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, March 13, 2015

Blowfishin' This Up!

In this scene, taken from Breaking Bad, we find the up-and-coming drug kingpin Walter White trying to raise Jesse Pinkman’s self-esteem and nurse his ego in order to get him selling their product again. Walter employs the analogy of Jesse being like a Blowfish, to make Jesse think no one will oppose him in the drugs trade:

-Walter White: “Intimidating, so that the other scarier fish are scared off. And that's you. You are a blowfish. You see? It's just all an illusion. See? It's nothing but air. Now, who messes with the blowfish, Jesse?”
-Jesse Pinkman: “Nobody.”
- WW: “You're damn right.”
- JP: “I'm a blowfish.”
- WW: “You are a blowfish. Say it again.”
-JP: “I'm a blowfish.”
- WW: “Say it like you mean it.”
-JP: “I'm a blowfish!”
-WW: “ That's it.”

In this discussion, Walter uses repetition to convey his point to Jesse. The use of repetition is a stalwart in the plethora of persuasion techniques, depicted in Zajonc’s (1968) classic research. The ‘mere exposure effect’ occurs when repeated exposure to an argument increases the target’s belief in the validity of the argument. The person trying to convey the persuasive message must be careful not to overexpose the target however, as they risk reducing the perceived validity of their argument.

This effect has been replicated, as seen in Cacioppo & Petty (1979). Undergraduate students were either presented with an argument for or against a certain way of funding a marginal increase in tuition fees either 0, 1, 3 or 5 times. The students were then asked to rate on a 15-point Likert scale how much they agreed with the statement.

As seen in Graph 1 below, exposure to the statement 3 times led to increased agreement with whichever statement the students were presented with.

Graph 1: Demonstrating the increase and eventual decrease in student agreement with a statement as it is repeated (Cacioppo & Petty1979).

The graph also indicates that beyond 3 times, agreement with the statement decreased, so Walter encouraged Jesse to repeat the statement and be exposed to it the correct number of times, before it lost its perceived validity.

By engaging Jesse with the act of repeating the “I’m a blowfish!” statement, Walter persuades Jesse that he is the alleged, intimidating blowfish. Jesse identifies positively with the concept and internalises the fact that, yes, he is indeed a blowfish and proceeds to celebrate appropriately.


Cacioppo, J. T., & Petty, R. E. (1979). Effects of message repetition and position on cognitive response, recall, and persuasion. Journal of personality and Social Psychology, 37(1), 97.

Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of personality and social psychology, 9(2p2), 1.

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