You won't believe it, but you're wrong

Chris Graves, chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations, sets the stage for his monthly column with a plea that communications professionals learn some behavioural science.

Christopher Graves, global chairman, Ogilvy Public Relations
Christopher Graves, global chairman, Ogilvy Public Relations

We marketing and communications professionals suffer from behavioural science illiteracy. That means we risk crafting big, creative ideas that end up completely ineffective.

The late, brilliant author and academic Russell Ackoff warned: "The more efficient you are at doing the wrong thing, the wronger you become. It is much better to do the right thing wronger than the wrong thing righter."

Here’s one quick example: Imagine your client is under attack and you need to change perceptions of your client, their corporate image or brand reputation. Let’s say the attackers are either wrong, or harbour outdated perceptions. How do you respond? If you choose a classic ‘myths vs. facts’ campaign, you will probably lose. First, behavioural scientists have proven that showing people facts and evidence that their views are ‘wrong’ actually triggers the ‘backfire effect’ and they cling to their wrong beliefs with more ferocity. And some, who were not even familiar with the issue, actually adopt some of the myths as plausible.

Most humans suffer from confirmation bias, meaning we only accept evidence that confirms what we already believe. Researchers from Charles Lord to Drew Westen have shown that when people are faced with evidence they may be wrong, they fight back against the attacks on their belief. But there is hope. Brain scans show that while rationality plays no part in this, emotion and identity do.

Narrative theory experts such as Melanie Green and Raymond Mar, have discovered that we can move people through an immersive, emotionally-bonding story about someone else struggling with the issue and finally changing their mind, this triggers empathy and renders the situation less confrontational. And it makes no difference if the story is fact or fiction.

Christopher Graves is the global chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations, chair of the PR Council and a trustee of the Institute for PR. His monthly column appears in Campaign Asia-Pacific.

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