Public Education Isn’t About Education [Guide]

At first glance, public education seems pretty easy. You educate the public with all of the reasons they should or shouldn’t do something; the public embraces the logic you’ve so simply laid out and changes their behavior. Well done.

Here’s the problem. Education does not equal behavior change. Increasing knowledge removes an information barrier, but it doesn’t necessarily morph into a motivation to change.

We saw this first hand in the 1990s with teen anti-smoking campaigns. For years, teen smoking had been stubbornly increasing, and conventional wisdom figured young people just didn’t know how bad it was for them. Thanks to a $200 million settlement from the major tobacco, programs suddenly had the funding to blanket high school and college kids with information on the health effects of tobacco.

So Harvard economics professor W. Kip Viscusi began studying the results and found that the programs were definitely educating teens. These young people had become fully fluent in the health risks of smoking. Success! Except that smoking rates didn’t decline—they actually increased! Even more ironic? They teens who had just picked up the habit overestimated the risks to their health by almost 50%!

What’s going on here? In this case, a teen learns that smoking could cause him to die at 75 rather than 81. Well, that may not mean that much at 17. And when compared with the strong motivation to rebel against adult thinking, it may mean even less. What these public education campaigns missed was that behavior change results from removing barriers to change while providing your audience with their motivation to take action.

A lack of knowledge may be a barrier to change, but just putting out information doesn’t change minds or behaviors. It’s still important, of course. Think of your most recent New Year’s resolution. You had to be aware of the problem to even make the resolution to change. But if you have any hope of keeping the resolution alive past February, you’ll likely need personal motivation, community support and a few other tools along the way.


Rule No. 1: Providing quality, truthful information is just the first step in behavior change campaigns.

Next up? Rule No. 2: Not all motivations are equal.

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