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.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


The Fear-then-relief Paradigm and Compliance


The above advert is for Nolan’s Cheddar Cheese and was awarded Best Advert of the Year in 2010. In the advert you see a mouse moving around a mouse trap, this results in a sense of fear building in the viewer which peaks at the point at which the mouse gets trapped in the mouse trap. This fear then quickly dissipates into relief when you see that the mouse is not in fact trapped in the mouse trap but is instead using it as a weight machine. This is an example of the fear-then-relief paradigm in which if the viewer experiences fear which is then quickly followed by relief because their fear was misguided (the mouse has not died) they will be more compliant to the next request they experience. The advert goes on to recommend that the viewer buy the cheese. This is where the manufacturer is hoping that compliance has been elicited by the ‘emotional see saw’ (as named in Pratkanis) in the advert. The mechanism behind this compliance is thought to be the production of mindlessness. The viewer becomes disorientated by the abrupt change in the emotions which they experience and therefore is less likely to think about any request which follows this disorientation and more likely to comply.

Dolinski 1998 was the first to test these ideas. Dolinski produced a series of experiments to test the premise of the fear-then-relief paradigm. To begin with he tested the existence of the fear-then-relief paradigm in a field experiment. Individuals in the street became participants when they jaywalked on a busy street, a concealed experimenter then blew a whistle which sounded like a police warning, inciting fear in the participant, the participant was then assumed to feel relief when they realised that no policeman was present. The two controls were individuals who had jaywalked but not heard a warning whistle and individuals who had not jaywalked at all. Immediately after the independent variable condition was satisfied participants were approached to complete a questionnaire and the compliance to this request was measured. It was found that those who had heard the police whistle and thus had felt fear-then-relief were more likely to comply with the request to fill in the questionnaire. This produced the first evidence that the fear-then-relief paradigm could produce compliance.

Dolinski continued to adapt his studies. The initial experiment assumed but could not control whether or not the individual felt relief after not hearing a police whistle or whether they continued to be worried that a policeman would show up and thus the compliance was not caused by fear and then relief. Thus Dolinski used a “parking fine” design in which when individuals had parked illegally experimenters placed a piece of paper on their car which looked from a distance like a parking ticket. The idea was that individuals would initially feel fear or anxiety on observing that they had a parking fine but on closer inspection would feel relief because the piece of paper was not a parking fine. When they returned to their cars participants were approached to fill in a questionnaire and again their compliance on this was measured. Compared to controls those who had experienced fear-then-relief under what could be considered more controlled conditions, were significantly more likely to comply with requests to fill in the questionnaire. This strengthens Dolinski’s argument that fear-then-relief can produce compliance.

Dolinski used his later studies as an attempt to establish what it was which produced this effect. Research ruled out guilt and shame resulting from getting away with something mildly illegal, good mood resulting from getting away with something illegal and excitation-transfer in which the arousal from the fear lingers and is then attributed to the request, which as a result is seen more positively and complied with. Dolinski established that the mechanism behind the effect was mindless compliance attributed to the disorientation produced by an abrupt change in emotion. Research demonstrated this by creating a fear-then-relief condition and a neutral condition in individuals on the street. Again the jaywalker paradigm was used but in the whistle blowing condition an extra step was added to ensure relief was definitely incited. (the experimenter revealed themselves after blowing the whistle, and laughed and waved to convey that it had been a joke). Immediately following this the participant was approached to donate money to charity using the traditional placebic information paradigm. Participants either heard just a request for money, a request accompanied by real information about the charity or a request accompanied by placebic information. Those who were in the fear-then-relief condition were much more likely to give in the placebic and request only conditions. Dolinski concluded that there is a fear-then-relief paradigm, also termed an emotional see saw and that this induced compliance through producing mindlessness.

Percentage of subjects that complied
Jaywalkers with whistle
Jaywalkers without whistle
Walking along the sidewalk

Table 1: Displays the results of Experiment 1


Dolinski, D.. (1998) “Fear-then-relief” Procedure for Producing Compliance: Beware When Danger Is Over. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 34, 27-50.


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