Preventing Cancer: Boobs, Balls and Biases

Recently I had the pleasure of being involved in a project aimed to increase awareness of Cancer in secondary school pupils at Riddlesdown School. In collaboration with CoppaFeel, a charity aimed to encourage girls of all ages to check themselves for breast cancer, the project allowed older pupils to design interventions which would make fellow pupils more aware of cancer and encourage them to check themselves for early signs of the disease. Our role was to bring some rigour to the project, and develop valid measures of behavioural change, with the hope to expand the project to other schools if improvement can be achieved.

The interventions proposed by the students were certainly not what I expected. Workshops making paper-mache breasts which allow you to compare ones with lumps to ones without, writing raps about cancer, or writing stories about cancer and giving them happy or sad endings depending on cancer detection time, they were more varied and imaginative than anything any behavioural scientist I know could come up with.

Within this variability two essential features emerged which our group of intervention designers insisted could not be compromised. The first was the person delivering interventions should be a figure of trust, yet not intimidating to the students. The second was that the language used should be appropriate to the group taught. Instead of using scientific terminology and long impersonal words, it was suggested we turn to the more familiar such as ‘boobs’, ‘balls’ and ‘willies’.

At this point, to my horror, we underwent an exercise shouting every rude word relating to the human body as a group.

This got me thinking, if I am still feeling the stigma associated with discussing the human body, certainly most teenagers must be too. Yet it took them pointing it out for it to even cross my mind.

As researchers, we still experience the empathy gap bias, or the inability to relate to others that are in a different state to our own. As a result the hesitance to discuss embarrassing topics such as cancer is hard for us to understand, even in our peers, let alone at secondary school age when embarrassment has much higher importance placed on it.

In hindsight, the suggestions made by our team have all the scientific basis necessary to back them up. Through desensitising people to the discussion of cancer and ensuring the source of information is familiar and comfortable, we can reduce state dependent understanding. Furthermore the ‘taboo’ words are also likely to increase salience, and therefore memory retention. Not to mention increasing fluency of processing associated with more commonly used terminology.

Although the scientific method of investigation is crucial in maximising experimental control, randomising trials and collecting objective measures, it seems quite often through minimising the involvement of our subjects we bring our own biases into research before it even begins.

The project is still to be completed, yet it seems apparent that sometimes it is worth moving away from the papers, and allowing others to bring new ideas to the table.

This article first appeared on the Behavioural Design Lab website


Marsha Kirichek
Marsha Kirichek
Doctoral Student