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 29, 2015

Making the alternative an 'unwanted stinker'

Last weekend, whilst visiting my cousin Sophie, I listened to an ever so familiar conversation (or argument) between her and her mother. Sophie was told that due to a meeting at work they would have to leave the house earlier on Monday. This meant Sophie would have to wake up earlier and get dropped to school before her usual time. To no surprise, Sophie endlessly argued how unfair this was and that she hated her mother, as well as her mother’s new manager. Her mother’s simple response was ‘You can either get a lift with me, or leave even earlier to catch the bus’. Sophie got a lift with her mother.

This persuasive technique involves limiting and controlling the number of choices a person can make. In particular, giving someone the favoured option, along with an ‘unwanted stinker’, induces them to select the option you wanted them to. Vidmar (1972) provides a legal example of this tactic. In the study, mock jurors were asked to read a description of an attempted robbery and consequent killing of a store owner. Participants were asked to return a verdict on the defendant’s guilt under one of seven conditions (plus a no-decision control group), which varied the number and severity of the decision alternatives. For example, in condition 1, jurors were given the options of guilty of first-degree murder or not guilty. Whereas, in condition 7, there was a choice between guilty of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, manslaughter or not guilty.

The results, as shown in table 1, show that over half (54%) of the participants chose ‘not guilty’ when faced only with a severe penalty option. In comparison, the chosen verdict of ‘not guilty’ only had an average of 6% across conditions 2 to 7. This emphasises the idea that people can be induced to select an option, when the alternative choice is a really bad one.

In relation to the conversation above, Sophie was induced into selecting a certain option. Sophie's mother persuaded Sophie to accept the earlier lift, as this would avoid the 'unwanted stinker' of having to leave even earlier and get on the bus to school. 

Vidmar, N. (1972). Effects of decision alternatives on the verdicts and social perceptions of simulated jurors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 22.2, 211-218.

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