wellness education in 1953

The cast and crew of the 2011 SmART Squad introduced to me Archive.Org, an amazing resource for public health and ephemeral films of the 40’s-80’s.

Like this one.

It’s hilarious and kitschy and adorable to say things like, “Going to the toilet to stay clean inside, washing with soap and water to stay clean outside, and brushing your teeth to keep them clean are good health practices to follow every night at bedtime.”

But what makes these films so hilarious to someone like me, a professional health educator, is how unlikely they are to be effective in getting people to improve their health behavior.

If just TELLING people to practice health behaviors (e.g., “Eat more fruits and vegetables!” or “Get 7-9 hours of sleep!” or “Don’t drink too much alcohol!”) made people actually DO those things, we’d all be totally healthy. But that’s not how it works – and yet all the videos of this genre rely utterly on the declarative sentence, announced cheerfully and confidently, as though that’s all it takes to persuade someone or create an environment where it’s both possible and important to do those things.

In Dan Ariely’s book, The Up Side of Irrationality, he mentions asking his students, “What would motivate someone to give money to feed starving children? Students routinely say, “Just tell people the statistics, tell them how many children are hungry, tell them how important it is to help.”

And students often tell me the same thing about wellness on campus – “If only more students knew this stuff about sleep/alcohol/stress/relationships!”

But the research is unambiguous: knowing isn’t enough, and sometimes knowing even makes it LESS likely that people will do what you’d like them to do! Tell a person the statistics about starving children and they’ll just feel overwhelmed, like their contribution couldn’t possibly make a difference, and so they do nothing.

But tell a person the story of ONE starving child, and they’ll feel they can make a big difference for that one little kid who needs their help. Then you can be a hero!

And, in parallel, help a person think specifically about a time when they could have used information about sleep/alcohol/stress/relationships, and they’ll feel a gap in their own knowledge, a little vacuum that motivates them to inhale the information you have to offer.

Or ask a person to consider what’s good about their current behavior (like drinking alcohol or smoking tobacco), then ask them what’s not-so-good. Then ask them to consider what they might do to maximize that good stuff while minimizing the risk of the not-so-good stuff.

Those are just two examples of the kinds of health messages that actually result in increased motivation to change and a greater likelihood of actually making different, more healthful choices.

Health communication has come a long way in the last 60 years (though that doesn’t stop some state health departments from creating totally 1953-esque messages!). So when you see wellness education events and materials around campus, you might think about why that information is being presented in the way it is.

In fact, you might think that about ANY health information you receive! How does it make you feel? Will it change your behavior? Who benefits from me feeling this way or making a different choice?

And in the meantime, how about a moment of gratitude to archive.org for the hilariously awesome vintage public health movies!


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