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, March 15, 2013

A lame-ass offer - Erin Brockovich



This video extract is from the film ‘Erin Brockovich’ which tells the true story of a ballsy single mother almost single-handedly bringing down a Californian power company who were responsible for polluting a city’s water supply causing wide spread serious health problems to city’s members. Due largely to Brockovich’s persistence and persuasiveness, the case was won and $333 million was awarded to the 634 plaintiffs.  The scene I have chosen from the film shows Brockovich, and the law firm she works for, in a meeting with the water company lawyers, who present an offensively low settlement offer. Outraged, Brockovich then unleashes a verbal onslaught, ultimately persuading the lawyers that the plaintiffs deserve far more.

Brockovich successfully uses empathy techniques in a number of ways. Message-induced state empathy occurs when the perception of the characters’ state automatically activates the recipient’s vicarious experience of the characters’ state, situation, and object. The construct is proposed to have affective and cognitive dimensions (Shen, 2010). Brockovich makes an emotional appeal by explaining the horrors that these people have been victim to. “These people don’t dream about being rich. They dream about being able to watch their kids swim in a pool without worrying that they’ll have to have a hysterectomy at the age of 20.” This is a highly evocative statement and induces affective empathy whereby the lawyers ought to take on some of the emotions of the victims. 

The character then takes it further by not just making the lawyers sympathise and feel sorry for the victims but forces them to imagine themselves in that situation. “Think about what your spine is worth Mr Walker. Or what might you expect someone to pay for your uterus Ms Sanchez?” These statements are hard hitting and compel the lawyers to imagine themselves as the plaintiffs. Doing this forces them to empathise cognitively; understanding and adopting the plaintiffs’ perspective. Moreover, the rhetorical questions are impossible to answer as surely nobody would trade their healthy body for money. Using these questions makes the lawyers realise how ridiculous and outrageous it is to suggest that the plaintiffs would be happy with their low settlement.

Finally pointing out that the water the lawyer is about to drink is from the polluted town is an extremely effective scare tactic. It stops making the issue hypothetical and emphasises the reality of the problem. It also cleverly puts the lawyer on the spot and forces her to be hypocritical and directly undermine her entire argument.

A study by Shen (2011) used anti-smoking public service announcement videos as stimuli messages and had participants rate their emotional responses, the message sensation values of the announcements, and perceived effectiveness, and their attitudes towards smoking. It was found that both fear and state empathy were found to have a positive direct effect on persuasion. 


Shen, L. (2010). Mitigating psychological reactance: The role of message induced empathy in persuasion. Human Communication Research, 36, 397–422.

Shen, L. (2011). The Effectiveness of Empathy – Versus Fear-Arousing Antismoking PSAs. Health Communication, 26(5), 404-415.


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