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.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Expression is key

The advertisement above shows an image of a happy mother and child from one of the countries positively impacted by the work of Unicef. Here Unicef attempts to persuade us to give by showing us the impact our money would have. We see that children’s lives are being saved and this is benefiting not only the children but their families too. Although this seems like it should work, a technique that is likely to work better and increase the number of donations, is the use of negative imagery, in the form of negative expressions. 

This technique was demonstrated in a study by Small and Verrochi (2009). The researchers aimed to test whether people would donate more to a charity when the picture on the appeal featured a sad-faced child, compared to a neural or happy-faced child. The materials used consisted of advertisements for an organisation supporting children’s cancer research. Each ad contained a child showing either a happy, sad or neutral emotional expression. Participants received an envelope with a $10 show up fee and instructions that told them that they could donate a portion of their $10 to the research foundation. They were told to return the envelope to the experimenter even if it was empty. 

Figure 1 shows that giving was greatest in participants who were shown a sad expression compared to a happy or neutral one. The researchers carried out a second experiment which aimed to investigate the psychological mechanisms underlying the effect demonstrated in Study 1. It was found that participants in the sad expression condition reported significantly higher levels of sympathy than those in the happy or neutral expression conditions and they themselves felt sadder when viewing the sad face (shown in Figure 2 ).

So it seems that we are driven to give out of sympathy but this is highest when presented with images portraying sadness. Even though Unicef has tried to differentiate itself from other charities by showing the positive impact of donations, it appears that seeing children’s sadness in charity ads, evokes higher levels of sympathy, therefore leading to higher amounts of money donated.

Small, D.A., & Verrochi, N.M. (2009). The face of need: Facial emotion expression on charity advertisements. Journal of Marketing Research, 46, 777-787.

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