(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1)
Even if you think Valentine’s Day is nothing more than an excuse for restaurants and florists to hike up their prices, it’s difficult not to think about love at this time of year. Why do we fall in love? Why do we fall out of love? Why does Person A love Person B but not poor old Person C who loves Person A with all their heart? These questions have long been probed by musicians and writers, but today it is scientists – and behavioural scientists in particular – who can shed new light on ‘the L word’.
As healthcare communicators we often set ourselves the goal of going beyond changing our audiences’ minds to winning over their hearts, so what can we learn from behavioural science’s latest thinking on love?
Can love conquer all?
The liking/loving tendency is a powerful cognitive bias that means we overlook flaws and failings in someone we love and favour things, people and ideas associated with them. This bias isn’t confined to romance and can be seen at work in our admiration of influencers. At 90TEN we saw the power of this in action though a campaign we carried out to encourage men living with HIV to think about ageing and take steps to look after their long-term health. Ageing was seen as boring and irrelevant by our target audience… but that changed almost overnight when a group of influencers started talking about it. Influencer campaigns can be challenging in healthcare, so when it comes to changing people’s attitudes towards their health and empowering them to take action to protect their wellbeing, the liking/loving tendency shouldn’t be overlooked.
Can we be blinded by love?
Research suggests that, while love may not blind us, it can certainly warp our view of the world. The reason for this is the powerful cognitive biases that love can introduce into our thinking. Our desire to be in a relationship can be so powerful that it leads to ‘motivational distortion’ – a cognitive bias that shapes our attention, memory and interpretation so we believe what we want to be true about the person we love. With motivational distortion we can see our partners as being more caring and committed than their behaviour actually suggests, and blame ourselves if they are uncaring. For healthcare communicators, this is a reminder of the importance of cognitive biases in shaping the way we see the world and our place in it.
Is love rational?
There’s a general belief that animals select mates based on criteria that bode well for the survival of their offspring. This idea is being challenged. Research published in 2018 suggests that animals often make seemingly irrational and surprising choices when it comes to picking a mate. I’m sure we’ve all been surprised at one time or another about a friend’s choice of partner and asked ourselves what are they thinking? In healthcare communications we can’t afford to make assumptions about what governs people’s preferences and choices. Just because people should choose to lose weight, take their medicine or speak to their doctor about that worrying cough doesn’t mean that they will. If we fail to understand this and to dig deeper into what drives decision making beyond what we feel to be rational and obvious, our strategies and messages will not find love with our target audiences.
I’ve only scratched the surface of what behavioural science has to tell us about love. As far as I’m concerned, behavioural science and healthcare communications are a perfect match. Behavioural science is the lens through which the opportunities we have to engage with our audiences become clear, and it is to this happy union of science and communications that I will raise a glass on the 14th of February.