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Public Health: Why Facts Alone Don't Change Opinions

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I knew we were on to something.

For much of 2013, our team at Provide explored ideas about how we could move people on the issue of abortion in deeply conservative and seemingly entrenched places. We considered that the facts are on our side -- again and again abortion has been proven safe and access to abortion essential to the lives and well-being of women.

We considered the many roles that people in these places play -- in their jobs, their families, their communities, and in their own personal, professional and spiritual lives -- and the challenge of navigating the often difficult topic of abortion in a politically charged environment. We considered the many conflicts that can arise when the need for abortion clashes with social and professional norms, personal discomfort, and outright opposition. And we determined that facts alone are not enough -- we needed to offer a way to help people work through the tensions and contradictions.

A story aired on NPR this week offered another example of a public health issue that sits in this conflict-ridden space - vaccinations. And its main message reinforces our findings: facts alone are not enough and can even damage efforts to achieve important health-related goals. The story describes a study that examines the effect vaccine safety messages have on attitudes and behaviors relating to vaccination. Among the 1,700 parents surveyed, they found that while parents who receive information about the safety of vaccines become more likely to think that vaccines are safe, many become less likely to say they would vaccinate their child. Their hypothesis? That when people are confronted with new information that contradicts a current belief it damages their sense of identity and causes them to fight back against it, essentially digging in their heels even if they accept the information as true.

At Provide, we are using a curriculum that we developed out of our 2013 work to support health and social service providers to be able to counsel and refer patients and clients around abortion. Drawing on cognitive dissonance theory, which explores how people respond to conflicting information and values, we validate that people hold range of positions about abortion and create opportunities for people to explore and reconcile contradictions between their personal beliefs, community and social norms, and the needs and decisions of their patients and clients.

Like the researchers working on messages regarding vaccines, we have much to learn about the effect this approach will ultimately have on people's attitudes and behaviors. But our initial evaluation results are exciting. And understanding the dynamics at play in the context not only of abortion but for a range of controversial topics gives us important perspective on how abortion is both unique and isn't. We are seeing positive shifts in both attitudes and intended behaviors about abortion -- and a promising approach for a whole range of issues that as a whole are part of people having the resources and support to lead healthy lives.

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