Scientists Give PR People a Hand with Two Recent Studies

Last Updated Oct 5, 2007 6:47 PM EDT

Scientists Give PR People a Hand With Two Recent StudiesThe results of two interesting social science studies relevant to PR and marketing professionals are out this week.

Imagine that when you were small, your mother consistently criticized some aspect of the way you performed or presented yourself. Later you grew up and decided (perhaps after years of therapy) that your mother was, how do we say this delicately, less than rational on this particular point. Yet every time you go to do that thing she disapproved of, you feel the hovering ghost of her criticism. It's a phenomena everyone can understand, and now scientists have proven what we've all suspected all along: negativity is contagious and, once you've caught it, hard to kick.

This information is of use not only to psychologists, but also to anyone concerned with her company or product's public image. The research was reported yesterday in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Consumers were presented with information about a new product and allowed to independently form their evaluations... some of these evaluations were positive and others negative. The researchers then revealed to participants whether their peers evaluated the product negatively or positively. They found that the opinions of others exert especially strong influence on individual attitudes when these opinions are negative. Additionally, consumers that privately held positive attitudes toward the product were more susceptible to influence from group opinion than those who initially held negative opinions.
What's even more interesting is that the researchers found that "those with negative opinions of the product were likely to become even more negative if asked to participate in a group discussion." Marketers beware this truth in the age of MySpace, blogging and general hyper communication.

Further bad news for PR people trying to counter negative impressions or rumors about their clients: yesterday the Washington Post reported on the persistence of myth. A psychologist at the University of Michigan has found that when people attempt to dispel myths and rumors (Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11 is the example used,) the repetition of the false claim actually ends up reinforcing the incorrect belief. The brain hears the repetition, disregards that little 'not' tacked on, and due to a bias hard-wired into the way we think, judges that the oft-repeated must be true. If you really want to dispel a rumor, the researchers recommend that, "rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth."

(Image of Exploratorium exhibit by Jose C Silva, CC 2.0)

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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.