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, March 7, 2015

Don’t You Want To Help Child Abuse Victims?

A few days ago, a representative from the NSPCC knocked on my door and began telling myself and my housemate about a new scheme they were running which involved visiting primary schools across the country and informing pupils about the signs of abuse and how to get help if they were a victim of this. They had also set up a telephone service for children to call if they wanted to talk to someone about their experiences. To facilitate this, the NSPCC were looking to recruit members of the public into signing up to give monthly donations. The pitch that we were given went like this:

NSPCC worker:  I’m sure you will agree that child abuse is absolutely horrific, which is why we have put this initiative in place. However, a problem that we are having is limited funding. Having already been through the trauma of abuse and plucked up the courage the contact someone about it, I’m sure that you, like me, would hate to think of these children trying to get through to our telephone centres only for there to be no one on the other end to take their call. All we ask is that you give us some non-personal information so that we can sign you up to a donation scheme which will cost just £2 a month and which you can opt out of whenever you want.

Us: We agree that this is a very serious issue and would gladly donate. However, as we are students who are not currently earning a regular salary, it is not feasible for us to sign up to something where money will be taken out of our accounts on a regular basis. Is it possible for us to donate online?

NSPCC worker: It is possible, however, payments which are made online are processed much more slowly than direct debit payments. This makes it much more difficult for us to be able to access the money when we need it. If we do not receive enough donations, it is likely that the NSPCC will go bankrupt and be forced to close and then all of our efforts to help these children would be redundant.

This exchange is an example of a guilt appeal on the part of the NSPCC worker. Such appeals work by invoking a sense of responsibility for a negative situation, which creates a desire to remedy the situation in order to relieve this guilt. This was demonstrated in a study by Carlsmith and Gross (1969), in which 40 students either were or were not made to believe that they had delivered painful shocks to another participant, a confederate, as part of a learning task. The confederate then made a request, which involved asking the participant to make some phone calls as part of a campaign to save the endangered redwoods species.  There were four conditions. In the control condition, the learner made the request to the participant acting as the ‘teacher’ with no mention of the electric shocks. In the restitution condition, the learner made the request after the teacher had just delivered nine electric shocks. In the generalized guilt condition, the request was made by a witness to the shocks and in the sympathy condition, the learner made the request to the participant who had witnessed, but not personally delivered the shocks.

The compliance to the confederate’s request is shown in the figure below, in terms of the number of phone calls subsequently made by the participant.

Figure 1: Compliance rates to the confederate’s request across control, sympathy, restitution and guilt conditions.

It is evident from these results that the highest rates of compliance came from the guilt condition, where participants were made to feel personally responsible for the learner’s suffering and made amends not to the learner himself but to someone else who had witnessed their actions. Although myself and my housemate were not personally responsible for the treatment of the children targeted in the NSPCC’s campaign, the words of the representative gave the impression that if we did not donate to the cause, we would be personally guilty of both leaving these children with no one to talk to and forcing the NSPCC to close down. In other words, by failing to perform a certain action we would incur implicit guilt. Arguably, these are the tactics that make charity appeals so successful – by invoking the threat of guilt if one refuses to help, which increases compliance by making individuals donate which subsequently removes this threat.


Carlsmith, J.M., & Gross, A.E. (1969). Some effects of guilt on compliance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 232-239.

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