Ending AIDS and drowning pose similar challenges. Both are complex issues with many variables and both require a change in behavior involving a pleasurable experience that humans feel a primal urge to explore. Convincing people to change their behavior around water is every bit as difficult as convincing people to change their sexual behavior.
What is working to change behavior to reduce the transmission of AIDS and what can we learn that can be applied to ending drowning?
Let’s take a minute to take a deeper look at the similarities between sex and water, because these similarities are critical in understanding what successful aspects of the campaign to end AIDS may also work to end drowning. Sex is a natural and pleasurable human desire. It is, at it’s most fundamental level, necessary for the human race to continue. Water is also a life-sustaining source of pleasure. It’s importance to society is evidenced by it’s role in every religion and in our increasing awareness of the necessity for conserving and preserving our water resources. It also provides a more primal pleasure – a cool drink on a hot day, sinking into a hot bath, diving into a pristine lake, watching the eternal action of the waves. Water, like sex, is the source of deep, primal, sensual pleasure.
Why would anyone want to stop doing something that feels good?
How do you change people’s behavior when their current behavior provides positive feedback every single time they engage – except for one, unexpected, fatal time?
Constantly warning of the dangers, of the one time that will ultimately be fatal, never mind the hundreds or thousands of times an activity brings only joy, does not work. It’s basically a reverse lottery, and the overwhelming odds are in the favor of the good outcome, not the fatal outcome. It’s like saying ‘don’t kiss your beloved, you might catch a cold someday that could turn into pneumonia and kill you’.
The most effective way to change someone’s behavior is using joy. Using joy to redirect behavior in a positive but safer direction. There is a significant body of research that proves that public health campaigns that focus on positive messages are more likely to result in internalized and sustainable change in behavior. The reason is simple. People like to do what feels good. The best roadmap for how positive change can be integrated into a campaign is in Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard”.
I’m not saying that we can do away with warning signs, beach flags and ‘this is how drowning can occur’ campaigns in the favor of all of us dancing through the daisies singing perky songs, but without consistent and intentional acknowledgement of the joy that water brings us and no redirection to alternative pleasurable ways of behaving in and around water, it is exceedingly unlikely we will ever see a permanent downward shift in drowning rates.
Let’s look at the issue of AIDS again. Condom distribution programs have been among the more successful programs at curbing the transmission of AIDS. It’s not banning the desirable behavior, it’s altering it to make the behavior safer. Programs that focused only on abstinence and the negative outcomes of unprotected sex have been unsuccessful at best and potentially dangerous at worst. “Just say no” has never worked as a measurably effective campaign. Not for AIDS, not for drugs, not for poor eating habits, and not for drowning. Abstinence campaigns may provide a fleeting frisson of moral superiority for some, but not much more.
I’ve written before about unintended outcomes. Is it possible that campaigns that preached abstinence as the only way of avoiding AIDS led some to believe that having sex with someone who did abstain (i.e. virgins, young children) would cure them? A tremendous leap of unsubstantiated conjecture on my part, but perhaps one that may merit some research, or at least contemplation. In our communications about the dangers of water, have we unwittingly encouraged risky behavior? In our culture of extreme sports and ‘watch me!’ social media have we essentially provided a road map to the most risky behavior around water?
We do have evidence that programs that work to positively change behavior around water do work. The best examples are the survival swim programs. SwimSafe.org has shown that the behavior changes are measurable (drowning rates are 93% lower for participants) and sustainable, not to mention cost-effective. Similar programs are being implemented from organizations as large as Lifesaving Society Canada and as small as Triam Suska School in Thailand.
What positive messages can you incorporate into your work? How can you positively change behavior?
Positive. Sustainable. Internalized Behavioral Change. Joy.
These are the keys to ending drowning.