Just the Facts Just Isn’t Enough

Poverty & Family Economics

MegaphoneBoyA great Derek Thompson article in The Atlantic last week reminded me of something those of us in the children’s advocacy communications world instinctively know: facts alone often aren’t enough to motivate your audience to action.

Thompson writes about an experiment by researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research on opinions about taxing the wealthy. They showed participants charts illustrating how much wealth the wealthy have accumulated under current tax law, helped participants personalize the issue by comparing their own household incomes against those of the rich (and the poor), and showed the correlation between tax policy and income inequality.

They found that all that information did very little to raise support for increasing taxes on the wealthy. In fact, they found that low-income participants were actually less likely to support increased tax progressivity after getting “just the facts.”

The researchers didn’t know why, and I don’t either. But Thompson speculates — and I think he’s right — that there was some barrier standing between low-income survey participants and supporting a policy change that would clearly have been in their interest. I first saw this concept articulated while working at Spitfire Strategies, and there’s a lot more information about the idea in their free Discovering the Activation Point publication.

This study is a cautionary tale for those of us who work in children’s advocacy communications. Moving our audience sometimes means learning more about their motivations and barriers, then building messages that connect with those core concerns. We can’t do our jobs without the facts. But the facts alone often don’t do the job.