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, January 22, 2015

ABA Therapy - a form of persuasion?

The video above is an example of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), a form of behaviour modification commonly used with autistic children in order to increase and generalise language abilities, play and socialisation whilst reducing behaviours that interfere with learning eg. aggression and self- stimulation (stimming). ABA seeks to influence and shape a child's responses based on the principles of learning theory; people modify their behaviour based on the rewards/punishment they receive following that behaviour.  As observed in the video, praise and attention are commonly used as positive reinforcers. These indicate to the child that their behaviour was desirable and motivate them to continue responding in a similar manner. In this way, ABA draws upon the persuasion tactic of Social Reinforcement in order to influence the attitude and behaviour of autistic children.

Evidence for the success of Social Reinforcement comes from Insko (1965), who demonstrated the power of verbal reinforcement in influencing attitudes. Telephone interviews were conducted with students, asking their opinion on statements regarding the creation of an 'Aloha Week'. During the interview, students' opinions were either positive reinforced, by saying "good" when they agreed, or negatively reinforced by saying "good" when they disagreed. A week later, their opinions were tested by asking them to fill out a Local Issues Questionnaire which had one question addressing their views on Aloha Week. To assess attitudes, each statement in the interview was scored between 0 and 3 with a higher score indicating a more favourable attitude. Similarly, the questionnaire was measured using a 15-point attitude scale ranging from "definitely in favour of" to "definitely opposed to."

Table 1: Mean Interview and Questionnaire scores

Positive Reinforcement
Negative Reinforcement
Mean Interview score
Mean Questionnaire score

As seen in the table above, the responses of students who were positively reinforced for their agreement with Aloha week were more favourable both during the interview and in questionnaire responses. In comparison, those who were negatively reinforced had less positive responses towards Aloha Week. The results thereby indicate that verbal reinforcement does not simply result in temporary modification, but further instigates an attitude change, that is generalisable across contexts.


Insko, C.A. (1965). Verbal Reinforcement of Behaviour. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2, 621 - 623. 

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