Why Good Information Often Fails to Get Results

Your company has achieved a breakthrough in the treatment of a serious illness and has just received FDA approval.  As a biotechnology executive or sales and marketing professional, you just can’t wait to get the information out to physicians and medical centers.  You hope that once they read what your company has done, they’ll immediately start prescribing your new medication or medical device. You’re looking forward to improved patient outcomes and a better bottom line.

 It is certainly possible that your marketing campaign will play out just as described above.  But it’s just as likely that it won’t.  As doctors read your information sheets and learn of the FDA’s approval, their confidence in their present treatment for this disorder will likely start to slip. Most people would expect that as physicians start to question their old beliefs they will avidly pursue the facts you’ve uncovered, and a better day for both patients and your company will have arrived.

 But according to renowned social psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson and researcher Dr. Lance Canon, the moment the average person starts to feel that their old idea might be wrong is the moment they will likely put your factual information aside and turn their attention to something else.  Canon found that as our confidence is weakened, we often become less likely to listen to arguments against our beliefs.  As social psychologist and textbook author David Myers, PhD put it, “people also tend not to seek information that might disprove what they believe.”  This can be particularly true of medical professionals, who have been trained to be conservative and skeptical of new ideas.

Even genuine breakthrough treatments can be slow to gain acceptance

These factors might explain why Nobel prizewinners Barry Marshall and Robin Warren had to wait so long before anyone would take seriously their discovery that the bacterium H. pylori was the true cause of peptic and duodenal ulcers rather than stress, spicy food and excess alcohol, as once believed.  As Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Chip Heath and Duke University fellow Dan Health point out, Marshall was a staff pathologist at a community hospital and Warren was an intern – not exactly the type of doctors normally responsible for groundbreaking medical research.  Despite the ease and minimal risk of prescribing a course of antibiotics for chronic ulcer patients, few doctors would consider trying it.  Marshall and Warren’s research was even rejected for publication in peer-review journals.

 No one paid much attention to their important finding until Marshall took drastic action. With an empty stomach and a lab full of colleagues, he had an endoscopic exam to document his gastric health, then downed a glass containing about one billion H. pylori bacteria.  Within days he began to experience pain, nausea and vomiting.  A second endoscopy revealed that his once healthy pink GI tract was now red, raw and inflamed. With that he cured himself with a regimen of antibiotics and bismuth.  While this demonstration did not provide conclusive proof, its audacity and results inspired other researchers to set up the studies that brought confirmation.  Even then, it was a full 10 years before the National Institute of Health recommended antibiotics as the preferred treatment for GI ulcers.  A number of other important findings similarly met resistance, then slow acceptance from the medical community.

How to help your breakthrough gain acceptance

So, if your company has made an important breakthrough and you want the newly approved treatment to gain wide acceptance, what should you do?  Dr. Aronson, the only man in history to win all three of the American Psychological Association’s top awards for distinguished research, teaching and writing, states that information campaigns can succeed if they follow these three rules:

  1.  Make the informational materials entertaining to avoid the brain’s automatic tendency to argue against any idea that threatens its sense of being right
  2. Do not directly attack the reader’s attitudes and beliefs
  3. Use marketing tactics proven by scientific research to make your materials persuasive

Although information campaigns that entertain or engage the emotions may seem unscientific, solid scientific studies have demonstrated that tactic’s power to change even strongly entrenched beliefs.  If done with wisdom and skill it can have excellent effects.  Perhaps your company’s important new treatment can be adopted in a shorter time frame.  That could prove beneficial to investors and patients alike.


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