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

Guilt Trip - (The Parents’ Trap)

When I and my siblings were growing up, household chores were the least of our worries. We’d sometimes go out of our way to get out of simply doing anything involving house work, sometimes even mysteriously having homework due in the next day which was important to our school marks!
However each time we’d do this we’d feel mildly guilty at not doing our ‘bit’ in the house. 
To make it even worse our parents would send upon us an avalanche of guilt-inducing statements such as..

It’s not like I ever cooked you hot meals every night, helped pay for your trip to Paris/school trip cleaned up after you etc etc (you get the picture), and you can’t even do one little thing that I’m asking you for?! Please can you do (insert chore here) now”

The effect:  There was not a single chore left undone that day

Research by Carlsmith and Gross (1969) demonstrates how students can be made more compliant by making them feel guilty. In this experiment participants were told that they were taking part in a learning experiment, wherein they would be the ‘teacher’ and would test a learner (confederate). Whenever the learner got an answer wrong they were to shock them (shock condition) or just press a buzzer (control group- no shock condition). After this task had been completed both the learner and the teacher were brought into the same room again to fill out biographical details during which the learner made a request to the participant to make a subsequent phone call to ‘Save the Redwoods’ – a petition for saving trees in California from being cut-down for a freeway. Participant’s responses to comply were recorded. Below are the results.

Table 1 clearly shows that in the condition where participants administered shocks they were significantly more likely to make a phone call when requested than those in the no-shock conditions (control). Neither the status of the person making the request nor the presence of a witness (E present) had any effect on compliance. Only the guilty participants then were more likely to comply with the request to make phone calls when asked by the person they had ‘shocked’ as opposed to a control group (who were not guilt induced)

This kind of makes intuitive sense because the person who you've caused distress or pain too makes you feel guilty and to reduce that guilt you listen to any request they have. Kind of like repayment. This is probably what my parents ‘monologues of distress’ were designed for.Used in this way the use of guilt is effective more often than not in getting people to comply with certain requests.  Indeed you can see guilt-induced reciprocity in various real-life situations, not just in the home.

When we were kids my parents used to take advantage of this good old trick to persuade us to do basically anything... Who am I kidding, they still do! Cue the most recent, sneaky attempt by my dad, when he asked me to give him a lift to work. ‘It’s not like I ever drove you around wherever you wanted even though you never once thanked me’ (so not true…) but hey 30 mins later = sat in traffic!!

Carlsmith, J. M., & Gross, A. E. (1969). Some effects of guilt on compliance. Journal of personality and social psychology, 11(3), 232.

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