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.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

‘Posh’ Politicians or ‘Plain Old Folk’?



Politicians and their campaign runners produce huge numbers of persuasive messages in the run up to an election. One message which they are often seen to employ is the ‘we are like you’ message. Politicians are very keen to appear to be just like the rest of us. Presumably the idea is that if we believe that the politicians are like us then we will in turn like them and be more likely to vote for them. A classic example of this is the above YouTube clip which demonstrates how George Osborne has changed his accent since becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in an attempt to sound more like the everyday individual.

However, despite their best efforts, politicians often seem to fail in getting us to like them, and are often mocked for their attempts to be like us – see the above Buzzfeed article. Why is this? It is important to note that the technique which the politicians are trying to employ is a valid one. It is known as the just plain folk altercast. A wide range of research has shown that a target’s perception of the persuader’s similarity to them will affect the persuasiveness of their message. If the persuader is seen as more similar then the message will be more persuasive (Berschied 1966)

However, where the technique has fallen down lies in an important part of the research into this altercast. Berscheid (1966) has demonstrated that if the similarity which the persuader is purporting to have with you is not relevant to the persuasive message in question then the similarity will have no persuasive effect. Berscheid (1966) developed a 2x2 design. First participants recorded their values in terms of education and international affairs. These values were scored on a scale of -6 to 6. With -6 being no change is needed and 6 being the system needs complete revision. Then half the participants were told that communicators (persuaders) had values similar to them on education and dissimilar to them on international values. The other half of participants were told the opposite. The communicator then tried to persuade one group of subjects on topics relating to international affairs and the other group on topics relating to education. This was done through the participant listening to a communicator give their views on the matter. After this exposure the participants were measured again. Originally the view of the participant was always 3 value points away from that of the communicator. Any move toward the view of the communicator is represented by a score of fewer than 3. As Table 1 shows the biggest move in participant values and thus the most persuasive occurred in the conditions in which the communicator had been indicated as having similar views to the participants in the topic which was discussed. This indicates that similarity with participants is important for persuasion, but that most significantly the area in which the communicator was similar to the participant had to be similar to the persuasive message itself.

Communicator views compared to participant
Similar education, dissimilar international affairs
Similar international affairs, dissimilar educations
International Affairs

Table 1: Opinion change means when communicator and participant are similar versus when they are different

Therefore we can suggest that if politicians wish to use the just plain folk altercast, their similarity with you must be related to their persuasive message. For example politicians may target the single mother voter demographic by pledging tax breaks for single mothers. Just having this message and attempting to demonstrate that they are similar to single mothers because they like a certain genre will not be effective. They must have this message, whilst also demonstrating that they are similar to single mothers in a way that is relevant to the message e.g. being raised by or being a single mother. If politicians were to use this technique, research suggests that they would be more persuasive and therefore more successful.


Berscheid, E. (1966). Opinion change and communicator-communicatee similarity and dissimilarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4(6), 670-680

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