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.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

"Just plain folk"

"Don't mind me... just buying some dog food."

"I eat here ALL the time."

An internet search for images of Barack Obama brings up a host of photographs of the US president doing “ordinary things”, such as playing basketball, going to the supermarket and walking the dog to name a few.  Whilst such acts may seem unimportant and simple, they are all part of a plan to make the president more popular with the US public.  In the run-up to the 2012 US election, Obama went out of his way to do “ordinary things” in every city he went to on his campaign tour (e.g. eating at the local diner).  The hope was that undecided voters would identify with the president as they share similarities (yes, even something as simple as eating a burger), and thus would be more likely to comply with his request to vote for him.

This is known as similarity altercasting.  The basis of this persuasive technique is that similarity between the source (i.e. Obama) and the audience (i.e. the voter) will create a bond and a perceived loyalty to this bond with increase compliance (i.e. to vote Democrat).

This technique was demonstrated in a lab-based experiment by Baron (1971).  In the study, participants were either led to believe there were very similar to the confederate (agreed with the participant on all items of an attitude questionnaire) or rather dissimilar (disagreed with the participant on all items).  Following this, the confederate asked the participant to either comply with a small request (return a book to a mutual friend), a medium request (take some books back to the library), or a large request (get some books out of the library for the confederate). As can be seen in the results table below, it was found that high similarity increased a participant’s willingness to comply with a medium or large request, but perceived similarity had no effect on compliance with the small request.

Magnitude of the confederate’s request
Low similarity
High similarity
Table 1. participants’ compliance with the confederate’s request.

This experiment clearly demonstrated the importance perceived similarity can have on how easily someone can be persuaded to do something, especially if the request is large in magnitude, such as which political party to vote for.  Therefore, one of the best ways for any political leader to secure vote is to go into town and do what all the ordinary folk are doing everyday – although don’t forget to invite the media to come too, otherwise your audience will never know!

Baron, R. A. (1971). Behavioral effects of interpersonal attraction: compliance with requests from liked and disliked others. Psychonomic Science, 25, 325-326.

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