The Ironic Effect and how to avoid it.

femaleEver had this happen?

• You don’t want to talk about something, but the topic just seems to pop into the conversation.

• You want to avoid even thinking about a subject, but there it is anyway.

• You conscientiously try to avoid something, but gravitate towards it.

These attractions to do, say, or think, the wrong thing have been well described in an article by recently deceased Harvard psychologist Dan Wagner, entitled How to Think, Say, or Do Precisely the Worst Thing for Any Occasion.

There’s a classic example for novice golfers: Avoiding a water or sand hazard. But the ball just seems to gravitate to the obstacle. It may be that asking someone not to think about an object or person may “fix” that thing in the mind.

Years ago, when I was teaching one of our children how to ride a bike, there was only one mailbox post on an otherwise unobstructed path. But somehow, we had many near misses with this solitary obstacle.

This “ironic effect” enters into negative or positive feedback. Stigmatizing overweight folks, smokers or non-exercisers with negative feedback exacerbates problems. On the other hand, positive feedback combined with negative feedback in about a 4:1 ratio has been shown to have much greater benefit. (Using a stick is not nearly as effective as motivating someone with a carrot.)

In a recent published study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, three similar groups of overweight folks were asked to read an article about overweight people finding it harder to get jobs, or a similar article about smokers having difficulties  obtaining work, or no article at all.

The three groups were then placed into a break room stocked with snacks and told to relax. The group that read the article showing overweight folks find it harder to get jobs, consumed 80 more calories on average than the other two groups.

What would be so much more effective is a positive campaign that losing weight helps people lead longer, happier, and healthier lives.

Beating a negative message into someone has, at best, a temporary effect; and more likely has a long-term negative outcome as the ironic effect takes hold, focusing attention on the unhealthy behavior.

Studies examining why philanthropic causes are supported showed similar paradoxical results. If we are asked to publicly support a cause, we tend to give less tangible support (in other words, a smaller donation). The rationale is this: Once we “go public,” we have shared our reputation, and that has value; therefore, we can substitute this intangible asset for the tangible one.

A more effective way to garner support for any cause is to involve people by having them contribute time and energy to the cause. Obtaining “sweat equity” first is much more likely to be followed by financial contributions. The cause becomes part of their identity or persona. Again, the paradox of the ironic effect, namely asking for public recognition or joining a group, will have the immediate effect of appearing to be effective—but ultimately has the longer term consequence of garnering less support.

Another example of the ironic effect is receiving a message that makes you feel vulnerable, even though the message was designed to motivate. Messages that threaten will produce defensive responses. People have a natural aversion, for instance, to advertising or marketing which creates fear, no matter how well intentioned.

For example, declaring that breast cancer is prevalent and noxious causes women to become defensive and less likely to remember or act on the message. A better way is to encourage healthy behavior with the positive benefits of appropriate diagnostic tests and treatment.

Sharing success stories—as has been done locally at the Susan G. Komen awareness events—is much more effective than scare tactics. Even though you might think rational people will respond to fear, the more likely response is to shut down and move into denial. This is just the behavior we want to avoid.

“Sleep latency” is the measure of time from when you try to go to sleep to the time you actually are asleep. In a study entitled Ironic Effects of Sleep Urgency, researchers found that instructing subjects to go to sleep as quickly as they could had the paradoxical effect of actually lengthening the time they needed to fall asleep. Left alone and not trying anything out of the ordinary, subjects on average fell to sleep easily and quickly.

The explanation behind such ironic results is based on the balance between two processes. First, we search for the mental control which will achieve the right outcome, namely falling asleep quickly. Second, the ironic monitoring process searches for signals of failure to achieve the desired state, namely what is keeping me up at bedtime.

There are other studies confirming the unintentionally negative effects of ordering people around or trying to forcefully change attitudes. By using a more positive, collaborative, and lower pressured messaging, you have a better chance of changing behaviors.

Sharing that we can be better at golf, learning to ride a bike, losing weight, fund raising, gaining support for a cause, lowering sleep latency, and avoiding prejudice all have the common theme of the ironic effect: Going negative is not as effective as stressing the positive.

In an upcoming article, we will write about how mentally strong people avoid many common issues.

For now, the take-home message is this: Stay positive and avoid the ironic effect.

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