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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

How personal stories undermine public health and financial messaging

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Laura Doering

Whether it’s public health information about vaccinations or governments encouraging people to bank their savings, how those messages are received can depend on how people discuss them with their peers.

Researcher Laura Doering stumbled onto the finding while studying a government-promoted microsavings program designed to improve savings and banking access among low-income Colombians.

Participants started out with high enthusiasm for joining the formal banking system. But the program backfired. After a year of biweekly savings group meetings, where members received personal finance education, participants had significantly boosted their informal cash savings, but surveys showed they’d lost interest in opening a bank account. Personal savings shot up by 300 per cent, from $3.15 to $9.44 a month. But enthusiasm for becoming bank customers dropped from nearly 74 per cent of participants interested to 65 per cent.

“At first I thought that I had coded the data incorrectly,” says Doering, an assistant professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “We were really surprised."

The study turned to what was happening inside the program’s meetings. It found that participants elaborated on the relatively abstract information presented in their sessions by sharing mostly negative personal stories and second-hand anecdotes about encounters with the financial sector. Whether it was narratives of being “robbed” by bank fees that gradually eroded limited savings, property being repossessed or vague accounts of a neighbour who was allegedly defrauded, the more personalized discussion ultimately undermined the government’s intended message.

The findings have implications for any organization that uses abstract, more theoretical information to communicate with a wide audience, especially if the message isn’t resonating, says Doering.

A comparable example is the sharing of negative stories and sometimes inaccurate information about vaccinations within some groups in response to public health information that promotes vaccines.

Neutral messaging is a common approach for reaching diverse groups of people, but the study underlines that “we’re not passive recipients of that abstract information,” says Doering. “We like to put all sorts of colourful meat on the bones of what we hear.”

As well, other research shows that what happened in the microsavings groups isn’t unique; we pay more attention to negative stories than positive ones and are more influenced by them in our decision-making.

All is not lost, though. Discussions can swing in a more positive direction. A few participants in the Colombian microsavings groups were able to persuade others to change their negative opinions by playing defense and correcting misunderstandings with facts, or by acting as champions, and showing their neighbours how to set up and use a no-fee mobile banking account offered through the program.

The lesson for organizations aiming to get their messages across in the ways that they hope?

“Think about creating champions within the groups you’re targeting to share positive experiences and information,” suggests Doering. It may also help to tailor messages to the specific contexts of local communities and smaller groups, if possible.

As for the rest of us, it helps to be aware of how and why we may treat more neutral information with skepticism yet give greater credence and attention to juicier personal stories from dubious sources. “When we think about fake news, we tend to think of people purposefully distorting information. But we may be overlooking our own tendencies to humanize raw facts and potentially contribute to these overall negative impressions,” she says.

The study was co-authored with Kristen McNeill of Brown University. It appeared in American Sociological Review.

Laura Doering is an assistant professor of strategic management. As an economic sociologist, she examines how interactions and social psychological processes shape outcomes for households, organizations, and markets.