Misdirecting persuasive efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic: The targets people choose may not be the most likely to change

Misdirecting persuasive efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic: The targets people choose may not be the most likely to change

By
Christopher Bechler, Zakary Tormala
Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.
2021, Vol. in press

Persuading people to engage in specific health behaviors is critical to prevent the spread of and mitigate the harm caused by COVID-19. Most of the research and practice around this issue focuses on developing effective message content. Importantly, though, persuasion is often critically dependent on choosing appropriate targets—that is, on selecting the best audience for one’s message. Three experiments conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic explore this target selection process and demonstrate misalignment between who persuaders target and who will display the greatest attitude and behavior change. Although people prefer to send messages encouraging COVID-19 prevention behaviors to targets with slightly negative attitudes toward the behaviors in question, their messages can often have more impact when sent to targets whose attitudes are slightly favorable. Recent insights in categorical perception and message positioning effects in persuasion help explain this misalignment.