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.

Monday, February 23, 2015

New Orleans Speak

The importance of words

An important issue highlighted in the above pictures is the significance in the choice of words some people use. The two pictures were taken during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and both depict a similar situation. Survivors of the hurricane are photographed searching for food in the flooded streets of New Orleans. However, the words used to describe what the survivors are doing differ greatly in their implications. For instance, the top picture is of an African American man chest-deep in water, and he is said to have “looted” a grocery store. In the second picture, two White American people are also chest-deep in water, but it is said that they have “found” bread and soda from a local grocery store. It’s funny how words used to describe two very similar situations can make them look so different.

It could be argued, to a certain extent, that this form of journalism serves to perpetuate racial stereotypes across the world. Unfortunately here, the African American person is directly associated with the word “loot”.

In 2010, Hardisty et al. decided to investigate the importance of words. They designed a study whereby participants would have to decide between two similar products, but which differed in the wording of their price inclusions. Participants were presented with four pairs of product decisions, which each had two different price levels. For example, they had to decide whether they would choose a flight for $345 or $352 (i.e., costlier flight had either a carbon tax or a carbon offset). Finally the participants had to disclose the political party they felt they belonged to. The experimenters hypothesized that if participants chose the costlier product, they would be more likely to do so if the tax were described as an “offset”.

TABLE 1. Proportion of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans who chose the more expensive product, averaged across products, in the offset and tax attribute-framing conditions in Study 1.

Results (table 1) confirm the experimenter’s hypothesis and show that participants from all political parties (either Democrats, Republicans or Independent) chose the more expensive product when the tax was described as an “offset”.
This wording process is an explicit form of persuasion, as it shows that people can be influenced into believing that something is different than it what it actually is.

Norah Cotterall-Debay


Hardisty, D., Johnson, E., & Weber, E. (2010). A Dirty Word or a Dirty World? Attribute Framing, Political Affiliation, and Query Theory. Psychological Science, 21, 1, 86-92.

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