Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

Facts On Death Aren’t Enough

In the early 60s, people still died of tetanus even though the vaccine was readily available. A psychologist named Howard Leventhal set out to increase inoculation against the lethal infection.

He started small and tried to persuade a group of college seniors of Yale University to get a tetanus shot.

“Education alone won’t do the trick,” thought Leventhal. “Let’s see if fear spurs my students into action.”

So he split the seniors into two groups and gave everyone a seven-page booklet explaining the dangers of tetanus, the importance of inoculation, and that the university was handing out free tetanus shots for students.

The difference between the two groups was that one got a ‘no-nonsense’ booklet and the other a ‘scary’ booklet.

The scary booklet described tetanus in a way that made it seem to loom over you by using phrases like “under your finger-nails” and “in your mouth.” It also described the symptoms so that the words created a vivid image, “his back arched upwards, his head whipped back, his mouth slammed shut.”

To top it off, the scary booklet included colour photographs of a convulsing child and patients with tracheotomy wounds, urinary catheters, and nasal tubes.

Photos that clearly startled the students.

In the no-nonsense booklet, the photographs were left out, the symptoms were described in unemotional terms, and the cases weren’t as severe.

But the point was the same: shots are the only way to protect yourself against tetanus.

After reading the booklet, students were asked to fill out a questionnaire.

The answers were, on the whole, predictable.

All the test subjects felt informed about the dangers of tetanus. And the high-fear group was clearly more convinced of the importance of an inoculation.

But here’s the kicker.

Although a large portion of the high-fear group said they intended to get the shots, few did.

After one month of checking the campus health center, only 3% of the students got inoculated.

Leventhal’s booklets didn’t spur the students into action. So he returned to the drawing board and revised the booklet.

A seemingly insignificant change got the result Leventhal was looking for.

The latest booklet included a map with directions to the health center and listed the times that you could get your shots.

After a new batch of senior students finished the booklet, almost a third got inoculated. Inoculations went up by almost 30%.


Senior students without a doubt know where the health buildings are. So more information didn’t grease the unconvinced wheels of the subjects.

What then?

The presentation!

Before, both booklets simply informed and warned the reader. But after the revision, the booklets became personal guides concerned about your wellbeing.

Information alone doesn’t lead to change. You need the right packaging.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach