Why the Messenger is Important for Behaviour Change

Why the Messenger is Important for Behaviour Change

27 March 2020 0 By Rhi Willmot

What is it? Why are some people able to deliver messages that are listened to, believed and acted upon, whilst others are not? Evidence shows we are heavily influenced by who communicates information, not just what they say (1). This is because our willingness to listen is most strongly driven by an emotional response rather than a rational one (2). In particular, we are most likely to listen to people who are similar to us, we have respect for, or feel emotionally connected to (3).

For new messengers, we make assumptions about what someone knows, assess their perceived skills and judge what kind of person they are, all within about 50 milliseconds (4). This automatic reaction is typically based on someone’s physical characteristics, facial expression, body language and speech (3).

When responding to those we already know, emotional reactions still play a significant role. The extent to which we like a source, whether that be in person, on television, a letter or online, critically dictates whether or not we will listen1. As such, identifying and utilising effective messengers is critical for behaviour change surrounding Covid-19.

How to use it:

1) Choosing a messenger: We either listen to people we respect or people we like. The most important characteristics for respect are socioeconomic position, competence, dominance and attractiveness. For liking, we are heavily influenced by warmth, vulnerability, trustworthiness and charisma.

2) A little help from my friends: We are more likely to listen to people who share the same characteristics and background as us, so creating messages which can travel through friendship groups, such as videos or memes, are particularly powerful in convincing others. This effect is especially strong in low socioeconomic populations.

3) Role models: Just like the use celebrity endorsement in selling products, identifying popular individuals within a target group to deliver a message can be hugely influential in changing perceptions and behaviour. This could be a household name, or an individual who commands respect within the local community.

4) Don’t shoot the messenger: We irrationally discard advice from sources we dislike, even if we actually agree with the message (5). For this reason, it is sometimes prudent to reduce or eliminate the extent to which widely unpopular messengers are used, for example removing branding information or using a third party to communicate advice.


  1. Webb, T. L. & Sheeran, P. Does Changing Behavioral Intentions Engender Behavior Change? A Meta-Analysis of the Experimental Evidence. Psychol. Bull. 132, 249–268 (2006).
  2. Dolan, P. et al. Influencing behaviour: The mindspace way. J. Econ. Psychol. 33, 264–277 (2012).
  3. Martin, S. & Marks, J. Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, And Why. (Random House, 2019).
  4. Ambady, N. & Rosenthal, R. Half a Minute: Predicting Teacher Evaluations From Thin Slices of Nonverbal Behavior and Physical Attractiveness. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 64, 431–441 (1993).
  5. Wall, J. D., Palvia, P. & Lowry, P. B. Control-Related Motivations and Information Security Policy Compliance: The Role of Autonomy and Efficacy. J. Inf. Priv. Secur. 9, 52–79 (2013).