My 12-year-old son is writing a research paper for school about the 18th Amendment. The other day, he homed in on what the gist of his thesis would be: Just because you make a rule doesn’t mean people will change their behavior.
There is no magic bullet answer for how to get humans to change. In the case of the 18th Amendment, it was a lesson hard won. Zealous prohibitionists managed to pass the law, citing – rightly, of course – that alcohol was the cause of many crimes and health problems. They felt that prohibiting alcohol consumption would be for the common good.
However, they neglected to think through two key attributes of a successful law. First, there should ideally be majority agreement that the law represents a moral high ground. Abolishing slavery is a good example. Alcohol, on the other hand, was less widely seen as a moral problem.
The other attribute is how effectively that law can be enforced. A product that’s easy to make in your bathtub is hard to ban. Also, when people aren’t convinced that there is a strong moral conviction behind a law, they are less inclined to follow or enforce it. Police officers who might have aggressively pursued murderers, for example, were more inclined to look the other way when it came to bootleggers.
So, while curtailing alcohol consumption might well have been in the best interest of the public, it was a behavior that was very hard to change, even with an amendment to the constitution. Habits are sticky, and humans are creatures of habit. And having a drink, let’s face it, can be fun. A rap on the knuckles simply wasn’t enough to part folks from their whiskey, and the amendment was ultimately repealed.
Where laws may fail, there is consensus around the key role that education and communication can play in changing behavior. There is a whole discipline, for example, known as Strategic Behavior Change Communication (SBCC) whose efficacy is supported by plenty of data. Living in an age of gun violence and opioid abuse, the imperative to use these kinds of tools is strong.
Communication that drives behavior change should follow all the rules of good messaging. Start with the audience. Know what they care about and what their concerns are. Create a message that’s clear and concise and speaks directly to their cares and concerns. And deliver the message in a place, time and format the audience will be open to receiving and able to digest.
Sometimes actions speak louder than words, but sometimes words are, in fact, the best solution.