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.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Take my whole wallet. Do you want my gun too?

The effects of distraction on persuasion

Even though research on distraction and persuasion stays mitigated to this day, studies have shown that distraction can help when trying to persuade someone.

In the movie Catch Me if You Can, DiCaprio portrays a young con-artist running away from the FBI after having falsified cheques and official identifications. In this clip, the FBI agent (Tom Hanks) finally catches up with DiCaprio in a hotel room he had been using for some weeks. The agent initially believes that DiCaprio is the guy he is supposed to catch, however, having never met him before, DiCaprio manages to persuade Tom Hanks that he is an agent of the Secret Services and that he has already arrested the culprit. Even though Hanks is reluctant to believe him at first and asks for proof of identification, he is distracted when Leo gives him his whole wallet to look at. After he is given his wallet, and even though he never properly looks inside, the agent is convinced by DiCaprio’s “show” and believes he is actually a Secret Service agent. This is a technique used by DiCaprio many times throughout the movie to influence people in his favour.

In 1964, Festinger and Maccoby conducted an experiment whereby they tested the level of influence of manipulated messages among fraternity and non-fraternity members. They showed two versions of a film that strongly argued against fraternities. The first version of the film was limited to a speech from a speaker. The second version consisted of the same track, but had a highly irrelevant visual presentation. They hypothesized that the participants watching the second version would be more prone to be influenced by the persuasive message than the participants who did not.

TABLE 1. Average Ratings for Fraternity members at San Jose College

Results show that in the distraction condition, the fraternity members (who were deeply involved in the matter of the film) rejected the speaker less and were significantly less enthusiastic about fraternities.

These results can be explained by Festinger and Maccoby’s (1964) theory of distraction. If an individual is distracted by something while listening to the persuasive message he is being subjected to, and is deeply involved within the subject/issue, his attention will be divided. He will be less likely to counter-argue while listening, and thus, be more likely to be influenced.


Festinger, L. & Maccoby, N. (1964). On resistance to persuasive communications, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 68, 4, 359-366.

Norah Cotterall-Debay

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