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.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

But Mum!...

Upon visiting my former nanny and her two children over the weekend I came across a conversation which a lot of parents may be familiar with and frequently use day-to-day with their children due to its effective results. The conversation went along the lines of the example above in which my former nanny was trying to get her son, Joe, to do his homework. It is clear, as with most children, that he wanted to do everything but (specifically watching telly) and she was struggling to convince him otherwise. However, in the end, she managed to persuade him to do his homework with one simple, yet, clever persuasive technique: To limit and control the number of choices and options.

This specific persuasive technique works by limiting the number of options available to choose from. For example, in order to persuade someone to choose option A, you offer the choice of option A but also offer option B (a completely undesirable option or an ‘unwanted stinker’). Then, according to Lee (1952) people will then utilise a “least of two evils” tactic, whereby the person will feel they have the freedom to choose the more desirable option (Option A). In other words, they are free to choose the lesser of evils. Regarding the specific example above, the parent has limited the number of options available by offering a desirable option (do your homework now and you will be able to watch telly later) and an undesirable option (no television at all). The child then uses the lesser of two evils tactic and is persuaded to choose to do his homework now in order to gain a desirable outcome later (watch television). 

One study from Vidmar (1972) shows the effect of limiting the number of options in the decisions of mock jurors in a simulated jury experiment. In this experiment, 168 participants (acting as jurors) were given a description of an attempted robbery and subsequent murder of a store owner and asked to return a verdict regarding the defendants guilt under 1 to 7 conditions which varied in the number and severity of the decision alternatives (including a no decision control group). In condition 1,  participants were only given 2 possible verdicts to choose from; First degree murder or not guilty. Whereas, in condition 7 participants were allowed to choose their verdict from first degree murder, second degree murder, manslaughter or not guilty. 

As seen in Table 1., results show that over half of the participants (54%) chose ‘not guilty’ when there was only one other verdict option to choose from. Whereas, when participants had three other verdicts to choose from (condition 7) only 8% of participants chose not guilty. In other words, when participants were only given one other verdict to choose from other than not guilty, they felt that it was too severe of a punishment and an undesirable choice. So, participants utilised the ‘lesser of two evils’ tactic and chose the not guilty verdict significantly more. This shows that limiting the number of options can persuade participants to choose a specific verdict. 

In conclusion, it appears that when given a limited number of options to choose from, people begin to compare them in order to determine which one to choose. In this process, one option is attributed as an ‘undesirable’ option and, therefore, people are more likely to choose the alternative option. In the example conversation above, the child really wants to watch television and the parent has used this piece of information two persuade him to do his homework. The parent offers the child two options: One where the child does not get to watch any television (the undesirable option) or one where he gets to watch television (desirable outcome). Despite having to do his homework first, the outcome for the latter option is still more desirable than watching no television at all and therefore, persuades the child to choose this option.


Lee. A. M. (1952). How to understand propaganda. New York: Rinehart. 

Vidmar, N. (1972). Effect of decision alternatives on the verdicts and social perceptions of simulated jurors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 22, 211-218.

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