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.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

"If you don't pick it up, they will."

“If you don’t pick it up they will” was a campaign ran in 2009 by the Endangered Wildlife Trust. Nowadays the problem of waste is one of the most serious that affect our planet. Millions of small objects are thrown onto the roads everyday, but what happens after that? The birds do the work of garbage collectors and this photo shows the consequences.

The persuasive technique employed here is Guilt. Guilt is the feeling of responsibility for some wrongdoing and induces a desire to make restitution and to repair a self-image (Pratkanis, 2007). The advertisement arouses guilt in the audience, by providing a relatively distressing yet realistic image of the consequences of dropping litter, or not picking up other peoples litter. The fact that many people may have dropped litter or neglected other waste on the roads, accidentally or on purpose, is what arouses the sense of guilt as it produces a sense of responsibility for what is presented in the advertisement.

It has been relatively well established experimentally that one of the most efficient ways of obtaining compliance is by inducing a feeling of guilt in the person whose compliance is desired. Carlsmith and Gross (1969) extended the Milgram obedience studies to look at the effect of guilt on compliance. They induced students to perceive that they had given a series of electrical shocks to another person as part of a learning experiment. After the ‘learning experiment’ was over, the confederate/learner/victim asked the subject if they would make some phone calls for an environmental group. There were three conditions texted in a matrix: whether an experimenter was present or not during the request, whether the participant had given the requester an electrical shock during the study or not, and whether the status of the requester was high or low. The rate of compliance and number of calls the subject was willing to make was recorded.

The results showed that experimenter presence and requester status had no effect on compliance, but previously shocking the requester had a dramatic effect on compliance. While there may be many reasons for this behaviour, such as guilt or feeling sorry for the victim, their second experiment confirmed the reason was guilt as the generalised guilt condition (where the participant gave an electric shock and a witness asked the participant to make the phone calls) led to the most compliance (See Table 1). 

Table 1. The average number of phone calls participants agreed to make across the conditions.

Thus, it appears the feeling a sense of guilt increased these participants compliance to a subsequent request.

This advertisement does an effective job by arousing a sense of guilt within the audience and increasing the likelihood that they will be more compliant to the advertisements message: to ‘pick it up’. By refraining from dropping litter, or picking up litter, this behaviour will help repair the person’s self-image and reduce the sense of guilt and responsibility for what is shown in the advertisement.


Carlsmith, J. M., & Gross, A. E. (1969). Some effects of guilt on compliance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 11(3), 232-239.
Pratkanis, A. (Ed.) (2007). The Science of Social Influence: Advances and Future Progress. Psychology Press.

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