This blog post, provided by the IPR Behavioral Insights Research Center and written by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li, is based on a research paper by Greer K. Gosnell, Ph.D. 

Key Findings

  • Communication-inducing cognitive dissonance can lead to more pro-social behaviour change than other strategies like presenting information on the cost or benefits.
  • Although strategies that leverage cognitive dissonance can be effective, they can also backfire in some circumstances. Careful testing and evaluation can help identify the appropriate targets for different strategies.

Implications for Public Relations

Randomized controlled trials are an integral part of the behavioural science research and application. They are used to examine whether interventions lead to intended outcomes and how to refine strategies before implementation or for scaling up. Public relations professionals should collaborate with behavioural scientists to test the efficacy of different communication strategies and explore opportunities to apply psychological principles to improve impact.

The findings for this study provide several insights into opportunities for public relations to incorporate behavioural sciences. Cognitive dissonance is a psychological concept that describes the anxiety someone experiences when their actions and beliefs are incongruent. Highlighting this dissonance through message framing makes this discrepancy more salient and can motivate people to change in order to resolve it. This can be accomplished by reminding people about their identity or beliefs, and can be especially effective for issues that involve a sense of social responsibility.

Critically, the present study observed that the impact of messaging around cognitive dissonance didn’t work on everyone tested, and in fact, backfired for a subset of their sample population, reinforcing the value of understanding and targeting difference audiences with specific communications.

In this study, the presentation of vivid imagery was also not associated with behaviour change. The use of imagery should be carefully evaluated when developing communications because it may not contribute to the goals of the messaging, if it doesn’t align with the overall strategy.

Summary

Behavioural science research provides new opportunities for organizations to achieve goals like innovation, greater profitability, or stronger corporate social responsibility, without imposing major changes to stakeholders and consumers. This study of strategies to encourage consumer adoption of paperless billing highlights the importance of evaluating different communication approaches and the prospect of leveraging cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is the anxiety or discomfort that arises from inconsistencies between our beliefs and actions. The desire to resolve this dissonance can be a powerful motivator for change. Inducing cognitive dissonance was one of the three strategies tested in a randomized controlled trial for a renewable energy supplier in the UK.

Over 38,000 customers were sent different versions of an email encouraging them to switch from paper billing to paperless billing. In the version testing the impact of cognitive dissonance, the email emphasized the customer’s pro-environmental identity by reminding them that as customers of a renewable energy company, they are environmental stewards. This approach sought to make the discrepancies between customers’ pro-environmental attitude and the behaviour of receiving paper bills more salient.

The other two strategies tested were providing information on the environmental cost of paper billing and using vivid imagery. The environmental cost framing highlighted the associated paper waste and environmental damage, particularly that number of trees used to provide paper billing. In the control condition, the email offered customer satisfaction and convenience as key reasons for adopting e-billing. To test the impact of vivid imagery, some emails in each condition included pictures of forests.

The results showed that of the three strategies tested, only inducing cognitive dissonance led to more uptake of e-billing than the control condition. Neither providing more information about the associated costs of paper billing nor vivid images appeared to have an impact.

There are several possible explanations that can account for why cost information did not influence consumers. They may be exhibiting moral licensing where they justify not going paperless with their environmentally friendly choice of energy supplier, or the cost did not appear severe enough to warrant a change in their behaviour. Considering that the environmental impact was framed as the result of the collective decisions of all customers, it is also possible that they may not have seen their role and contribution to the cost as big enough.

Although visuals have been shown in other studies to attract attention and evoke emotion in ways that can motivate behaviour change, the context that visuals are presented in is crucial to its success. The images of trees may have lacked sufficient perceived relevance or distracted from other aspects of the message.

The findings of this study demonstrate the potential for communication strategies that leverage psychological principles like cognitive dissonance. It is important to note that there was a small backfire effect among more educated consumers, where the cognitive dissonance framing led to less e-billing uptake than the control condition. Individuals with higher education may be more inclined to rationalize their behaviour and modify their attitudes, like those towards that impact of paper billing, in the presence of dissonance. It is also possible that they are more critical of communications, resulting in reactance.

By framing messages around the alignment of behaviour and attitudes, communicators may find greater success, especially for issues that involve social responsibility, where other strategies may be less effective. However, it is imperative to evaluate the impact of communications on different groups, recognizing that different people respond differently.

Blog post compiled by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li. 

Citation

Gosnell, Greer K. (2018). Communicating resourcefully: a natural field experiment on environmental framing and cognitive dissonance in going paperless. Ecological Economics, 154, 128-144. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2018.07.020

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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