Research Tells Us Why Your Audiences Don’t Listen; Here’s What To Do About It

By Tamara Murray

When was the last time you wanted to feel sad and helpless?

You’re not alone. It’s human nature to gravitate away from what makes us feel bad. In fact, most people avoid information that’s painful, unpleasant, or uncomfortable. Scientists call this phenomenon “information aversion.”

Information aversion has major implications for you and your cause. Most organizations, in an effort to rally support, shine a spotlight on the problems and injustices they’re working to solve: poverty, climate change, out-of-control healthcare costs. If only people knew just how deep the suffering goes, we think.

Meanwhile, our audiences are thinking:

So what’s the solution? Humor.

There’s nothing funny about my issue, you may be thinking, but please humor me. (Pun intended.) Let’s geek out for a moment on the science, and then I’ll show you how others are doing it.

Information Aversion 101

I heard about information aversion recently from NPR’s social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam at frank, a gathering for social-change communicators. He told us about a fascinating study on something deeply upsetting: cancer.

Imagine an office, filled with people who see each other and work together day in and day out. Then imagine that one of those people was diagnosed with breast cancer.

You would think that this horrible diagnosis would strike a chord with female colleagues in the office and motivate them to get screened, right?

Wrong. The women in the office were less likely to get a mammogram. Why? Information aversion. They didn’t want to know, because the information was potentially painful and scary.

But that has to do with one’s own health, not the well-being of others. What about when others’ well-being is on the line?

Vedantam told us about another experiment in which participants were asked whether they would save a drowning child if they were sure it would not be dangerous to themselves. Overwhelmingly, people said yes. But when told that there were two drowning children and they could only save one, then fewer people said yes. Why? It was too painful to imagine not being able to save the second one, so they chose no action at all.

If it is human nature to avoid painful information and feelings, we must help our audiences overcome this before they’re willing to take action in support of our cause. That brings us back to humor.

Humor is one of the ways people cope with uncomfortable or upsetting information. It eases our anxiety. And though humor isn’t the only strategy at our disposal, it’s one we often overlook or dismiss because we’re afraid it won’t be tasteful or will trivialize our cause.

Humor in Action

Let’s look at three examples of causes using humor, and then we’ll discuss.



Funny, right?

Imagine for a moment that these were your run-of-the-mill issue ads on overturning the blood ban, encouraging young people to sign up for Obamacare, and water conservation. More serious ads may have triggered subconscious reactions among audiences, like this:

  • Blood Ban: It’s depressing to know people are afraid of me/my friend/my relative. Will we ever have to stop fighting?
  • Obamacare: Stop telling me I’m going to get sick. I have my whole life ahead of me.
  • Drought: I’ve already let my lawn go. I’m tired of hearing how bad this drought is when I can’t control the weather!

All of these equal one thing: apathy. And apathy leads to tuning out and not taking action.

Humor took these serious issues and made them more palatable for their audiences. Once the issue is more palatable, audiences are willing to keep listening.

If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this, it’s that we need humor in our toolbox if we’re to overcome our audiences’ natural inclination to tune out upsetting information. The next time you’re creating a campaign or doing message testing or research, don’t forget to see what tickling the funny bone can do.

Are there other campaigns you’ve seen that use humor effectively? Let us know in the comments.