Mail: joni@causeeffect.ca

Changing minds at Yale

Changing minds at Yale

This weekend, the Global Health and Innovation Conference happens at Yale University. I’ll be presenting a session about promoting healthy attitudes and behaviours called Changing Minds. Whether encouraging people to eat better, think differently about pipelines and oil, speak up about depression and mental health, or increase personal savings, we’re all in the same business–the business of changing minds.

Philosopher Herbert Spencer said this: “The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.” This is the crux of the challenge. Humans are complex—and notoriously hard to change. Most of us KNOW that we should eat more vegetables, get regular exercise, and meditate more. But most of us don’t. We keep doing things we KNOW we shouldn’t—and we DON’T do things we KNOW we should. If it’s your job to change attitudes and behaviours—congratulations—you may have one of the most challenging jobs in the history of mankind.

One of the biggest mistakes most persuaders make is that they talk to people’s heads rather than their hearts. They focus on facts, and logic, and knowledge. They problem is that logic makes people think—but emotion makes people act. So in order to change minds we have to also change hearts.

At the conference, I’ll be talking about a campaign called I Believe You that set out to change attitudes about a very challenging topic: sexual assault. We focused on changing the way responders—mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, and family—respond to someone who has been sexually assaulted.

This is a big issue because sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes. In Canada, upwards of 97% of sexual assaults go unreported. Which means survivors don’t get help—and offenders keep offending—an average of six times before they’re caught.

The common theme among survivors is that they don’t tell because they’re not sure how people will respond. Mostly, they’re afraid they won’t be believed. According to our research, they have good reason to be afraid. Most people really don’t know what to say. They’re more likely to ask questions (are you sure, tell me what happened, you should go get help), rather than show empathy and compassion. (I’m sorry that happened, it’s not your fault, and I believe you).

If you want to see a survivor BURST into tears—in a good way—just tell them…I believe you. There is something incredibly powerful about those three words. So we called our campaign I believe you and set out to change people’s minds and hearts about the power of a positive response.

The number of people who would give a positive response to a survivor more than doubled—by over 108 percent—after our 8 week campaign. The number of people who would specifically use the phrase I believe you quadrupled–more than 400%. And the number of survivors who came forward during the campaign went up 53%. These are the results, but how did we achieve them? We did three things.

  • Before we talked, we listened. We wanted to understand what the average person thought about this topic. So we held focus groups. People thought this was a major issue that didn’t get enough attention. They agreed that believing as a first step would help survivors overcome the guilt and shame associated with this crime. They wanted to do something about sexual assault, but didn’t know how. When we explained the power of believing, they said they felt empowered, confident, and capable of being a positive force in the life of a survivor. This was powerful information because it told us what inherently motivated people. Understanding motivation is key—because the desire to act is already there. You just have to tap into it.
  • We modelled the behavior we wanted people to emulate. Social change theory suggests that if you want to change behavior you show the behavior you want people to adopt. When you focus on a negative, you actually reinforce it. With many issues, it’s easy to hook people with anger and fear—or to use images that repulse and shock. We deliberately stayed away from that. Instead, we cast the audience as the hero of the story—and showed them how they could be a positive force in the life of a survivor.
  • We engaged a broad group of people to help us. Twenty-three of twenty-six post-secondaries participated in the campaign. One hundred percent of major news media reported about the campaign. National broadcast media ran the campaign tens of thousands of times as Public Service Announcements. We also engaged social networks. We used Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Thunderclap to spread our message through the Internet—achieving a 1.1 m social reach on Twitter alone. Why did so many people engage? Because it was a big community issue. Because we had high quality creative. And because we spoke to their hearts and not just their heads.

We’re all in the business of changing minds. Countless resources and energy are spent on awareness campaigns with questionable impact. We owe it to our organizations and communities to do more. If we want to change attitudes and behaviours, we need to change hearts as well as minds. That’s the way to ultimately change the world.