Thursday, May 29, 2014

Two Best Practices at Changing Misperceptions

Two things ran through my mind earlier this month as I took in a quarterly graduation event, this time for 34 residents of TROSA, a two-year substance abuse recovery program with aftercare in Durham, North Carolina.

One was that I had been sitting on an unpadded folding chair for nearly three hours without noticing it because the personal stories delivered to the audience by each graduate were so incredibly touching and compelling.

The other thought was of a paper by a researcher at Dartmouth, Dr. Brendan Nylan who had earned his Masters and Ph.D. here at Duke University in the years before I retired from a career in community marketing.

His research is about why people continue to embrace misinformation even after learning it is false.  This is particularly salient in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deliberate lies to voters by or on behalf of candidates for high office are protected free speech.

But first a few words about TROSA.

It was founded in 1994 by a former addict, Kevin McDonald, who lives four doors down from me.  A few years after it opened, Kevin turned his life around at Delancey Street where he stayed on for 12 years to help others.

He came to North Carolina about the same time I did to open a much smaller 30-resident Delancey Center in Greensboro.  Then five years later accepted an invitation to build on the model by founding TROSA, which has nearly 480 residents now from around the country.

It has grown from 8 residents to a $13 million annual operation, nearly half of which is earned income from businesses such as moving, tractor-trailer driver training, framing, vintage product recycling, landscape care, stonework, catering and foodservice, sales and construction and facility maintenance, to name a few.

The program relies, in part, on donations or in-kind contributions from individuals and businesses for the rest.   There is no charge for the program; residents ear their keep through working.

In its on-going well-being index, Gallup has found that people in communities with higher well-being are more likely to give back to their communities.

Foretelling that North Carolina ranks only 43rd in charitable giving (7th  from the bottom) is that it ranks only 32nd for well-being overall.  But the metro area centered around Durham ranks second in the state and 31st nationwide, in the top quintile.

In books such as last year’s, Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, the case is made that drug and alcohol addiction is a “preventable, treatable disease, not a moral failing.”

A few years earlier a book called, Addiction: A Disorder of Choice, made the highly controversial case that the condition is merely a matter of self-destructive choices and free will, but the author also repeatedly made the point that this does not exclude neurophysical influences.

In fact, both authors essentially agree that it is both a disease and a matter of choice.  As Seth Godwin blogged recently, disease doesn’t trump choice, it just makes bad choices much harder to overcome.

This is something TROSA understands and addresses with a heavy mix of vocational training and therapeutic, educational and aftercare programs.  It builds character while addressing disease.

It is clear when looking at the effectiveness of TROSA over most rehab programs lasting anywhere from a week to a month and from listening to TROSA graduates bare testimony including a friend of mine who is a resident, that it takes two to three years for those addicted to reclaim their lives.

But it isn’t just lack of funds or in-kind donations that prevents this program from being scalable from thousands to the tens of millions who need it. Misinformation and Fact-Checking

One obstacle is the number of people who still buy into barrages of misinformation that addiction is purely a failure of will power, a moral shortcoming.  For others, this merely reinforces a world view that no amount of scientific information or testimony can change.

Dr. Nyhan and other researchers delve into the best ways to correct misperceptions or misinformation as overviewed this month in a blog on The New Yorker by Maria Konnikova, author of the new book MastermindShe is a former producer for “Charlie Rose” who also writes for Scientific American.

One of my first challenges when jumpstarting the community destination marketing organization for Durham was not only correcting misinformation but turning around the negative image of Durham held by the vast majority of residents in nearby communities.

Research plus trial and error helped us achieve this goal by the end of the 1990s, although crucial follow-up will be never-ending.

In the early days, many friends were too nervous to be of much help while others were fearful that trying to correct these misimpressions would only reinforce them.  Fortunately, we could rely on a grassroots army of residents.

Much has been learned about reputational management since then but no one has done more research over the years to identify what works than Dr. Brendon Nylan.  I wonder if he was aware of what we were doing when he was at Duke?

In a paper last year entitled “Misinformation and Fact-Checking,” Nylan and a co-author from George State identified some techniques similar to those that had made us successful in Durham, e.g.

  1. Get the story right the first time.
  2. Early corrections are better.
  3. Beware of making the problem worse.
  4. Avoid Negations. (just saying it isn’t so)
  5. Minimize repetition of false claims.
  6. Reduce partisan and ideological cues.
  7. Use credible sources.
  8. Use graphics where appropriate.
  9. Beware of selective exposure. (confirmation bias)

The paper is an overview of studies supporting each of these and a good read for anyone who is trying to overcome misinformation or misperception.

It would have been helpful if Nylan had done this work two decades earlier.  Our success was by trial and error to find the right messaging, as well as recruiting allies in other communities along with other Durham residents (Durham Image Watch) who would also help make our point.

We were also strategically focused.

We weren’t trying to change anyone’s world view, just get the facts right and in context.  We didn’t worry about the negatives among the 10% who were rabid.  We focused on the vast majority who were “soft negatives,” mostly just uninformed.

We successfully isolated those who were the source.

We also appealed to the honor of journalists, editors and news directors by showing them that our objective wasn’t to influence the content of the news, just the accuracy and balance.

No amount of promotion would have overcome the “moat of negativity” surrounding Durham.  It had infiltrated the news media, airport/airline workers and even around local “water coolers” from the 2-in-3 people working in Durham but not living here.

We knew that the negativity had not statistically harmed Durham’s image elsewhere which was always high, but research showed that if we didn’t address it aggressively, it soon would.

Anecdotally, we knew it had already significantly contaminated loan applications and appraisals as well as diverted visitors including relocating executives and newcomers.

We turned it around in the nick of time.  What amazes me is how many communities don’t even know they have an image problem, let alone address it.  The home communities of some of those trashing Durham have even greater image problems across the state.

When they get around to it, research such done by Dr. Nylan will be a good resources.

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