Posted: March 31, 2012
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Article SummaryThe audience of precaution advocacy messages is quite likely to be apathetic, to find the information (safety information, for example) boring. This column outlines the only four ways I know to get people to learn risk information or any information. The first answer, learning without involvement, requires more budget than precaution advocacy campaigns usually have. The second answer, interest/entertainment, is also tough to achieve, though it’s always worth trying. So the column focuses mostly on the remaining two options. Giving people a “need to know,” such as a pending decision that requires the information, is a powerful tool of precaution advocacy. Also powerful, and psychologically much more complex, is getting people to see the information as ammunition – for example, motivating them to do something they’ve never done before, and then offering the information as a rationale that helps them makes sense of the new behavior.

Motivating Attention: Why People Learn about Risk … or Anything Else

This is the 24th in a series of risk communication columns I have been asked to write for The Synergist, the journal of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The columns appear both in the journal and on this website. This one can be found (edited somewhat for length and copyediting details) in the April 2012 issue of The Synergist, pp. 20–21.

Face it: A lot of risk information is boring. And safety information can be more boring still. “Seven things to check before you walk down stairs”? Give me a break!

Probably that’s not how you feel; risk and safety are what you do. And that’s not how anyone feels during a crisis, when the risk is keenly feared and safety desperately sought. But for normal people in normal times, risk and safety information is pretty boring.

To transmit boring information effectively, you need to overcome the boredom. That’s the most difficult part of what I call “precaution advocacy” – alerting apathetic people to serious risks and getting them to protect themselves appropriately. (When you’re trying to reassure over-alarmed people about small risks, you have the opposite problem: inducing boredom.)

So how do you overcome boredom? How do you get people to learn risk information – or any information? I know of only four answers.

Learning without Involvement

The average television viewer pays little attention to the commercials, but nevertheless knows dozens of advertising jingles by heart. That’s learning without involvement. Even if you’re not listening, if you hear something enough times, it starts to stick.

Making messages sticky isn’t the same thing as making them interesting. A catchy ad jingle, for example, sticks in your mind without necessarily arousing your interest. Some messages actually work better if you’re not paying too much attention; they sneak past your cognitive defenses.

Unfortunately, learning without involvement requires a lot of repetition, preferably verbatim repetition. And repetition requires a hefty budget. Even if you run a weekly employee safety meeting, you’re not likely to achieve the level of repetition that advertisers consider essential.

Learning without involvement works, but you probably can’t afford it.


You’re channel surfing on the TV when you come across a documentary on the sex life of the rhinoceros. This is not information you actually have much use for, but it’s interesting. And it’s entertaining. So you stop and watch for a while.

If you can arouse people’s interest or entertain them, you’ll get their attention … and then you won’t need so much repetition. You can overcome boredom by saying something that isn’t boring.

It’s best if you can make the risk information you’re actually trying to impart interesting or entertaining in its own right. If that seems an impossible dream, the fallback strategy is to add interesting/entertaining irrelevancies. Maybe a thirty-second riddle or joke can keep everyone awake for an extra three minutes – giving you 2½ minutes more to talk about risk and safety.

Although I have lumped “interesting” and “entertaining” together, interesting is better. You want your audience in a frame of mind to learn, not to relax and have fun. (Advertisers, on the other hand, often prefer entertaining, which is more conducive to learning without involvement.) But entertaining is usually easier than interesting to achieve. Children are endlessly curious about the world, and thus easy to interest. Most adults are looking for distraction and want to be entertained instead.

Over the long haul, it’s hard to make risk and safety information interesting enough or entertaining enough. But it’s always worth the effort to try.

Need to Know

When I was in high school, I was amazed that some of my fellow students found A Tale of Two Cities tough going, even though they were perfectly capable of wading through a dense article in Hot Rod on how to adjust your sparkplugs for a fast start on a rainy morning. By most standards of readability, Dickens is easier going than Hot Rod. So why did these classmates find Dickens impenetrable and Hot Rod accessible? Because they had no use for English lit or the French revolution, but they really, really wanted to win Saturday’s race.

Our teachers were convinced that studying A Tale of Two Cities would benefit us in the end. But they failed to convince many of my classmates, who were busy learning what they thought was useful instead.

A reason to learn leads to information-seeking, and it’s easy to deliver information to people who are actively seeking it. That’s why I advise my precaution advocacy clients to focus less on delivering the information, and more on motivating their audience to want to receive it.

Perhaps the most powerful motivation to acquire information is a pending decision that requires the information.

Decades ago, public relations expert James E. Grunig developed his “situational theory of publics.” He identified three factors that determine how much information-seeking people do and how much information they’re likely to acquire:

  • Problem recognition – to what extent do they feel that they face a problem that needs solving?
  • Constraint recognition – to what extent do they feel that various constraints will keep the information from really helping them make progress on the problem?
  • Level of involvement – how much do they care; is solving the problem emotionally relevant?

Instead of explaining a safety procedure yet again, or even explaining it better, it will usually pay more dividends to work on increasing people’s sense that they’ve got a safety problem, decreasing their sense that they’re not going to be able to get it solved, and increasing their commitment to solving it. Make sure they must make a decision, feel capable of implementing it, and care about making it wisely. Then organize your information so it helps them make their decision.

It follows that empowering people helps you educate them. The more control we have over a situation, the more we want to learn how best to manage it. If the decision is in your hands, not mine, why should I bother to learn about the problem?

Crisis situations naturally motivate huge amounts of information-seeking, because both problem recognition and level of involvement are going through the roof. Sometimes, in fact, the level of involvement can be too high; while stress makes people more desperate to learn, it can also make it harder for them to learn. Still, patients contemplating surgery often spend hours on the Web trying to master the pros and cons of various options. They’re certainly not bored!

Even a comparatively low-involvement “need to know” can help motivate people to learn. Students learn what’s going to be on the test more readily than what isn’t – even if the test doesn’t count much. Similarly, imagine telling your audience that there will be a short multiple-choice quiz at the end of your presentation. Assume you have stressed that nobody’s going to get a grade, that it’ll be an anonymous show of hands, that you’re testing what you managed to teach, not what they managed to learn. Despite all that, people will listen harder when they know they’re going to be asked what they learned.

People will also listen harder when they know they’re going to be asked what they think about what they learned. I remember chairing a large, contentious meeting. I asked the audience to sit according to their opinions – proponents on one side, opponents on the other, and undecideds in the middle. Periodically I asked everyone to consider whether or not his/her opinion had changed any, and if so to change seats as appropriate. There wasn’t a lot of seat-changing, but there did seem to be more attention and more learning than usual at such meetings. People had to keep deciding whether they were still in the right seat.


Psychologist Leon Festinger’s “theory of cognitive dissonance” argues that a great deal of learning is motivated by the search for ammunition to reduce the discomfort (or “dissonance”) that people feel when they have done something or decided something they’re not confident was wise.

A classic cognitive dissonance study examined people’s information-seeking before and after buying a car. The researchers concluded that most people read more car-related information the week after their purchase decision than the week before. But what they read changes. Before deciding which car to buy, you’re in need-to-know territory, trying to assess the pros and cons of the models you’re considering. But after you make up your mind, your information-seeking becomes more biased: You’re looking for evidence that you bought the right car. Smart car dealers give purchasers a lot of literature (including a lengthy owner’s manual) to help them reduce their cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance explains why it’s easier to get people to sign a petition (to be courteous) and then read your literature (to validate their decision to sign) than the other way round. It explains why a lot of persuasion theory is grounded in various “foot in the door” strategies. The key is to get an initial behavioral commitment – no matter how casually or irrationally motivated – and then rely on cognitive dissonance (“what did I do that for?”) to motivate information-seeking that will make sense of the initial behavior and thus make it more sustainable, repeatable, and generalizable.

Activists often make excellent use of cognitive dissonance to launch their precaution advocacy strategies. It’s a three-step process:

  • An irrelevant and intellectually unconvincing motivator to trigger a new behavior.
  • Cognitive dissonance aroused by not knowing any good reasons for the behavior.
  • Information to rationalize and generalize the behavior.

It’s crucial to get the new behavior before you start laying on information, so people experience your information as supportive of their new behavior, rather than as hostile to their old behavior. When activists skip directly to the information step, they’re often ignored. Or worse: Instead of reducing cognitive dissonance arising from the new behavior, the information may arouse cognitive dissonance about the old behavior … leading people to look for evidence that their old behavior was right and your contrary information is wrong. That’s why it doesn’t work when environmentalists to try to harangue or guilt-trip people into reducing their carbon footprints.

Industrial hygienists, too, could make a lot better use of cognitive dissonance than they do today. If you can get people to where they’re trying to convince themselves that you’re right, they’ll see your safety message as useful ammunition, and they’ll listen a lot better.

People also have use for ammunition in their arguments with others. If I already believe X firmly – no cognitive dissonance – I may not need to pay so much attention to the arguments on behalf of X. You’re preaching to the converted. But if my coworker or my spouse disagrees, then I have a good reason to collect pro-X ammunition.

Better still, ask me to explain X to a bunch of newcomers tomorrow, and I’ll pay extremely close attention to your explanation today.

It’s worth outlining the counterintuitive impact of ammunition on attention:

  • If I’m neutral and uninterested, I won’t pay attention because your message is boring.
  • If I disagree with you, I really won’t pay attention because your message will arouse cognitive dissonance.
  • If I firmly agree with you, I’m happy to pay attention but don’t really need to; you’re preaching to the converted.
  • If I tentatively agree with you – if I have made a behavioral commitment to your position but I’m not sure it was wise – I’ll pay close attention in order to collect ammunition to reduce my cognitive dissonance.
  • If I need to explain your position to others (especially if they disagree), I’ll pay close attention in order to collect ammunition to persuade them.

Bottom Line

I sometimes claim that these four factors – learning without involvement, interest/entertainment, need to know, and ammunition – are the only reasons why anybody ever learns anything. I’m not sure that’s true. I’d be more than happy to expand the list.

This is the bottom line: Whenever you want to teach people something, first ask yourself what reasons they have to want to learn it. Then, if those reasons aren’t very impressive, work on giving them better reasons.

Motivating attention isn’t the whole job. You also need to get the information out there; you need to make it understandable. But the most crucial task in precaution advocacy is also the most neglected: motivating the audience to want to learn.

Copyright © 2012 by Peter M. Sandman

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