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Behavioural myth busters: research and perception change

02 Jan 2019  |  William Hanmer-Lloyd 
Behavioural myth busters: research and perception change


If you build a strong brand, consumers are more likely to dismiss any negative information that comes out about you, and it may even make them like you more, writes William Hanmer-Lloyd

A year on from the start of the #MeToo movement in America, public opinion has shifted, but not in the way many would expect. More people in the US, both men and women, now believe that false accusations of assault are a bigger problem than unreported assaults, shifting from 13% to 18%. More women now believe that women who complain about sexual harassment cause more problems than they solve, rising from 26% to 30%.

After a year of women opening up about their personal stories - the hashtag #MeToo is estimated to have been used 18 million times - and a significant amount of press coverage on the scale of the problem of sexual assault, American attitudes have shifted a small, but significant, amount against victims.

What has caused this shift?

This is a sad example of what can happen when people are told they are, or were, wrong. They defensively react against the new information they are hearing.

This is captured by confirmation bias and the backfire effect.

Confirmation bias means that we search for, filter, interpret and remember information based on what will affirm our pre-existing beliefs. According to this theory, #MeToo is ignored or filtered out by people who feel the movement is a direct challenge to their existing beliefs.

The backfire effect shows that when our strongest beliefs are challenged we usually end up believing them more strongly.

An example of this in action is a study from The University of Michigan and Georgia State University, who created fake newspaper articles about the Iraq war. The study provided participants with false articles stating that WMDs has been found in the country, and then once they had read that article, gave them truthful articles stating that they had not been found. Unsurprisingly, conservatives generally agreed with the first article and disagreed with the second. But more than that, after reading the second article they reported feeling even more certain that WMDs had been found in the country.

Confirmation bias and the backfire effect are important for brands to understand. Especially in high research categories.

We often believe that if a category has a high level of research we can focus budgets on acquisition and reach consumers with rational information lower in the funnel. This is not the case.

If consumers like a brand they will filter information in a way that reinforces what they initially feel about brands in the category. The process of this research actually makes the impact of how they feel about brands more important!

This has been captured by the recent (and brilliant) IPA report “Effectiveness in Context”, which shows that emotional brand building is more efficient and more important in high research categories, not less - despite what many advertisers believe.

If you build a strong brand, consumers are more likely to dismiss any negative information that comes out about you, and it may even make them like you more.

Finally, behavioural science shows us many ways in which we can begin to subtly shift embedded consumer attitudes about a brand. For instance, targeting people during times of low attention so your audience can’t actively filter out the information or interpret it. Another is to reach consumers when they are in a relaxed positive mood and focus on feelings, not rational information. And finally, use techniques like asking questions or amplifying existing social norms.


William Hanmer-Lloyd is Total Media's head of behavioural planning. He contributes monthly to Mediatel News, examining the ways behavioural science radically challenges some of the historic approaches of the ad industry.

Part one: Why is behavioural science important to advertising?

Part two: Self-reported data

Part three: Audience decision making

Part four: There are no universal rules for influencing people

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