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.

Friday, December 2, 2016


So apparently these shoes are on sale in Debenhams, and seeing the SAVE 50% in eye-catching bright red letters reminded me of a persuasion technique called 'anchoring'. Anchoring is fundamentally a technique that sets a standard or an 'anchor', and lead the audience to base their decisions on this standard.

So Debenhams decided to put some shoes on sale, but why would they state the original price? Or the percentage of how much you will save? The reason Debenhams went as far as to write 'SAVE 50%' and state the original price (and the price after!) is because they are trying to use cognitive bias to cloud consumer judgment. As they emphasise the fact that these shoes are on sale, consumers are more likely to place too much focus on the original price. This leads them to believe that these shoes are worth the amount stated before sale, although for all we know they were never worth their current price to begin with. 

Anchoring is a truly useful technique if you are a marketer. Research has suggested that despite the fact that the level of anchoring effects can be reduced through experience and depends on cognitive ability, the effect was never eliminated completely. 

Feeling Blue? Good!

Colour perception is carried out through transforming light into signals in the brain via rods and cones, a process truly amazing... for another time. What's really important in the 'Persuasion and Influence' aspect of psychological research, is that colour makes people feel different emotions. You might have wondered walking through Coventry thinking, 'why are McDonalds red and yellow?' or 'why is Barclays blue?'. If this is not enough to get you thinking, imagine if someone turned up at a funeral dressed in orange. Surely this person would be surveyed with awe and contempt, if he has not been escorted out yet. Why is this though? Who sets these rules? It's simple. The reason for everything being coloured the way they are is because colour makes people feel different emotions.

Colour is a crucial factor in designing logos and advertisements, as colours convey emotional meaning. Evolution and culture have led mankind to perceive colours as different cues for different emotions, and colours are used in very clever ways in advertisements to persuade (and influence!) our minds.

The colour red represents danger, energy, and love. Primitive mankind knew that where there are signs of bloodshed, there is danger nearby. Which is why even now our brains perceive the colour red and feel danger, and feel alert. Feeling alert naturally carried over to feeling energetic, which is why brands such as Coca Cola, and Redbull use bright red logos.

Green is associated with freshness and nature, leading fresh food or drinks brands such as Tropicana, Starbucks and Subway to adopt green logos.

Blue is seen as tranquil, calm and trustworthy. This is why motor companies such as Ford and Volkswagen use blue logos. Blue logos are also widely used by corporations that deal with money or data-associated products in order to seem more reliable. Barclays, Bank of America, Samsung, Facebook, and Twitter all use blue logos.

Yellow is a cheerful and playful colour, which is why it is used by Chupa Chups, Denny's, and IMDb. DHL, Lamborghini and Chevrolet also use yellow or golden logos, as yellow also represents light, and speed.

Orange is similar to yellow in that it represents fun and energy, but unlike yellow, it is very difficult to find companies that wish to appear serious and sophisticated that use orange logos. Orange is seen as a more 'fun' colour than yellow, and is used by Nickelodeon, Fanta, Soundcloud and Blogger!

So where do these colour associations originate from? Research suggests that although some aspects may be due to evolution, most colour-emotion associations are learned. There are some colours that work as cues for different emotions between Western and Eastern cultures such as red, and there is evidence that people are likely to perceive colours differently depending on age and gender. However, as we see in the fact that we associate colour with certain emotions as passed down from our primitive ancestors, learning the association between colour and emotion is an ongoing process.

I asked and he said yes!

Walking home from campus today I felt slightly dreary and tired, when a friend’s surprising reply to my earlier message completely turned my mood around. He had said yes to a request of mine that I hadn’t expected him to say yes to (Despite the countless times in lecture when Prof Hills has told us about the efficacy of just asking, I was still a non-believer).

Earlier today, my frisbee club had released a spreadsheet where we could key in our names next to the number we wanted, to decide upon that as our number for the year, as well as the number that would be printed on any jerseys we bought. Having spent 2 years as number 78, I was resigned to taking the same number again, but decided to ask my friend who had number 7 (Numbers carry over every year unless the person graduates, then the number is free for whoever grabs it first) if he would be willing to exchange numbers/give up the number 7 for me.

I didn’t have very high hopes, people generally don’t give up single digit numbers so easily as they are highly coveted, and when I told my boyfriend that I had asked for the exchange, his immediate response was: “Lol he won't.” What a debbie-downer..

Yet to my surprise, my friend agreed to it! My direct request had resulted in his compliance, and I could not be happier. (I was also very happy that this random request had worked and could now be used as content for my behaviour change blogpost, haha)

From the lecture earlier in the term, we studied the Hatfield and Clark (1989) study where about 50% of the men and women in the study agreed to go on a date if they were just asked, and 75% of the men would go to bed with the female requestor if they were simply asked. This study showed the power of just asking.

So why don’t people just ask more? From my own personal experience, a huge factor is that we don’t think people will comply with our requests anyway, so we don’t bother to ask. Yet just asking has shown in effectiveness in getting others to agree to our requests. This is due to us, as help-seekers, underestimating the likelihood of others’ compliance to our direct requests. This is possibly due to us underestimating the social costs of saying no to the request such as embarrassment and awkwardness, and overestimating the instrumental costs of the request in itself (Flynn & Lake, 2008). In the Flynn and Lake study, participants had to ask strangers to complete a certain number of questionnaires for them, and they wound up estimating that they had to ask twice the number of people that they actually did, showing the underestimation of the likelihood of getting others’ to comply.

Interestingly, a 2011 study by Bohns et al. found that these social prediction errors were not universal. Sampling two groups of students, one studying in China and the other in the US, they found that there were differences in the accuracy of the social predictions by the two groups.

As seen in Fig 1, both groups showed the underestimation of compliance effect, but the Chinese students had to ask less people to get the required number, and also predicted that they would have to ask fewer people. The authors of the study attributed this to the Chinese being more attuned to the social pressures and face-saving concerns that arise from saying no that would compel the person to agree to the request. As a result of being more attuned, they should be less likely to underestimate compliance and be more accurate at predicting the compliance of others.

This was due to the differences in cultures of the two groups, with the group from New York being more individualistic and the group from China being more collectivistic. An assumption of those from individualistic cultures is that each individual is uniquely responsible for looking after his own personal needs and desires, as such, help-seekers from individualistic cultures would tend to neglect the potential helpers’ concerns of social costs and subsequently underestimate compliance. On the other hand, collectivistic individuals are expected to help others even if helping is not in line with their own personal interests. As such, it is the help-seeker’s responsibility to decide if the request is worth asking and whether it will become an unnecessary burden to a potential helper. This responsibility means that in addition to managing their own concerns, collectivistic help-seekers also have to account for the concerns of potential helpers.

Additionally, while just asking works, other persuasion tactics could help increase compliance rate by a lot more!

As seen in Table 1, in Reingen’s (1978) study, he found that while on average people donated about the same amount for the various conditions, tactics like foot-in-the-door (small-then-donation) and door-in-the-face (extreme-then-donation) achieved much higher compliance rates.

So in summary, we really should ask more, and it may be worth it to set yourself up with a foot-in-the-door/door-in-the-face situation to increase your chances of getting a yes!

Bohns, V. K., Handgraaf, M. J. J., Sun, J., Aaldering, H., Mao, C., & Logg, J. (2011). Are social prediction errors universal? Predicting compliance with a direct request across cultures. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 676-680.
Flynn, F. J, & Lake, V. K. B. (2008). If you need help, just ask: Underestimating compliance with direct requests for help. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 128-143.
Hatfield, E., & Clark, R. D. (1989). Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 2, 39-55.
Reingen, P. (1978). On inducing compliance with requests. Journal of Consumer Research, 5, 96-102.

Is your idea of success your own?

It seems funny to me, that a form of social influence which has prevailed on such a large scale has managed to influence each of us to such an extent that we no longer see it as such. We have been indoctrinated with it so deeply, that it has been accepted as the norm. What I am referring to is the path of success. It is first defined as getting good grades at school, then making it to a top university, then getting in the right job and of course the end goal- earning a lot of money.
It is Thursday night, 11pm and I am sat here in front of my computer, keeping my eyelids open with toothpicks and panicking. Why am I panicking? Well how can I not be? It seems like all of my course mates have figured out their future, prepared the next step like as if they’ve read it from a Monopoly’s instruction manual, except me. I have no idea what’s going on. I feel like Nemo deeply lost at sea. I have no clue what I want to do and where I am going to go. In my endless attempts to calm myself I used all kinds of clichés- “it’s okay, you’ll find something”, “maybe it’s not the time for it yet” and then came the question that stuck -“who said you need to go that path anyway?!”, I allowed it to linger for a bit and then followed- “is your idea of success your own?!” and then came the revelation- OMG, NO, IT IS NOT. In fact, this answer has many owners, some of which I know, but I am definitely not one of them. It is an answer that has been forming ever since I was born using all kinds of persuasion and influence techniques so subliminally and subtly that I have ceased to see its mistaken ownership. It has been engrained so deeply that I have forgot my own believes, which for sure, do not include a job at a consultancy firm, yet here I am writing a cover letter for a second one.
When I was in kindergarten I learned it through the principle of conformity. If you do what other kids did the teacher did not scold you. When I went to primary school it was the principle of authority, I saw what the others did and because they were so much older and “cooler” I believed that’s the way to go. And now that I am in university, I am just trying to be consistent, I’ve come so far, I have made it to a good university, it would be foolish not to follow up to “my own” values and believes. And of course, all along these years, the main principle of influence that has been playing around with me is that of social proof. If I want to be liked and respected than I need to be successful. I need to have a secure job at a prestigious firm and earn a good amount of money.
Matters get even more complicated because as Alain de Botton has explained in his famous TED talk (which I strongly recommend), we have built our world on a meritocracy principle. If we are rich and prestigious and famous it is all good because meritocracy means we earned it, we had the potential and we went for it and got what what we deserved. However, the flip side of that which we often forget about is that if we so happen as to not to attain that success that is also our own failure. We were simply not good enough, not smart enough, not ambitious enough.  But as Ha-Joon Chang explains in his book “23 Things They Don’t Tell you about Capitalism” that is simply not the case. He maintains that often the reason why people are more successful or earn more from what they do is not because they are simply the best at it but because, for example, there are policies to regulate it such as immigration control. If there were no such thing than a bus driver from India can go to Sweden and get paid fifty times more. Generally, the whole idea of basing people’s worth on success or living standard seems quite sick to me, yet it is how we have built our society and how most of us, let’s admit it, judge people on a daily basis. To cite de Botton again, it is after we have asked people “what do you do for a living” that we are either “incredibly delighted to see people or look at our watch and make our excuses.”

Perhaps it is worth underpinning the methods of Persuasion and Influence not just so that we are able to apply them to other people but to become more aware of all the disguised ways in which we, ourselves, have become victims of them. Especially when they concern matters as important as the pathway to success. A good place to start unveiling it is to make sure that your idea of success is your own. 

Cialdini, B. R. (1984). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. (3rd Ed.) New York: HarperCollinsPublishers. 
Chang, H. (2011). 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism. London: Penguin Books.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Trump Your Way To The Top!.

(…through persuasion of course)

I guess it’s safe to say this year has been full of many surprises (or shocks, horrors, crashes and burns), with Brexit and now Trump winning the elections; we’re either going mad or there’s something deeper happening. Much to my surprise, the definition of the verb ‘Trump’ is “to surpass (something) by saying or doing something better”, coincidence or not he really did find a way to say or do something better than his opponent, and much to my dismay this led to his victory! Unable to find evidence that the population is actually going crazy, I found theories that could explain different methods he has used to persuade the public.

So how did Trump’s triumph trump them all? Firstly, as much as we think we're in control of our decision making, a lot of the time we're influenced by the things that we're constantly exposed to without actually realising. 

We must look back and ask where Donald Trump even came from... how could someone who wasn't even a politician have a chance at becoming the President of the United States? Trump actually featured on 11 seasons of The Apprentice U.S.A for 11 years, with a total of around 64 million viewers in that time, which is about 20% of the population! So adding that to his constant appearance on the news and debates with his outrageous comments, he became someone at the forefront of everybody's minds. How?


The mere exposure theory (1968) explains that by simply being exposed to something consistently, it can actually make you like it more...which also why explains why constant exposure to advertisements makes them stay in your mind (even when you don't want them to)! In addition to this, our subconscious brain sometimes pushes certain ideas to the front of our minds purely because its more available than other ideas - the availability heuristic. For example a study by Schwartz (1991) asked people to write 12 or 6 examples of where they had been assertive. When writing 12 examples, as opposed to 6, people rated themselves as less assertive. This is because it was easier to recall 6 occasions rather than 12 therefore recalling 6 occasions made them feel more assertive, and struggling made them feel less so. So with Trump constantly in the headlines, it became easier to think about him and also made him the more favourable candidate.


One of his most commonly used and visible persuasive techniques was repetition of attractive phrases and words. One of his most common phrases was "Let's Make America Great Again" which actually became his slogan, and was very catchy. In the video however we see him repeat in a more subliminal message by using the word "Win" 11 times in 22 seconds! The Likelihood Elaboration Model (Cacioppo, Petty & John, 1986) explains that if we are attracted a positive cue as opposed to the content of the message we will use the Peripheral Route of processing, which is more automatic and based on almost illogical processing. The message he used says that we will start to win (a positive cue) at all the things we are losing in, but he doesn't provide how we could do it and instead just uses an irrelevant positive buzzword! As he repeats a positive word several times we associate his message with a positive outcome and believe that by voting for him we are actually going to start winning (...and who doesn't love winning!?).


I think this was one of his most POWERFUL persuasive techniques during his propaganda-filled debates... He seemed to always over-exaggerate the threat of minorities which ignited a lot of resentment as a result! In this video he talks about "large segments of the muslim population" hating American's and he talks about murder, beheadings and the world trade centre. All of these statements were untrue but he preyed on the American populations' fear of a repeated attack on the World Trade Centre's, and makes it more viable for things to get "worse and worse". A study by Asch (1951) showed that when the majority make a decision, the minority agrees even if they know that it is a wrong decision. This supports the idea of hating on minorities unrightfully, as he uses the normative influence by making everyone feel that hating is what the majority are doing, so we should all be doing it.


And then in response to his fear provoking, what he does is try and provide relief through voting for him. The "win" video was a great example of this as he made himself the solution to all of the problems we are losing at. Dolinski and Nawrat's (1998) study showed that a fear and then relief procedure actually increases compliance. They showed that when anxiety is provoked and then revoked by a positive solution, people are more likely to comply with several requests, which could explain why people trusted him and voted for Trump even though his claims were Bogus (excuse my language).


Knutson Disgust Anger Dominance
Knutson (1996) Disgust and Anger in Dominance
Last but not least, Trump had a great knack for making himself look like the better candidate regardless of the insults he was throwing around, he often created a setting of playground bullying. Trump quite often wound up his opponents during debates or quoted statistics of how he was better than they were, which from an outside perspective is very clearly a childish thing to do, but somehow it always made him look more dominant. In one of his debates with Jeb Bush we see that Trump looks at the audience but Jeb looks at Trump for most of the debate as if to say to seek reassurance through watching Trump's reactions. This is a very common reassurance seeking technique that anxious children use for self-affirmation (to feel like they're doing the right thing), therefore making trump look more powerful. Knutson (1996) also showed that participants actually rated people who present angry and disgusted facial expressions towards others as more dominant. In this video and throughout a lot of his debates, Trump tends to do to discount the argument of his opponent by using these types of facial expressions to ridicule his opponents and look more dominant (like a bully).

Trump vs Jeb
Jeb constantly looking to Trump

So in conclusion, though we may have thought Trump was a clown at times and highly inadequate, he seems to have done some things right to have won over the U.S population. Who knew people could be so easily influenced hey?