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Awareness alone not enough to change health attitudes

Oliver Baumann

Public health campaigns that simply provide information or drive awareness may not be effective in changing attitudes towards health issues, according to new research from Bond University. 

Assistant Professor of Psychology Dr Oliver Baumann said two recent studies demonstrated more personalised and targeted communications with individuals and small groups were likely a better use of public health funds. 

The studies examined attitudes towards vaccination and concussion injuries among young athletes. They found campaigns focused on providing knowledge or information are less effective at changing people’s minds, and in some cases can even harden their opposition. 

He said a more effective tactic was ‘motivational interviewing’, which sought to understand the motivations behind people’s decision-making and posed questions requiring reflection.   

"Public health campaigns often focus on providing knowledge or information with the idea behind it being that if people have the right knowledge/information they will make the right decisions. But that’s often not the case,” he said. 

“The research showed that people (who were uncertain about vaccination) placed a high importance on the moral value of liberty. So it became an issue of principle for them not to do it because it infringed on their stance in that regard.” 

Dr Baumann said motivational interviewing involved acknowledging an individual or group’s existing knowledge and understanding of the issue, because many were well informed but had made their decision based on other factors that were more important to them. 

Many placed a high value on personal choice and did not trust the scientific community, pharmaceutical companies or authority more broadly. This made them more likely to reject information from scientific sources or reject their findings and to align themselves socially with others of the same beliefs. 

The study also found that those who held anti-vaccination attitudes had overconfidence in their knowledge. 

Motivational interviewing techniques would likely be more effective in helping these groups to reflect on their thinking, he said.  

Although more costly and resource intensive, Dr Baumann said there was value in undertaking more intensive personalised engagement with certain key groups, rather than spending millions on a single broad-based advertising campaign. 

“This can translate to many other issue – getting people to do more exercise or lose weight, or even when aiming to motivate people to take action on environmental issues - the same kind of strategy could be applied. 

“The important thing is to recognise and value the autonomy and knowledge that people have and that seems to be the key to nudging them over the line for many. It takes a bit more effort than a 20 second media clip - that doesn’t do it. 

So I think there are valid questions about whether that money could be diverted to better targeted and more effective strategies.” 


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