A recent Washington Post piece entitled, Public ignorance, brown cows, and the origins of chocolate milk, explores the implications of a recent survey, which revealed that apparently, 7 percent of Americans believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. The author of the piece (and my former constitutional law professor), Ilya Somin, makes the argument that this sort of ignorance (and other sorts of ignorance, such as 66 percent of Americans not being able to name the three branches of our government) are not necessarily the result of “stupidity” but rather largely the result of rational behavior. Professor Somin argues:
We all have limited time, energy, and attention, and so can learn only a small fraction of all the information out there. It makes sense for us to focus on that which is likely to be useful or interesting. For many people, large swathes of basic political and scientific facts don’t qualify. (Emphasis added.)
This piece ties into larger arguments that Professor Somin has made regarding political ignorance (he, in fact, is the author of a book, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter) where he also notes the distinction between ignorance and apathy. In a Forbes interview promoting the second edition of his book, Professor Somin points out:
It is also possible to be ignorant about a subject without being apathetic. For example, I am by no means apathetic about the search for a cure for cancer; I very much hope it succeeds. But I devote very little effort to keeping up with the relevant science. Similarly, a politically apathetic person just does not care what the government does. But an ignorant person might well care, but still not devote much time to learning about politics because doing so is highly unlikely to have any effect.
Professor Somin’s research and arguments are primarily geared towards developing solutions to combat the pervasiveness of political ignorance in our society. However, for us communicators, his arguments are useful in reminding us of a very important notion: the problem with our messaging isn’t always that it’s just too complicated or technical to resonate. More likely, it’s just not very useful or interesting to our audience.
If nearly two-thirds of Americans don’t deem the simple fact that our government is made up of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches to be either “useful or interesting” enough to commit to memory, then what percentage do you think will find your specific lawsuit or crisis useful or interesting enough to act in whatever way you hope they will act? What percentage do you think will find your specific side of the story in your lawsuit or crisis useful or interesting enough to act in whatever way you hope they will act?
It’s not always enough to “dumb down” your messaging or to present your side in a sympathetic light. As Professor Somin points out, a lack of engagement does not necessarily indicate stupidity or apathy. If you really want to engage your target audience and ensure that your message is engrained in their minds, then you need a communications strategy that really understands that audience and presents that message in a way that is either useful or interesting (or both!).