Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Aldi Know How To Make An Advert.

This Aldi christmas advert from 2015 demonstrates brilliantly the use of the competition template as described by Goldenberg, Mazursky and Solomon (1999). Not only are two products put together, but the advert itself is a comical parody of the John Lewis advert 'man on the moon'.


Goldenberg, J., Mazursky, D., & Solomon, S. (1999). The fundamental templates of quality ads. Marketing science, 18(3), 333-351.

Make Your Dreams Come True: Tell No-one

On May 1st 2000, ITV launched a campaign called the ‘Day of Promise’. In this 24-hour event residents of the UK were invited to state positive changes they were making to their lives. Donations could be made to immortalise these pledges in monuments all over the UK. What impact did these pledges have?
There is evidence that if we make our behavioural intentions (pledges) public we are less likely to act them out. Gollwitzer, Sheeran, Michalski and Seifert (2009) asked students about their study intentions and commitment to their subject. Their commitment was related to responses based on how important their subject was to them in terms of careers. Study intentions were recorded at the end of the experiment, when the students were asked to write down two things that they would like to do in the next week. The students then either had their intentions read through by the experimenter or were told that part of the study was added accidentally and would be disposed of. A week after the experiment the students were contacted. The students were told that their intentions were in fact important and asked to write them down again. They were also asked to write down which days of the week they had acted out their intentions. It was found that there were no differences in the initial amount of commitment between the two groups (those that had their intentions read, and those that did not) but there was a difference in the number of days they worked towards these goals.

Results from Gollwitzer et al. (2009). Graph on the left shows ratings of personal commitment to goals and the graph on the left shows the number of days people spent working towards their goals. 

A possible cause for this effect is that one outcome of achieving our goals is the feedback we receive from others. By telling other people our goals, we feel as if we achieved them before we have even started. This reduces the reward of actually acting out our goal. 
What does this mean for those making pledges to ITV? Assuming that the results from Gollwitzer (2009) generalise across time. The pledgees spent 40 fewer days a year working towards their goals than if they had written their goals down and shown no one. The campaign was a commercial failure and,unfortunately, it was also a failure for those making pledges.

References -
Gollwitzer, P. M., Sheeran, P., Michalski, V., & Seifert, A. E. (2009). When intentions go public does social reality widen the intention-behavior gap?. Psychological science, 20, 612-618.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Act of Smoking

Above is an example of a persuasive advertisement on smoking. What I understand from the ad is that the cigarette is a metaphor for a family member’s life, and by continuing to smoke, the smoker is slowly damaging his/her family’s life. I personally feel that this ad is quite powerful as it clearly takes the pleasure out of smoking and it also shows the damaging effects. This ad is just one out of many more persuasive advertisements out there, calling out on the dangers of smoking. The question is, do these ads really work? Have they helped in combating the act of smoking within the population?

Recent news has shown that in England, the number of smokers have declined to its lowest level, with only one out of six adults smoking (Campbell, 2016). This was also followed with a decline in the sales of cigarettes. However, there is still an astounding amount of 7.2 million adults in England who still smoke, where around 200 people die prematurely every day as a result of breathing problems, heart attacks, and strokes, all caused by smoking. So, although smoking prevalence has dropped two-thirds in 50 years, there are still 7.2 million smokers out there to worry about. Apart from unhealthy diet, it was found that smoking is still the biggest cause of over 78,000 deaths per year in England. While in the US, cigarette smoking accounts for more than 480,000 deaths every year (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016). This is worrying as this is something that can easily be prevented. So, before we can further decrease the prevalence of smoking, we need to fully understand why there are still so many people out there smoking their life away.

Of course, there are many reasons as to why one smokes. This post describes one of them and Gladwell (2002) explains it well in his debut book, called The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. He conducted a study by giving several hundred people in their late twenties and early thirties a questionnaire, asking them to describe their earliest experiences with cigarettes. Here is an example of an answer that was given in the book:

“The first person who I remember smoking was a girl named Pam P. I met her when we were both in the 10th grade. We rode the school bus together in Great Neck, L.I., and I remember thinking she was the coolest because she lived in an apartment. (Great Neck didn't have many apartments.) Pam seemed so much older than her 15 years. We used to sit in the back of the bus and blow smoke out the window. She taught me how to inhale, how to tie a man-tailored shirt at the waist to look cool, and how to wear lipstick. She had a leather jacket. Her father was rarely home.”

Other examples given were very much similar to the one stated above. As Gladwell (2002) stated, most of the experiences described had one thing in common: sophistication. There was always one person described in the experiences that was impulsive, indifference to the opinion of others, always taking chances, sensation seeking – essentially an extrovert, someone considered cool. And these extroverts are drawn to expressing their rebellion through a cigarette. A quote from the book explained this quite nicely, “They weren’t cool because they smoked, they smoked because they were cool.” This is important to understand as all this while, smoking was never the problem, it was never cool. Smokers themselves, are cool. Then from here, can we only tackle the problem of smoking. Instead of focusing on the dangers of smoking, diverge the attention on the smokers instead.

In the book, a research was done where smokers were asked to guess how many years of life smoking from the age of twenty-one onwards, would be taken away from them. Most of them guessed nine years, when the real answer is around six years. This points to how most smokers overestimate the risks of smoking, showing that they do know and understand that smoking causes more harm than good. Having parents warn their children against the dangers of smoking does not seem to work as well. In fact, this has been found to make them want to try out smoking even more. From 1993 to 1997, the number of college students who smoke increased from 22.3% to 28.5%, while from 1991 to 1997, the number of high school students who smoke rose to 32%. Teen smoking in the United States have also increased to 73% since 1988. No public health programmes or any persuasive advertisements have been found to be effective in combating smoking (Gladwell, 2002). So, if educating on the dangers of smoking does not seem to work, and even the smokers themselves are aware of the effects of smoking, what then should be done?

This is where it gets interesting, as research has found an association between depression and smoking. Steuber and Danner (2006) found that adolescents who used to smoke or are currently smoking were more likely to experience depression, with regular smokers showing the highest level of depression. A longitudinal study conducted by Fergusson, Goodwin, & Horwood (2003) found that adolescents who met the criteria for major depression had rates of daily cigarette intake between 1.70 to 2.19 times higher than those who did not have major depression. These associations were replicated throughout their adolescence years and into young adulthood. Kendler et. al (1993) found similar results, where regular smokers had higher rates of major depression than non-smokers, and heavy regular smokers had higher rates of major depression than light regular smokers. Even after controlling either alcohol dependence or anxiety disorders, the association between smoking and major depression only reduced slightly.

While these findings do not suggest that smoking leads to depression, they are consistent with the notion that there is an association between smoking and depression (Steuber & Danner, 2006). So, although we may not know whether it is a causal relationship, but seeing as we do know that there is an association, it would definitely help with trying to decrease the act of smoking within the population. This would then suggest that there is a possibility that public health programmes aimed at reducing major depression may have an impact on reducing cigarette smoking, or conversely, public health programmes that help with ceasing smoking could also have indirect effects on helping to reduce major depression (Fergusson, Goodwin, & Horwood, 2003). However, more research needs to be done to fully understand the relationship between smoking and depression.

To conclude, persuasive advertisements on the effects of smoking may not work very well, as there are still millions of people out there still smoking and they understand how it could heavily affect their health, but unfortunately, still continue to do so. Based on the findings above, one of the things we can look into is focusing on the smokers themselves instead of only highlighting the dangers of smoking.

Campbell, D. (2016, September 20). Number of smokers in England drops to all-time low. The Guardian. Retrieved from
Current cigarette smoking among adults in the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from          
Fergusson, D. M., Goodwin, R. D., & Horwood, L. J. (2003). Major depression and cigarette smoking: results of a 21-year longitudinal study. Psychological medicine, 33(08), 1357-1367.
Gladwell, M. (2002). The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. Little, Brown.
Kendler, K. S., Neale, M. C., MacLean, C. J., Heath, A. C., Eaves, L. J., & Kessler, R. C. (1993). Smoking and major depression: a causal analysis. Archives of general psychiatry, 50(1), 36-43.
Steuber, T. L., & Danner, F. (2006). Adolescent smoking and depression: which comes first?. Addictive behaviors, 31(1), 133-136.

4 Reasons Why We Love Listicles

Listicles have become so common and pervasive on social media that they have now got their own special name. Listicles - or list-type articles - have gained popularity over the past few years with people jumping on the bandwagon to create list after list to feed the demand. In fact, 35 of Buzzfeed’s top 50 articles in 2015 are lists!

So why do we love reading listicles so much? I have to admit they are a guilty pleasure of mine, no matter how long the list, or how irrelevant the information, I am rarely able to resist the urge to click it and read it till the end.

Here are 4 of the reasons why our brains love these listicles. (There are many more, but then this listicle would be too long!)

1. Fear of Loss
As humans we all are subject to this innate fear of loss, which is capitalised upon by listicle writers who frame their headlines to take advantage of this. For example, check out the following two headlines.

The headlines above all suggest that should we decide against reading the list, we could potentially lose out on things. We could lose out on these important life lessons, or we could have missed those seventeen Harry Potter references forever. Listicle headlines are written in a way that preys on our loss aversion. Loss aversion is the tendency for us as individuals to have a strong preference for avoiding losses instead of acquiring gains (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979). So in the pursuit of avoiding potential losses, we click the listicles to find out what they contain.

2. Categorisation of Information
Chaiken’s 1980 heuristic-systematic model suggests that we have two types of information processing routes: heuristic processing and systematic processing. Heuristic processing involves reliance on simple cues to form attitudes (such as heuristics and biases) and is low effort in comparison to systematic processing which is effortful and requires detailed processing of information.

A listicle headline aids systematic processing of information because it positions the subject in a pre-existing category such that we know what kind of content to expect and gives us an idea of how much content to expect as well. For example, check out the following two headlines:

We know straight away the listicle will be about the job of night shift nurses and how grueling it is and we are expecting 9 things.

And this one tells us right away that there will be websites that can teach us a new skill and there are 37 of them.

While reading a headline could subject us to the usage of some heuristics or biases, the way the information is categorised immediately also helps us to be able to use systematic processing and our brains love effortlessly acquired data.

3. Confirmation Bias
People enjoy reading listicles when they can agree with the people who have written them, for example: The 30 best places to travel alone or Top 10 fairy-tale towns in Germany. When one reads through the article and find that the author has included items that one would have put on the list as well, he/she feels good. Why does that happen?


This is a result of confirmation bias, which means that when we read the listicle, we pay more attention to any information which confirms what we were already thinking. We love to be proven right and it feeds our ego, as well as our drive for sense-making (Chater & Loewenstein, 2016). The experience is satisfying and occurs even though we could only be correct about three or four items on a twenty-item long list.

4. Honoring Sunk Costs and Consistency
So after clicking onto a listicle, we now have a choice. Do we continue reading it, or do we click away? Or if we’ve already read several points on the list, do we want to read the rest? What if we don’t actually want to know the rest?

Personally I find it very difficult to stop reading a list halfway if I’ve already gone through several items, and this is due to the sunk cost fallacy. (I mean come on, do I really need to read about 27 reasons Singapore is the most delicious place on Earth? I grew up there, I don’t exactly need a list to tell me why!)

Using rational economic theory, it would make sense to stop reading if I was no longer interested as only incremental costs and benefits should affect decisions and not historical costs (Thaler, 1980). But having read through part of it, I feel like I should just finish the listicle - an irrational decision but I am honoring my sunk costs, which can be in the form of money, time, effort or others. In my head I am thinking: I have already spent time and energy reading part of the list, I might as well finish the whole thing.

This can also be attributed to our need for consistency, where since we have already undertaken to read the list, we want to remain consistent and finish the list, and we may even end up thinking that we enjoyed it - and the next time we see another listicle, we’ll click on it again and read it to the end again.

Aronson and Mills’ 1959 study found that participants who had to put in considerable effort into a task would enjoy it more. Their participants were assigned into one of three groups: severe initiation, mild initiation and the control group. Those in the severe group had to read aloud some sexually oriented material while those in the mild group had less embarrassing material and the control group did not have to read aloud any embarrassing material. They then all partook in a group discussion subsequently. What they found was that those in the severe group reported enjoying the group discussion more than those in the other two groups despite the discussion being actually really boring.

Aronson, E., & Mills, J. (1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, 177-181.
Chaiken, S. (1980). Heuristic versus systematic information processing and the use of source versus message cues in persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 752-766.
Chater, N., & Loewenstein, G. (2016). The under-appreciated drive for sense-making. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 126, 137-154.
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263-291.
Thaler, R. (1980). Toward a positive theory of consumer choice. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 1, 39-60.

The taboo topic that needs addressing

Breastfeeding. Most people have an opinion on it and those who don’t probably haven’t thought about it much, but one thing is clear, it’s a taboo subject. In western culture, we don’t tend to talk about women’s breast in any context except a sexual one; perhaps this is why so many individuals are uncomfortable with seeing breastfeeding. The common association with breasts is one of desire and inappropriateness, rather than one of nurture and care. Because of this, many women experience anxiety over breastfeeding in public and when they do feed their child in public, they are often subject to negative comments.

This ad campaign aimed to bring to the attention the topic of asking nursing mothers to “go do it in the bathroom”. The advert originated in Texas, a state where breastfeeding women have no legal protection against harassment or refusal of service in public.

The adverts have been criticised for being too “graphic” however it might be that this was the exact intention of the designers. The mere exposure effect suggests that the more we see something we more we like it. By posting these advertisements in public places, perhaps when individuals see real Mothers breastfeeding in public, they will have less of a negative reaction towards it.

Furthermore, the contrast displayed here between the phrases, and the visual setting catches our attention. Private dining, bon appetite and table for two are all phrases we might associate with fine dining whereas the grey lighting and sombre facial expressions give the impression of quite the opposite. Naturally, adverts which don’t meet our expectations do stand out to us. They are salient and this makes them more memorable.  

Virtual advertising- Why so expensive?

You may heard that it costs more than thousand pounds for just exposing the brand in the foot-ball stadium for a minute. Does it really worth it? It does not explain anything about the brand or a product, why is it still so expensive to expose just the brand logo in such places. This can be explained by heuristic.

Availability heuristic is defined as a ‘cognitive heuristic in which a decision maker relies upon knowledge that is readily available rather than examine other alternatives or procedures (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973).  Availability means something that can be accessed easily at any time. People would believe that something can be recalled must be important.  People tend to recall or remember something that they experienced or saw very recently. For example, if a consumer who is willing to buy a phone and if he remembers that he saw a ‘Samsung’ logo on the street, there is possibility that it pops up in his mind unconsciously and would look for a new phone in Samsung.

Representativeness heuristic was also defined by Tversky & Kahneman (1973) as a cognitive bias in which an individual categorizes a situation based on a pattern of pervious experiences or beliefs about the scenario. For instance, when a person was walking down the street and faced with a bulldog. If the image of the bull dog matches with the image of ‘dangerous creatures’, the person would avoid that dog. The person really do not know whether the bulldog is trained dog which is very friendly to humans or not. Since, the person compared the image of the bulldog with the prototype in his memory, he avoided the bulldog.
Tversky & Kahneman (1983) supported the idea of representativeness heuristic with an empirical evidence. The experiment is also known as ‘Linda Problem’. The subjects were exposed to the status saying that “Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti- nuclear demonstrations. After this explanation, the participants to state which of the following status is more probable.
1.       Linda is a feminist.
2.       Linda is a bank teller.
3.       Linda is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement.
The result shows that the participants chose number one the most and then number 3. This result is really different from the reality. The probability of Linda being a feminist cannot be larger than Linda being a bank teller since the absolute number of bank teller is much bigger than the number of feminists in real life. This result can be explained by the ‘representativeness heuristics’.  The participants believed that feminist can be more representative rather than the bank teller.

Grether (1992) also supported this idea with some empirical evidences. The result demonstrated in this paper showed that the majority of the participants in behaved reasonably but of those lacking financial incentives a larger proportion gave absurd responses.

Positioning is one of the marketing strategies which uses this representativeness heuristic. The number one brand in most of the markets is considered to be most representative of that market. For example, Coca- cola is considered to be most representative when people think about cola.
Therefore, if the consumers are merely exposed to certain brands, they would think that the brand represents that specific market. This would definitely affect the consuming behavior of the customers. 

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive psychology, 5(2), 207-232.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1983). Extensional versus intuitive reasoning: The conjunction fallacy in probability judgment. Psychological review, 90(4), 293.

Grether, D. M. (1992). Testing Bayes rule and the representativeness heuristic: Some experimental evidence. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization17(1), 31-57.

Why Harambe still lives on.

Regardless of your view of the Harambe incident at Cincinnati zoo, you cannot ignore how big the resulting memes became. According to the Washington Post, they originated from Instagram and spread across social media, especially on Twitter where they had a big presence. They came in all shapes and sizes and were quite creative. What was interesting was just how long the memes lasted, especially in the mainstream. So what made them so special?

1.  Social Proof

There was some celebrity ‘endorsement’, an example being cult figure Danny Trejo being featured on a Vine which boosted visibility of what was going on.

The effect can be explained by social proof, a form of social influence stating that we determine what’s right by finding out what others think is right [1]. By extension, a person learns what is okay behaviour based on if others perform it and helps cull any feelings of uncertainty of appropriateness.

Sherif’s (1935) well known study showed how people end up forming homogenised beliefs [2]. Here, participants were led to a pitch black room with a small dot of light on the far wall. They were told to make 100 judgements on how far the dot moved in inches. The perceptual illusion of the auto kinetic effect was at play, in that people would assume the dot was moving even if it did not. Therefore ‘seeing’ any movement of the dot was down to psychological factors. They did this task again but in the presence of other people (2-3). It was found that as the level of uncertainty in the task went up, so did the rate at which participants’ answers converged with the confederates’.

Participants used the answers of other people as a value heuristic to make an accurate decision when faced with uncertainty of how far the dot moved. This can be applied to the meme situation, seeing the celebrity as a figure who is seen as trusted and relatable as well as 1000’s of others contributing to a new phenomenon must mean it’s an acceptable thing to participate in. Given the lack of information about the meme itself, led to people relying on what others are doing, especially those are seen as credible e.g. celebrities.

2.  Social Identity Theory

So, it’s okay to respond in such a way? Obviously, some churned the memes out just because they were funny. For others, they were used to incite discussions on social justice which led to the rise of groups mocking people who were showing their outrage with the events.

This means that there were segmented groups with common motivations and goals, as a result, one’s sense of self can be based on group membership. This is a core feature of social identity theory, which states our behaviour can be determined by the group we belong to. Because of this people could be easily persuaded to change their behaviour if they are being persuaded by people of the same group [3]. This group has its own norms and attitudes which a person then abides to as that's their ‘ingroup’ (e.g. those trolling), whereas everyone else is in the ‘outgroup’ (e.g. those who showed anger about Harambe’s death).

We often use our group identity, specifically the status of the group, to boost our self-esteem. Cialdini (1976) studied this with fans from prestigious football universities. He observed how many students wore school representative apparel on the Monday after a football game. It was found that if the university team won the game, students were more likely to wear the apparel after. Winning the game was seen as enough ‘persuasion’ to change behaviour, therefore membership to the group affected people’s actions. The victory gave them a sense of ‘positive distinctiveness’ for the group which led to increased self-esteem [1].

So, on one side there were people who related the Harambe incident to social issues and were upset with the consequences of the incident, they were labelled as those with ‘leftist’ views. Then there were those who shared the feeling of annoyance towards the ‘leftists’’ response, thus this shared belief created a feeling of a group, they were labelled as those with conservative views. Seeing just how big the phenomenon was reinforced group identity for those with ‘conservative’ views due to it showing the ‘successes’ of their behaviours. In turn, because this was a group norm and one with ‘positive’ effects, it encouraged more people to act in this way, expressing disagreement through being satirical and using humour in the memes.

3.  Scarcity

Given how big and loud the meme was, some grew pretty tired of it, namely Cincinnati Zoo. They made the mistake of asking people to stop with the memes and let them mourn in peace.

The problem here was that the phenomenon was quite big by then, with a huge following and it had evolved into something that was just funny to be a part of and reproduce. Plus, telling people that they can’t do something, sometimes can spur them to go further and continue what they were doing in retaliation to the sentiment. That’s what happened here, it went as far as Thane Maynard, the director of Cincinnati zoo having his Twitter hacked and further memes tailored to mock the request to stop.

Changes to the description of Thane’s twitter account after being hacked

Saying that the jokes must stop was a threat to the group’s freedom to do whatever they want. Restricting access to information and censoring what they were doing made the act seem more favourable than before. As a result, people showed their distaste for the request through spreading the memes further. According to the scarcity principle, it placed value on said act because of the possibility of the chance of engaging in it being limited and increases susceptibility to believe and identify with the message of censored material.[1]

This was shown in Worchel, Arnold and Baker’s (1975) study who tested attitudes towards co-ed dormitories at the University of North California. Finding out that a speech opposing co-ed dorms would be banned, students became more opposed to the idea of them. Without even hearing the speech, the students were persuaded to be opposed just because of the ban [4]. Thus censorship in itself, regardless of the reason it’s being used can lead to problems.

4.  The Bandwagon Effect

The abundance of the memes and the number of people that got involved is not down to complete coincidence. We like to do what others are doing even if sometimes, our beliefs don’t agree with what’s happening. How many times have you participated in a trend or tried a product because everyone’s talking about it despite finding the idea of it abysmal? This is known as the bandwagon effect where the chance of you adopting the same behaviour increases with the number of people already engaging with it [5].

This is quite common in politics. A study of students at the University of Kentucky tested this, the students were split into 9 different groups but all were asked questions about the same election scenarios. 70% also received information about the expected winner. Those who do not usually vote based on endorsements (independants) were still strongly influenced to lean towards the person expected to win, for both the democrat and republican candidate [6]. Other people’s expectations influenced the participant’s final decision, with participants going along with what others said, regardless of their own beliefs.    

Article headline on the effects of the memes

Media outlets were constantly covering the effects of engaging with the Harambe trend on social media, which gave the event visibility and showed just how many people were enjoying it. Reading about it and seeing it, led to many contributing because so many other people were doing it and having fun, so why not? As a result, more people took part and so did not feel like they were missing out on anything which also fulfills our need to belong. It’s a form of social proof, as people were looking at what others were doing to decide what they should do.

And guess what? The joke is still running…

[1] Cialdini, B. R. (1984). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. (3rd Ed.) New York: HarperCollins Publishers
[2] Sherif, M. (1935). A study of some social factors in perception. Archives of Psychology, 27, 1-60.
[3] Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. The social identity theory of intergroup behaviour. In E. G. Austin & S. Worschel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp.33-47). Monterey, CA: Brooks / Cole.
[4] Worchel, S., & Arnold, S., & Baker, M. (1975). The Effects of Censorship on Attitude Change: The Influence of Censor and Communication Characteristics. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 5, 227–239. 
[5] Nadeau, R., Cloutier, E., & Guay, J. H. (1993). New evidence about the existence of a bandwagon effect in the opinion formation process. International Political Science Review, 14, 203-213.
[6] Goidel, R. K., & Shields, T. G. (1994). The Vanishing Marginals, the Bandwagon, and the Mass Media. The Journal of Politics, 56, 802–810.