“Why do they keep doing that?!”: Researchers look at cognitive differences and ‘smart’ messages

Different people respond differently to the same information. This divergence in reactions is especially concerning when considering emergency preparedness for catastrophic situations. Indeed, the conventional “one simple instructive message” approach can have unintended adverse consequences. Sarah Baisley (Psychology-Neuroscience) and Lori Medders (Center Director) reveal potentially innate psychological differences to explain differing responses not already explained by personal circumstances, such as age, financial situation, and physical constraints. Their study examines three well-known cognitive, psychological constructs as measures of these innate differences – cognitive reflection, need for cognitive closure, and psychological function preferences.

The data reveal who innately: 1) makes the best decisions without full information; 2) is the most/ least receptive to simple, instructive messages; and 3) is the most credible information intermediary. According to the findings, those who tend to make the best decisions under normal circumstances using uncertain or incomplete information (measured by cognitive reflection testing) may be the least receptive to the simple, instructive message approach frequently used in emergency preparedness. Furthermore, those who make the best information intermediaries are most likely a subset of this same group – those who respond well to an abundance of information and do not respond well to the concise directive.

Nevertheless, once a deadline (or immediate crisis) approaches, people increase in their need to “decide something” (measured by the need for cognitive closure score), and generally all become more receptive to simple, instructive messages than they may be under normal circumstances (no immediate crisis). These findings are particularly important for business continuity and emergency management communications in promoting optimal emergency preparedness and response. First, professionals invested in the safety of others and their properties may better understand their constituents’ informational needs than they did prior to this research. Rather than having one target audience they have multiple target audiences to whom they want to appeal who have different thinking styles, information needs and reflectiveness. Emergency professionals can try multiple styles of messages within one overall messaging “package” to appeal to various “thinking” groups. They can also send multiple separate messages, using a style in each that appeals to a particular thinking style or need.

Framing and targeting for maximum economy and effectiveness, there is the desire to find or develop messages that cut across people’s thinking differences, but these may be best left for crisis situations and emergency response. Digital information and social media have increased the amount and speed of available information, as well as people’s information expectations. These advances also enable “smart” messaging, wherein predictive technology can accurately guess the personal circumstances and innate psychology of a message’s “target” individual. This ability may lead to better messaging and outcomes and thus improved designs for cognitive behavior modification and incentive systems. Baisley and Medders’s initial research findings are forthcoming in the Journal of Business Continuity and Emergency Management.