“Don’t Tell Us What To Do” – A Lesson in Behavior Change from Government-Imposed Warning Labels

Dont tell us what to do - crowd covering ears

Dont tell us what to do - crowd covering ears

“Why everything that supposed to be bad, make me feel so good?”Kanye West

We all know what is good for us but we keep indulging in harmful behavior: we smoke, we drink excessively, we sleep with our ex, we have an affair, we relapse into drugs, we get that stupid tattoo, and we send the angry, heat of the moment email against our better judgment. We watch ourselves do things we know we will regret even as our conscience screams Nooo!

“To promise not to do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a person want to go and do that very thing.” – Mark Twain

It gets worse when another person attempts to correct us. Let us get real, our problem is not lack of information. We have plenty of information, but information does not change our behavior.

“For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do, I do.” – Romans 7:19

Cigarette Warning Labels in a German Shop
Cigarette Warning Labels in a German Shop

Cigarette pack warnings

Take cigarette smoking for instance. Despite all the incriminating evidence about tobacco, we continue to burn those butts. In fact, it makes no difference that information on the effects of smoking is placed right on the cigarette pack. WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control requires that cigarette packaging incorporate warning messages to create awareness about the effects of smoking.

However, research shows that smokers ignore these health warnings. Even with the introduction of the health warnings, tobacco firms have continued to enjoy a significant increase in sales:

For instance, at the height of the awareness campaign on effects of smoking in 2008, Sterling’s Market share increased from 5% to 6.1% in four months. A few years later, Benson and Hedges Silver introduced a new slide pack which boosted their sales by 25% in six months and a further 32.5% within a year.

At some point, it was clear that adorning cigarette packaging with warning information was not doing anything in the fight against cigarette smoking.

Enter Graphic Warning Labels

In 2012, Australia introduced new packaging regulations for cigarettes. Other countries are said to be taking steps: Canada, France, Singapore, South Africa, amongst others.

  • No branding of the cigarette packs
  • Plain packaging
  • Confronting photos of smoking-related illnesses.

The results

Research shows that graphic images on cigarette packs do not scare away smokers:

  • Some smokers were angry with the warnings, feeling as if someone was trying to manipulate them; and being too much in their business.
  • Other smokers were found to buy and use slipcovers that come with the package. This way, they avoid seeing the images, regain some degree of control and carry on with their smoking. Some smokers even emptied the cigarettes in a separate container or covered the packets with stickers.
  • Yet, another study showed that smokers distorted the messages on the packs. Some male smokers would be seen selecting packets with health warnings related to pregnancy; while those with eye problems avoided the packs with warnings concerning eyes. It is as if the cigarettes in specific packets had different characteristics.
  • The most adverse finding was pregnant teenagers who smoked to reduce the weight of their unborn babies. They knew the effect the cigarettes would have on their bodies and their unborn babies: they wanted the effect.

Why don’t Graphic Labels work

One study showed that the main reason why the graphic warning labels do not work is that many of the smokers view them as a threat to their autonomy, freedom and choice. Generally, the human being is wired to resist ideas which he thinks are being imposed on him.

“We are striving after what is forbidden, and coveting what is denied to us.” – Ovid.

In fact, the graphic warning labels might just achieve the opposite reaction. The more the smokers perceive that their freedom is being threatened, the more they are attracted to carrying out the threatened behavior (smoking) to assert their independence. The images are seen to depict the government and other bodies which the smokers feel are trying to control them.

“Forbidden things have a secret charm.”Publus Cornelius Tacitus

What do these findings imply?

According to psychology, what is forbidden is always attractive. We are given to reactance. Reactance is motivation to indulge in things, rules, and offers that threaten our choices or limit our alternatives.

As a result, we strengthen a behavior or attitude that is contrary to what is expected. We indulge in prohibited behavior to not only taunt the prohibiting authority but also to prevent loss of further freedom. Indeed, when our choices are threatened, we become motivationally aroused.

“He did not want the apple for Apple’s sake. He wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent. Then, he would have eaten the serpent.” – Mark Twain.

Interesting research  – 2 studies on warnings and how to move towards what we really want

Study 1 – What Warnings Typically Do

Daniel Wegner, a University of Virginia psychologist, conducted the following research:

He put people in a room and installed a tape recorder. The then asked the participants to say out loud whatever came to mind with one caveat; they were not to think about a white bear.

Interestingly, the participants mentioned the bear about once a minute, despite having been told not to think about it. The participants said that they would try all sorts of tricks, but the bear kept sneaking back.

“One should never forbid what one lacks power to prevent.”Napoleon Bonaparte

Study 2 – Deprivation leads to obsession

A study showed that when people were semi starved, they thought about food every minute of the day. Long after the experiment, the participants reported that food became central to their lives. Even when they had enough to eat, they still felt so hungry they could not eat enough.

Any time somebody attempts to prevent us from enjoying something, one of the following happens:

  • We want it more
  • We rebel by reasserting our freedom
  • We get angry at the person curtailing our freedom.

So, do not be too hard on me or condemn me when you see me picking the wrong partner over and over again, when I spend on things that I do not need, when I neglect my body, when I reach for one more drink, or when I procrastinate.

After all, the bad decisions we make can be good for us. They help us to learn from our mistakes. Indeed, they can be the driving force behind those changes that we badly need to make our lives better.

What these 2 studies mean for the rest of us

To summarise the above two studies in one sentence…

It is what we focus on that makes the difference.

Because it’s what we focus on that is what we move towards. These studies put people in situations where they were almost made to focus on what something in particular (the bear and food).

So what should you be focusing on?

Are you focusing on the right things to bring love into your life? or are you unsure of what exactly to focus on. If you are unsure you can use habits to discover what to focus on and how to change your life for the better.

What Matters

What matters is that we keep trying to become better people every day. I wish you well as you seek to live a more fulfilling life. I have to go now. I want to eat that last cookie because I will finally start eating healthy tomorrow. I promise!

You can contact me here at RedesigningtheMind.com/contact