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.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Here's To What Matters



This advertisement for the Ronald McDonald House Charity depicts a father and his daughter carrying out normal everyday activities. The scenes and voiceover encourage the viewer to think about ‘dad’s voice’. Near the end of the advert the viewer learns that the father has a sick child in hospital, ending with the statement ‘here’s to what matters’. The advert encourages the viewer to empathise with the characters portrayed in the short video. Empathy is felt towards the father, who does not want to be far from his child and empathy is also felt towards the sick child in hospital, who wants her father by her side. Overall the viewer is able to empathise with the situation presented to them, empathising with how difficult it is for everyone when a child is in hospital. Since the charity provides living spaces for families of sick children, the viewer is encouraged to think this will make the situation easier for all those involved if they are close to their child. The phrase, ‘here’s to what matters’ is powerful, leaving viewers the opportunity to think about what matters to them and how much they empathise with the cause.

The use of empathy as a persuasive message was studied by Shelton and Rogers et al., (1981) using the subject of endangered whales. In their experiment, they had student participants watch one of 4, 9 minute videos created by Greenpeace. Participants also completed an Empathetic Concern questionnaire to assess the effectiveness of the manipulation. All participants were split into either the low of high empathetic group or high empathetic group. In the low empathetic condition, participants were instructed to watch a video about whales; a highly intelligent and critically endangered species. In contrast, participants in the high empathetic condition were given written instructions that stated they would be watching a real situation involving whales. During the video these participants were told to imagine how the whale felt, and how the situation felt for them. Then they were asked to picture themselves feeling the same way as the whales and to sympathise with them. After the experiment, subjects rated their agreement with statements on a 14-point graphic scale, ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. 5 items assessed general intentions to help save whales and intentions to donate money and time to Greenpeace. Another form presented to participants asked them to volunteer up time to address envelopes for a local campaign to save whales. Participants were asked to write down the number hours they were willing to commit to the cause.

Figure 1: Graph showing empathetic conditions effect on likelihood to help
Figure 1 shows the results of the high and low empathy conditions. The study found that the low empathy condition produced lower levels of empathy in the participants than the high empathy condition. The high empathy group were also more likely to exhibit helping behaviours after watching the video. The figure indicates that an individual is significantly more likely to help others when they have been exposed to high levels of induced empathy because the higher the score on the graph, the higher the likelihood of helping behaviours being exhibited. This means that those participants who were asked to imagine how the whale felt then went on to be more likely to donate money to Greenpeace and offer up more hours to help the local charity.  Overall, it appears that encouraging individuals to be empathetic towards a cause is likely to lead to helping behaviours, which in the case of the Ronald McDonald House Charities advert, is donating money. Using empathy to induce attitude change appears to work well on mass media campaigns, possibly explaining why many charities chose to employ this persuasive tactic when asking for donations.


Shelton, M.L., & Rogers, R. W. (1981). Fear-arousing and empathy-arousing appeals to help: the pathos of persuasion. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 11, 366-378.

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