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Myth debunking is counterproductive

By on February 24, 2015

Yesterday we posted about the psychology of vaccination, in particular the mindset of parents considering the pros and cons of vaccinating their children. Today we follow up with a fascinating research article that suggests the more you try to convince someone not to be vaccinated (or have their children vaccinated) the more they are likely to hold on to their prior position.

This is based on a psychological principle called ‘motivational reasoning’. Motivational reasoning says that human beings find reasons to support their beliefs rather than basing their beliefs on rational reasons. So that if I believe I shouldn’t get a vaccination, based on reasons X, Y and Z, and someone proves to me that Z is not true, then I will simply replace reason Z with reasons A, B and C and become even more convinced that I should not get the vaccination.

This principle has HUGE implications for us as change-workers. Simply debunking our client’s beliefs as to why they can’t change, or why they are stuck in their problem, we may simply encourage them to find more reasons to not change.

And there is a better way. If we ask a client to first mark their position in the sand, then it becomes much easier to use belief changes to loosen their problem. If the client is forced to say that their problem is indeed based in a certain belief, then reversing that belief pretty much forces them to concede that their problem has also changed. After all, nobody likes to admit that their position is and has been untenable.

Let’s take an example. You have a client with a fear of speaking in public. When you ask them how they know it’s time to have this fear they tell you that they fear being judged. You ask them, “So if you knew you were not being judged, you wouldn’t have that fear?” If they say yes, and you subsequently change their view that they are being judged, then they are more likely to accept the change.

However if you don’t get them to ‘buy-in’ to their position then they may change their position and say something like, “Oh no, it’s not that I feel judged, it’s that I’m not sure I know my material…” Their problem stays the same, but their reasoning for having the problem changes. Motivational reasoning at work!

Here’s an article discussing motivational reasoning in the context of vaccination.

Nearly half of the US population wrongly believes the flu vaccine can give you flu, but correcting this error has the opposite of the desired effect. According to a new study, 43 per cent of the US population wrongly believes that the flu vaccine can give you flu. BPS Research Digest

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