Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Which is more compelling? Statistics or Stories

Yesterday I saw the following infographic from Safeco Insurance on Facebook and Twitter. Safeco is attempting to convince people to drive more safely by reducing distracted driving.

This information is somewhat effective as an attention getter, but there are a few key problems for persuasion:
  • You can't empathize with numbers.
  • It doesn't create an emotional response.
  • Statistics can be rationalized.

A friend pointed out the following in a comment on Facebook:
"No one can disagree with first principles - that distracted driving can lead to accidents and loss of life. However, this is the same scare tactic used by the seatbelt law people. Death rate is in the range of 1 out 100 million driven miles, which means someone could drive 10000 miles per year for 40 years to have 0.4% chance of dying from all causes combined.

If distracted driving is 10% of deaths, and number of deaths is already pretty low, I'd say this data is not compelling."
No matter if you agree with the data or not, statistics engage the human brain. As I wrote previously, appealing to reason is not an effective way to compel people to change their behavior. Most people have learned not to trust statistics, so the first thing they will do is to start looking for contextual tricks, logical holes, and statistical biases. Our trained response is to prove the statistics wrong.

Additionally, cognitive biases created by previous experience can lead to an entrenched response based on existing beliefs. Some people will rationalize that it can never happen to them, because they have been successful driving distracted without any accidents in the past.

Tell an emotional story to change behavior

A more effective way to get someone to change their behavior is to tell a compelling story that is visual, authentic, and emotionally connecting. Going back to the Triune Brain Theory, behavior is driven by the lizard and animal brains. If you want to drive change, you must appeal to these areas of the brain.

For example, watch this video from AT&T's Texting & Driving - It Can Wait campaign. The documentary features real stories of families affected by texting while behind the wheel:

This video is extremely persuasive as a driver for change. These are stories that create a strong sense of empathy and emotion that will make you think twice the next time you reach for you phone while driving your car. They are also stories that you can share with your friends and family, because they are memorable and easy to tell.

"Tell me a fact and I will learn. Tell me a truth and I will believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever." - Native American Proverb

What would be even more effective, is to follow up this video with a positive emotional response to change, like imagery of someone arriving home safely to eat dinner with their family. Lastly, it could conclude with the compelling data that Safeco Insurance provided in their inforgraphic. This approach fits the model of persuading first and convincing last.

Next time you get behind the wheel...

Will you remember the percentage of injury crashes related to distracted driving in 2010?


Will you remember the story of the teenager who died because of a text message?