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

THINK before crossing the road, you could be knocked down by a giraffe!

I think everyone will remember seeing this THINK road safety advert as a child. If it wasn’t the catchy song, then the little hedgehogs would be sure to stick in your mind. Commissioned by the government to promote road safety in children, this adverts underlying aim was to limit the number of children’s injuries and deaths caused by road accidents. Rather than focusing on statistical evidence, or on the fearful consequences of not looking when crossing the road, this advert cleverly uses cartoon hedgehogs to express the message to children to always stop, and think, before going to cross the road.

This advert worked so well because of the Storytelling technique. This is when you use narrative to provide structure to facts, and guide decision making (Pratkanis, 2007). The emotions and imagery a story triggers may instil beliefs in the reader that are consistent with the story.

Supporting this, research by Green and Brock (2000) found that the more subjects were transported into a story about a murder at shopping mall, the more likely the subjects were to believe that shopping malls were unsafe. In this study, 97 undergraduates read "Murder at the Mall," a story about a student, whose little sister is stabbed to death by a psychiatric patient in a mall. The story was framed as being either fiction or nonfiction to subjects.

Subjects completed a series of questionnaires before and after reading the story, regarding violence, psychiatric patients, a just-world, and whether crime doesn’t pay. Subjects answered whether "Psychiatric patients who live in an institution should be allowed to go out in the community during the day" and whether they should have "passes to leave their institution…free of supervision." Violence questions asked subjects to rate how frequent they thought stabbing deaths occurred in Ohio malls, and in the United States. The just-world index investigated whether subjects’ perception of whether the world was just, was changed after reading the story. Subjects then completed a 15-item transportation questionnaire. This asked subjects the extent to which they agreed with statements like, “the events in the narrative have changed my life.” 

Transportation into the story
Psychiatric patients
Just world
Crime doesn’t pay
Table 1: Mean ratings for each question from subjects who reported being highly transported into the story, compared to subjects who reported low transportation into the story.  

We can clearly see from Table 1 that those who reported higher transportation into the story, reported beliefs that were more consistent with the story. This is shown in the higher mean ratings for each question. For instance, subjects who were highly transported into the story reported that more violence existed in the world, that psychiatric patient freedoms should be restricted, and reported just-world beliefs that were more consistent with the story, than lower transported subjects. The amount of transportation into the story did not differ depending on whether the subject was told the story was fact or fiction. Overall, this shows that stories can change people’s beliefs and attitudes.

In the case of the THINK road safety advert, the hedgehogs cleverly tell a story to the children in the form of a rhyming song. This narrative works so well because children become swept up by the song, and become transported into the story. The advert ensures that children are reminded that they are responsible: “You know your own street, and everyone you meet.” However, the narrative of the song informs children that “though you know the road well, still you never can tell, you’ve got to be wise,” when crossing even familiar roads. This instils the message that roads can be dangerous (especially as the advert shows giraffe drivers speeding down the road out of nowhere). The story increases the likelihood that children will remember the song when they are about to cross the road, and will STOP. THINK. And GO!

Green, M. C. & Brock, T. C. (2000). The Role of Transportation in the Persuasiveness of Public Narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(5), 701-721.

Pratkanis, A. R. (2007). The science of social influence: Advances and future progress. Hove: Psychology Press.

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