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Behaviour Change within the Gun Debate

If you are one of the people shouting at your television last week as 19 small children and 2 teachers were laid to rest amidst the gun debate in America, you probably were incensed by the inability of the other side to make sense of the 'real problem'.


In behavior change, we know that attitudes or beliefs are one of the strongest elements or triggers of behavior. A 2018 paper published in Social Science Quarterly explains that one of the biggest reasons that gun regulation is so contentious is because there are two groups of people and each group differs in how they make sense of mass shootings.


Joslyn & Haider-Markel found that people who don't own guns often blame mass shootings on the widespread availability of guns. Gun owners don't make this deduction. At all. Gun owners don't believe that the likelihood for a mass shooting would be alleviated through greater regulation of guns.


In a 2017 CNN poll, one of the questions asked of 2000 respondents was: "Which of the following do you think is the primary cause of gun violence in America — the availability of guns, the way parents raise their children, or the influences of popular culture such as movies, television, and the Internet?"

Respondents who didn't own guns were divided in their answers, between gun availability (35.8 percent) and popular culture (37.6 percent).


By contrast, gun owners chose gun availability only 10 percent of the time, instead favoring popular culture (44.4 percent) and parents (41.5 percent).


As behaviour changers how do we address this?


Well, when we want to address and persuade people at the individual level, here are evidence-based approaches and strategies:

  • Make sure that our messages are relevant and not too discrepant from the beliefs of the person we are trying to influence. This means simply telling them they are wrong will not get us anywhere. But by appealing to the common areas of agreement, we can start to gain ground. For example, 19 small children died on Tuesday in Uvalde - if the person you are talking to is a parent or has young children in their lives, appeal to them as a parent. Talk about how everyone wants to keep their families safe and how the easy availability of an assault rifle to that gunman annihilated the ability of those families to protect their children in their classroom.

  • Behavior research invites us to use elements of surprise (an example might be: 'Imagine if your child was locked in a classroom with a man wielding an assault rifle - what could keep that scenario from becoming reality?) This should never be constructed as a threat, but instead posed to carefully personalize the debate to allow them to feel what the victims felt/feel.

  • Use plenty of repetition. Educational psychology tells us that learners need to authentically apply a concept seven times before they 'get it'. And if they don't want to learn the concept, they need far more repetitions. State your points again and say them different ways - well beyond those initial seven times. But try to avoid repeating their arguments back - the science shows that they are more likely to hear you say those words and thus the very thing you are arguing against is tuck even tighter. Keep saying the facts, the information and personal angle of the information to help cement your point. For this post, I won't show a picture of a gun, because that triggers (pardon the pun) a possible perception that this post is pro-guns and limited English readers may see a gun picture and think this is a post FOR guns. Not what we are going for.

  • Always, always, always tailor the message to the audience. Make sure you communicate in a way that is familiar to them using local context and data. If you know of someone in that target group who also disagrees, use them to bolster the facts. They are a trusted channel of communication - use their name or ask them to join the conversation.

  • We can say that we do not disagree with their belief, but it's even better when we just keep saying what WE believe, and the facts which run counter to their belief. But do so respectfully. When we outright attack them or their beliefs, they will shut down.

  • When the discussion gets heated - and it likely will - remind yourself to reiterate to the other person that you are equals and that you respect them, and you want to keep the discussion civil. If it becomes uncivil, disengage. Thank them for their time and back off.

  • Note that if you choose to not say anything, you run the risk of implying agreement with what they are saying. But your safety is foremost.

Curious to hear what strategies YOU have tried...



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