October 2003 // Volume 41 // Number 5 // Tools of the Trade // 5TOT1

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Transformative Explanations: Writing to Overcome Counterintuitive Ideas

This article presents a five-step writing tool, called "transformative explanation," that provides a proven mechanism to promote acceptance of hard-to-understand concepts. When Extension messages present counterintuitive information, message consumers are psychologically motivated to reject the proposition and retain previous understandings. Because gaining perceptual compliance is often a prerequisite to other communication objectives, transformative explanations provide an important tool for message designers.

Joye C. Gordon
Assistant Professor
A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Kansas State University
Manhattan, Kansas
Internet Address: gordon@ksu.edu


Perhaps the most daunting challenge faced by Extension communicators occurs when the message opposes pre-existing, intuitive understandings of the reader. How do writers explain that one does not see objects, only the light reflected from them? How does one explain that vehicle passengers would be incapable of retaining a held child during a collision? The world is replete with phenomena for which scientific interpretations contradict common lay theories and intuitions.

Several mechanisms can promote clarity of Extension messages. Readability formulas, for example, can help create passages using short words and simple sentences. Functional design and layout can make passages more readable and structurally organized. But these mechanisms, alone, are inadequate when readers are psychologically predisposed to reject counterintuitive messages and to retain pre-existing lay theories.

Lay Theories as Barriers to Effective Messages

Lay theories are functional and appear reasonable, and individuals are naturally motivated to retain existing beliefs. Whether I think I see objects or perceive the light reflected from them doesn't matter when I stub my toe in the dark. The intuition that I see objects themselves serves my everyday needs and has been confirmed by experience.

The psychological predisposition is to protect belief structures. Self-perceptions are confirmed when beliefs are affirmed. Also, people of similar cultural, social, and educational backgrounds often share lay theories. I want to believe that I understand my environment and see the world consistently with my peers. I am motivated to retain the notion that I see the objects themselves.

Lay theories are relatively stable, perhaps even obdurate, cognitive structures held by ordinary people that are used to generate explanations, descriptions, and/or predictions regarding a phenomenon. Lay theories may or may not conform to orthodox scientific interpretations and may relate to physical or social phenomena. Science educators and health communicators have approached the subject out of concerns about scientific illiteracy and public health. They find that lay theories represent significant barriers to gaining perceptual compliance.

Extension personnel should address lay theories because such theories often lead to rejection of messages, preventing the perceptual compliance that is often the first step to achieving communication objectives. People who are confident that they would be strong enough to hold a child in their lap in a car accident, for example, are much less likely to use child-safety seats. However, when people realize that the momentum of a 20-pound child at 30 miles per hour exceeds any human's strength, they are more likely to adopt child-safety seats. Perceptual compliance is a key component in promoting scientific understanding, achieving behavioral change, and making Extension messages more effective

Writing to Overcome Lay Theories: A Five-Part Technique

Katherine Rowan has developed a contemporary theory of explanatory writing. She labels discourse designed to supplant erroneous lay theories as "transformative explanations" (1988, p. 37). They are transformative because such messages, if successful, must transform an inadequate, counterproductive lay theory to a more explicit, adequate one.

Effective transformative explanations contain five key elements according to Rowan (1991, p. 376). They should:

  1. State the counterproductive lay theory
  2. Acknowledge the counterproductive lay theory's apparent plausibility
  3. Demonstrate the counterproductive lay theory's inadequacy
  4. Convey orthodox scientific understanding
  5. Establish greater adequacy of the advocated theory

The transformative explanation must state the existing lay theory that is obstructing understanding. Lay theories are often implicit, and one may not recognize that they hold a particular understanding of some phenomenon. To overcome a counterproductive lay theory, the reader must first acknowledge that it exists.

Good transformative explanations must acknowledge the counterproductive lay theory's apparent plausibility. Acknowledging readers' logical motivations for holding the lay theory is a critical step. Simply stating that their intuitions are ridiculous places readers in a defensive position, jeopardizing the transformative objective of the message.

Perhaps the most critical element is that transformative explanations must demonstrate the inadequacy of the counterproductive lay theory. Simply stating inadequacy is unlikely to make the reader dissatisfied and may, again, promote defensiveness. Readers must become dissatisfied with naïve theories before abandoning them. This may be accomplished by helping the reader recall everyday experiences that their lay theory cannot explain.

Good transformative explanations must convey the theories being advocated. Finally, good transformative explanations must demonstrate the superiority of orthodox scientific theories over pre-existing intuitions. Effective transformative explanations demonstrate how their advocated theories account for everyday phenomena explained by counterproductive theories; they can also explain phenomena that preexisting theories cannot.

An Example of a Transformative Explanation

The following passage effectively incorporates the five key elements of a transformative explanation.

Many people believe that plants grow because they consume water and soil nutrients. We know that plants provided with the proper soil and adequate water will thrive and grow better than those in weak soil or with inadequate water supplies.

However, such as understanding of plant growth can't explain why plants provided with rich soil and proper water supplies will die if denied sunlight. Scientists say that plants don't simply convert water and soil to grow. Plants grow or make more plant tissue by creating their own tissue through a process of photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the production of organic substances, especially sugars, from carbon dioxide and water by the action of light on the chlorophyll in green plant cells.

When we understand that plants create tissue and grow, not from eating soil and water, but from using light energy to synthesize tissue, we understand why plants will die without sunlight. Plants provided with adequate water and rich soil thrive because water and soil help plants create tissue through the photosynthesis process.


Overcoming erroneous lay theories represents a significant challenge for those developing Extension messages. Readers are psychologically motivated to retain their everyday understandings. Explanations that help readers overcome inadequate naïve theories are called "transformative explanations" because, if the explanation is successful, inadequate lay theories are transformed into adequate ones. By using the plant growth example, this article demonstrates that the five-part transformative explanation is a useful technique when pre-existing, counterproductive lay theories are barriers to message acceptance.


Rowan, K. (1988). A contemporary theory of explanatory writing. Written Communication, 5(1), 23-56.

Rowan, K. E. (1991). When simple language fails: Presenting difficult science to the public. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 21(4), 369-382.