Behaviour Change

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

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Maybe it's a good thing to be commitment-phobic

This Greenpeace advertisement is persuading people to sign a petition. The slogan is ‘Yes, I want to save the arctic!’ accompanied by a response option; ‘sign now’. This clever slogan uses three techniques that create a persuasive avalanche: social norms, consistency, and commitment (Cialdini 2001).

There is an injunctive societal norm that people ought to want to save the environment, (Fritsche et al 2010) and generally, people are motivated to act in line with norms so that they can fit in (Deutsch and Gerard 1955).

The first and probably most prominent example of norm conformity is Asch (1951). Subjects had to discriminate which, of a choice of lines, matched a target line in length. All answers were said aloud so as to create a majority view and participants were, unknowingly, in groups of confederates paid to say an obviously wrong answer. Asch found that 75% of subjects conformed on at least one occasion!

This advert taps into this premise by activating the pro-environment norm with the slogan, ‘Yes, I want to save the arctic!’. This makes people feel like they should agree with this statement.

Most people then, do agree with the statement, as it is a norm, a majority view. A pro-environment attitude has thus been formed. Humans are motivated to act consistently with their attitudes and behaviours (Festinger 1962) and so now, if you don’t agree to sign the petition you are acting inconsistently with your attitudes! Inconsistency is an uncomfortable (Festinger 1962) and negatively viewed (Allgeier et al 1979) disposition. Therefore, to act consistently with your attitude, it is probably best to sign up.

Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) demonstrate the human need for consistency in our attitudes and actions. Participants completed a boring task, were paid $1 or $20, and lied to another participant about enjoying the task. All participants preliminarily rated the task as boring, yet after lying to another participant, those in the $1 condition rated the task as enjoyable! This is because participants couldn’t justify acting counter-attitudinally, as they weren’t compensated with much money, and so changed their attitude to be consistent with their statements. Those who were paid $20 could justify lying and so their inconsistency was explained.

So, you have agreed that you want to save the arctic, signed the petition to act consistently with that attitude, and that’s it, right? Wrong. By singing you have now committed yourself to the cause! Getting people to commit to something is a powerful persuasive technique (For example, Freedman and Fraser 1966 coined the ‘foot-in-the-door’ technique whereby getting people to comply with a small request- putting a ‘driver safety’ sign in their window- causes them to later comply to bigger requests- putting an ugly sign on their lawn- just because you have already committed). The petition is a minor commitment but it is likely that Greenpeace will take advantage of this by asking greater and greater requests of you, and to remain consistent and fulfil your commitment, you are more likely to comply.

With each persuasive technique you are edged one step closer to the whirlpool of compliance: you’re forced into wanting to save the arctic, coerced to act consistently with this attitude by signing the petition, and then finally made to continue to support it because you’ve already made a commitment!


Allgeier, A. R., Byrne, D., Brooks, B., & Revnes, D. (1979). The waffle phenomenon: Negative evaluations of those who shift attitudinally. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 9, 170-182.

Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgements. Groups, Leadership, and Men, 222-236.

Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and practice (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Festinger, L. (1962). Cognitive dissonance. Scientific American, 207, 93-107.

Festing, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-210.

Freedman, J. L., & Fraser, S. C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: the foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 4, 195.

Fritsche, I., Jonas, E., Kayser, D. N., & Koranyi, N. (2010). Existential threat and compliance with pro-environmental norms. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30, 67-79.

Hannah Thomas

Previous article title:  ‘Greenpeace: save the arctic’.

1 comment:

  1. I thought this was written very well Hannah, I'm impressed.


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