Visuals: Appealing to the Nay-Sayers

While most nonprofit communicators don’t even attempt to influence people who are not supporters of their cause, there are times when we need to reach even that hardest-to-reach group. Countering misinformation is one of those times, especially when nay-sayers are heavily influencing the conversation to the detriment of the public good.

Take two good examples: climate change and vaccinations. While strong science has backed both the existence of climate change and the safety of vaccinations, we are still caught in the conversation of controversy. In many cases, this controversy is the cause of inaction that is contributing to increasing and compounding harm.

So, how can we appeal to this group of disbelievers? A recent study, published in the August issue of the Journal of Communication, highlights the power of imagery. Instead of causing the dreaded boomerang effect, making the opposition’s opinions even more entrenched, the study found that including visual imagery of scientists in an article about vaccines and autism helped overcome people’s disregard toward scientific authority[1].

In the study, which focused on the autism-vaccine controversy, researchers found that using a message that included both sides of the story but pointed out that scientific evidence only supported one side, was helpful in swaying people who were already likely to trust scientific authority. However, including an image made a significant difference in peoples’ personal beliefs about vaccines regardless of their trust in science.

The authors state, ”It could be that a weight-of-evidence message that proves a greater illustration of the representation of scientists’ beliefs – such as a photograph of a group of scientists – can overcome biases that interfere with message effects, such as low deference to scientific authority.”

The article provides two useful points for nonprofit communicators. As we all learned in high school, including counterarguments increases the credibility of persuasive messages. If the findings of this study hold true for the larger population, a good way to rebut an argument would be to highlight where scientific consensus or the facts stand. Even better? Also include an image that underscores your point.

[1] Dixon, G. N., McKeever, B. W., Holton, A. E., Clarke, C., & Eosco, G. (2015). The power of a picture: Overcoming scientific misinformation by communicating weight-of-evidence information with visual exemplars. Journal of Communication, 65(4), 639–659.

Image credit: Audibert