Shocking images won’t change behaviour

Are you a government agency and want to change people’s behaviour? Do you want to show shocking accident photos to scare people from drinking and driving or driving fast? Unfortunately this isn’t going to work. There are two strategies that people can follow when facing a negative event.

The first is to reappraise the situation and the second is to disengage. A paper in the November, 2011 issue of Psychological Science by Gal Sheppes, Susanne Scheibe, Gaurav Suri, and James Gross explored the question: Which strategy do people use for a slightly negative vs.  a highly negative situation. What they have found:

When faced with a minor negative event, people preferred to reappraise the situation than to disengage from it. When faced with a major negative event, people preferred to disengage from the situation than to reappraise it…

What it means:

Although this choice of strategy may help to protect a person from negative mood, it does have a consequence. Participants were shown the pictures afterward in a memory test. People were much better able to remember the pictures when they reappraised them than when they disengaged from them. So, if you are in a situation in which you need to remember a negative event and to learn from it, then you may need to focus on it rather than disengaging.

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