Community Indicators for Your Community

Real, lasting community change is built around knowing where you are, where you want to be, and whether your efforts are making a difference. Indicators are a necessary ingredient for sustainable change. And the process of selecting community indicators -- who chooses, how they choose, what they choose -- is as important as the data you select.

This is an archive of thoughts I had about indicators and the community indicators movement. Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Myth-Perceptions and Public Policy Implications

With apologies to Robert Asprin, the headline from the Washington Post (Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach) raised some interesting questions about how we use data in decision making and create energy around community improvement.

The research behind the article suggests that correcting misinformation reinforces the misinformation. If you directly confront falsehood by rebutting it, people remember the falsehood as true -- and they'll claim you were the source! From the article:

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a flier to combat myths about the flu vaccine. It recited various commonly held views and labeled them either "true" or "false." Among those identified as false were statements such as "The side effects are worse than the flu" and "Only older people need flu vaccine."

When University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz had volunteers read the CDC flier, however, he found that within 30 minutes, older people misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual.

Younger people did better at first, but three days later they made as many errors as older people did after 30 minutes. Most troubling was that people of all ages now felt that the source of their false beliefs was the respected CDC.

The psychological insights yielded by the research, which has been confirmed in a number of peer-reviewed laboratory experiments, have broad implications for public policy. The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.

For those of us involved in community indicators work, this is troubling news -- perhaps as discouraging as learning that facts and figures make us care less.

Denials don't work, according to the article -- they only reinforce the myth. Silence doesn't work either:

So is silence the best way to deal with myths? Unfortunately, the answer to that question also seems to be no.

Another recent study found that when accusations or assertions are met with silence, they are more likely to feel true, said Peter Kim, an organizational psychologist at the University of Southern California. He published his study in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

So what can we do about it? One approach may be to create a new story, where the data are integral to the story itself -- like the Three Little Pigs. The answer may not be to combat the false information directly, but to crowd it out with a new story -- which, through repetition, becomes lodged as fact.

But be careful -- we used a number to draw attention to the problem of adult functional illiteracy in our community, and that number took on a life of its own -- soon that particular percentage point was used to point out how horrible illiteracy was in our community, and without reinforcement that number was used for the next seven years as a rallying point to bring the issue to the front. (We grew to hate that number, because its significance was lost as it outgrew its context. And no, I won't repeat the number!) Only by telling a different story without referencing the original number (and quietly talking to those who were repeating it the loudest) did the conversation change.

What other successful strategies have you used to displace myth with real data in your community?


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