When scare tactics are too scary

I’m reading Chuck Palahnuik’s Non-Fiction at the moment, and he tells a wee story about health scare tactics. College students were shown pictures of diseased gums and bad teeth to encourage better dental hygiene. As he recalls:

One group was shown mouths only a little rotten. The second group was shown moderately rotten gums. The third group was shown horrible blackened mouths, the gums peeled down, soft and bleeding, the teeth turned brown or missing.

The first study group, they took care of their teeth the same as they always had. The second group, they brushed and flossed a little more. The third group, they just gave up. They stopped brushing and flossing and just waited for their teeth to turn black.

This effect is called “Narcotization” [sic].

When the problem looks too big, when we’re shown too much reality, we tend to shut down. We become resigned. We fail to take any action because disaster seems so inevitable. We’re trapped. This is narcotization.

Naturally, I can see parallels in anti-smoking campaigns. Pictures of black lungs on fag packets will have the same effect on me as the current, terrifying health warnings: none whatsoever. What does help, I think, is what I call the “pain in the arse factor”. Instead of trying to scare people into a particular form of behaviour, it’s better to make their bad behaviour a pain in the arse. The smoking ban, despite the appalling and arrogant way the Scottish Executive introduced it, will add the pain in the arse factor to smoking. Not smoking inside your house or flat – well, that’s a pain in the arse. Having to stop the car because you’ve promised your wife you won’t smoke in the car – pain in the arse. The pain in the arse factor isn’t as dramatic as putting pictures of autopsied lungs on a packet of smokes, but it’s more effective.

There is a downside to the pain in the arse factor, though. I don’t smoke in the house, but today it’s a beautiful sunny day. Going out for a cig isn’t a pain in the arse at all; it’s a chance to experience a rare blast of Scottish sunshine. So I’m off for a smoke. Seeya…

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