Any government or organisation seeking to implement policies based on the intuition of politicians, policy advisers, civil servants, senior executives, managers and other self-anointed ‘experts’ should beware that their compellingly plausible initiatives do not fall foul of the dreaded Clowns Fallacy.
The Clowns Fallacy
The principal lesson for policy and practice that I have named the Clowns Fallacy, comes from a study conducted by Curtis (2007), which reveals that what children like can be counter-intuitive to plausible yet unevidenced adult beliefs about childrens' likes and dislikes.
Curtis's Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded research involving 250 children in hospital looked at hospital design and in doing so revealed the dangers of intuitive and well intentioned schemes. Curtis exposed an example of the harmful folly of adults who decided to decorate children's' wards with clown pictures to make hospitalized children feel safe and happy. Because it had exactly the opposite effect to the one intended.
The Clown Fallacy lesson is simple:
Don't be a duffas and jump in with huge clown feet. Instead, do the research to first do no harm
The Clowns Fallacy is based on the reality that contrary to the unfounded beliefs and good intentions of self anointed 'expert' hospital managers everywhere, children in fact find clown motifs "frightening and unknowable". Such fear of clowns is shared by many and is called coulrophobia.
Do Media Initiatives Change Attitudes in the Desired Direction?
According to the criminologist Paul Ekblom pickpockets admitted to lurking by signs designed to warn potential victims in order to see where people reassuringly patted their wallets. This then made picking their wallets much easier. This story is mentioned at page 120 of Clarke (1995).
How do we know whether or not attitude change poster and other media campaigns devised by committees, advertising executives - including that old favorite fall-back of the intuitive 'experts' that are campaigns designed for young people by young people - actually work in the right direction?
The telling question here is: could they make things worse through backfire, problem displacement, or escalation?
How do we know, for example, that anti-knife crime posters, designed by young people to influence young people, do not make people (young and old) more fearful of knife attacks and lead them to arm themselves for self defence?
Race’ and ethnic prejudice reduction and other attitude change
Uninformed, intuitive, and compellingly plausible good intentions may have the opposite to intended effect in sensitive areas of social policy where 'race' and ethnic bias is involved and where prejudice and attitude change is the goal (Sutton et al 2007). Uninformed initiatives can actually increase the prejudice and victimisation that they are seeking to reduce.
Beware, therefore, because letting untested attitude campaigns loose in a social environment may well be worse than ineffective because it may actually increase the very problem that the campaign is seeking to reduce.
First do no harm
A classic example of good non clownmongering practice can be found In a study of vandalism on London buses. In this case, Clarke's conclusions based on a research study (Clarke et al 1978) enabled him to avoid being a clownmonger, because he observed that, although buses with conductors had less vandalism, they had more assaults against staff (conductors) and so he refused to recommend that London bus companes solve the vandalism problem by employing more conductors. Hence Clarke's observation of the facts facilitated foreseeable unintended crime prevention consequences. And so crime displacement from vandalism to violence was avoided in this case.
Don't rely upon un-evidenced intuitive, compelling 'belief'. Because what works is often counter-intuitive, as is what backfires. Only research can determine the effectiveness of policy. And while clowns don't do research, research shows that they do backfire quite a bit.
Clarke (1978) showed how just a little further research can reduce clowngering. As another example, I particualrly like the notion seeking to be on the leading rather than the bleeding edge of innovation by seekng out good innovative pratice from one area into your own:here.
Clarke, Ronald. V. (1995) Situational Crime Prevention. In Tonry, M and Farrington, D. P.(eds) Building a Safer Society: Strategic Approaches to Crime prevention. Crime and Justice A Review of Research Edited by Michael Tonry. Volume 19. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. Note: The actual study that Clarke cites is Ekblom P (1991) Talking to offenders: Practical Lessons for Local Crime prevention. In Urban Crime: Statistical Approaches and Analysis. Edited by Oriol Nel-o. Barcelona: Insitut d’Estudis Metropolitans de Barcelona.