For most people, it is common knowledge that eating right, exercising, and limiting alcohol intake are keys to health and wellness. And yet, has something about those “awareness” campaigns surrounding health measures ever given you a strengthened craving for carbs? How about all those anti-smoking ads, which only serve to remind you of the satisfaction each cigarette used to provide? You’re not alone.
What Is the Boomerang Effect?
Dubbed the “boomerang effect”, this phenomenon in social psychology was first formally observed by psychologists Irvin Janis, Carl Hovland and Harold Kelley in 1953. Essentially, they discovered that attempts to persuade an individual or group can oftentimes backfire, resulting in the target audience adopting an opposite view to that of the persuader. Additionally, they discovered that several factors can increase the chances of this “boomerang” occurring. For example, many will respond to weak or unclear arguments by reaffirming their dedication to their initial position, due to a lack of confidence in either the speaker or the sources they are using to verify their claims.
Perhaps more interestingly, presenting a group with pure factual information about the normative behaviors for others in their group is likely to increase their participation in these behaviors, even if the information was presented as a way of dissuading them. This study conducted in 2007 found that participants presented with only factual information about their level of energy consumption actually tend to move more towards the normative behavior, rather than the encouraged behavior. Participants whose energy consumption was lower, or more towards the target, actually tended to consume more energy once understanding the average level of energy consumption for their community; however, those whose initial energy consumption was higher, or further from the target, actually reduced their energy consumption in response to receiving the same information.
However, this leads to the question: how does one avoid the “boomerang effect” and craft effective persuasive strategies? The answer is more simple than you might imagine.
How to Avoid It?
The same San Marcos study regarding energy consumption found that providing a small affirmation for those who exhibited the target behavior was enough for them to continue with that behavior. Similarly, providing a small reprimand for those not meeting the target helped to move their behavior toward the goal as well. For the energy consumption study, this was as simple as placing a happy face on the energy bills of those meeting the target, and an angry face on those whose energy consumption had exceeded the target.
For the consumer, awareness of the boomerang effect is the most effective way to counter it. Since a great deal of what powers the boomerang effect is the audience’s perception of the speaker and emotional reactions to the material being presented, awareness of your personal biases and reactions towards topics will go a long way in preventing “knee-jerk” reactions to persuasive material. Consuming media responsibly is first and foremost a question of self-awareness. Thus, understanding “what is the boomerang effect” and how to avoid automatically reacting in that fashion are two of the biggest steps in evaluating media effectively.