Public health leaflets are failing to incorporate the lessons learned by health psychology research. That’s according to Charles Abraham and colleagues, who looked at the specific case of public health leaflets designed to encourage people to drink alcohol more sensibly – a burning issue in the UK where 23 per cent of men and 9 per cent of women are estimated to binge drink.
A key finding in psychology is that people are more likely to make the effort to change their behaviour if they believe they have the ability, the ‘self-efficacy’, to do so. And yet of 31 alcohol leaflets available in the UK, Abraham’s team found none encouraged readers that they have the ability to abstain or drink moderately. Similarly, only 7 per cent of British leaflets gave instructions on how to set oneself drinking-related goals – the kind of information that can bolster a person’s belief in their ability to change.
Other research shows that people’s behaviour is strongly influenced by anticipated regret, and yet only 7 per cent of UK leaflets warned readers that they were likely to regret drinking too much. Nearly all leaflets warned about the negative health consequences of drinking too much, but fewer than half the leaflets warned readers about the negative psychological consequences.
It was a similar story for leaflets available in the Netherlands and in Germany. The researchers concluded their findings had highlighted a communication gap “between, on the one hand, psychologists who apply predictive models to alcohol use and make recommendations concerning potentially effective persuasive communication and, on the other hand, health promoters who write educational leaflets designed to reduce alcohol intake.”
Alcohol leaflets could easily be re-written to incorporate 30 key theory-based messages, without becoming any longer than they are already, the researchers said.
Abraham, C., Southby, L., Quandte, S., Krahe, B. & Van Der Sluijs, W. (2007). What’s in a leaflet? Identifying research-based persuasive messages in European alcohol-education leaflets. Psychology and Health, 22, 31-60.