02 June 2010

The truth about frightening facts

Do scary statistics frighten you enough to change your behaviour? Apparently, not, according to the experts.

Are statistics - particularly those that scare us - persuasive enough to change our behaviour? LAUREN SETON-SMITH of Shape Magazine plays the numbers game.

Some things are unavoidable at this time of year — last-minute Christmas shopping, dodgy office parties, family gatherings and, unfortunately, a regular update on the road death toll. But do these shocking figures frighten us into driving more cautiously? Or do we simply turn the page/change the channel and move on?

More than 1230 people died on our roads in December 2004 — about 39 deaths for each day of the month. Yet, despite Arrive Alive’s extensive campaigns, December 2005 saw this figure jump by more than 16% to 1446 fatalities - roughly 46 road deaths each day. Given that more than 90% of these crashes were due to lawlessness (with alcohol a factor in at least 57% of the fatalities), one could conclude that frightening figures have no effect at all.

Stats don’t reach people
"Stats just don’t have an impact," says psychologist Dr Helgo Schomer, who specialises in self-destructive behaviour pattern modification. “Even among statistics professionals, the consensus is that most stats simply don’t reach people.”

And while this is partly because we don’t relate numbers to real people or personal experiences — unless we’ve been directly affected, says Terry Dowdall, a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at the University of Cape Town — ignoring figures like the road death toll is also a kind of defence mechanism. "We can’t stay in a state of high alert. We’d get sick if we worried all the time about the implications of these statistics. We’re designed to screen out repeated information that isn’t a direct threat. It’s how people manage."

And because the facts and figures don’t have an impact on us, getting road users to behave more responsibly by using stats is even more problematic. "Changing behaviour is notoriously difficult,” stresses Schomer. "You need insight into a person’s belief system, their attitude, cultural background and upbringing to know who will respond to a particular message." According to Schomer, we usually only respond when facing a direct threat. "Most of us need a harsh, physical wake-up call before change is possible, and the stats don’t impress."

Stats don’t change behaviour
But if this is the case, why do campaigns like Arrive Alive persist with the statistical approach? "We use the cumulative death toll per year to show people the seriousness of the situation and to emphasise the consequences of reckless behaviour," says Ntau Letebele, spokesperson for the Arrive Alive campaign.

According to Letebele, Arrive Alive has been successful in creating awareness about road safety, but significantly less so in actually changing people’s behaviour. "It’s proving difficult to translate what road users know about road safety into safe behaviour."

It’s likely that this type of appeal will resonate loudest with people who are already aware of the road safety message. "People generally say socially responsible things like they’ll be more careful, but it’s hard to say whether this will translate into behaviour change," says Neil Higgs, a director at Research Surveys.

"International research suggests it’s possible that already considerate drivers will simply reinforce their behaviour through this type of message, while bad drivers will either rationalise their behaviour or disassociate from the message and continue as usual," according to Higgs.

We are regularly exposed to statistics — the growing number of people with HIV, crime statistics, and yes, the road death toll. The message may not always jolt us into action, but it’s worth avoiding becoming "just another statistic".

(This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the January 2007 edition of Shape magazine. For more great stories from Shape, visit


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