We all have an identity; if asked, we could describe in some detail who we are, which groups we identify with, and what it means to be a part of such groups, be it 'friend', 'teacher', or 'Arsenal supporter'. We might also think of attributes which form us as individuals; are you a 'kind' person, a 'giver', a 'deep thinker'? Sometimes, when others remind us about our roles and attributes, we’re just that bit more likely to really internalise them, and act accordingly.
We frequently see examples of this in advertising, as a tool to influence our behaviour. Above, we see a message courtesy of The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Foundation. The charity target parents, suggesting that, as a good parent, they would not risk their child’s health. By comparing bacon to cigarettes, the advert calls on viewers to reflect on their role as a fit parent, and reconsider whether or not they ought to provide their children with this meat. The goal for PETA, then, is that parents will eventually introduce a vegan diet to the family, fulfilling their obligation as caregivers, according to the message.
Manded Altercasting: As social beings, we’re all vulnerable to it
The advertisement makes use of 'manded altercasting', a phenomenon studied in areas of social psychology; the technique discussed in persuasion research involves highlighting a particular social role associated with a person, or assigning a new social role, influencing this person to behave in line with what is expected of this label.
Strenta and DeJong (1981) demonstrated this effect, this time assigning the target of influence a 'helper' label. Fifty-seven psychology students took part in, what they thought to be, research on personality characteristics. Students answered a questionnaire and were given a fake outcome, which was randomised to create 4 conditions; students were labelled as either 'pro-social', with kind and thoughtful traits, or 'intelligent', in comparison to their peers who had answered the questionnaire. In the 'salient' condition, participants did not receive a personality outcome but were told the researchers were focused on measures of kindness, whereas the control condition gave no feedback. After receiving this information, participants observed a confederate drop some cards. Helping behaviour was measured for the 4 conditions.
As expected, those in the 'pro-social' condition were most helpful, offering assistance quicker, picking up more cards and spending more time doing so compared to the other conditions (see Table 1 above). In line with altercasting theory, participants behaved as their labels indicated, even when labels were completely meaningless.
To summarise, attributing carefully selected social roles and characteristics to a target can be extremely beneficial to an influencer. So, now you know why you did that favour the last time someone told you how kind you were...
Strenta, A., & DeJong, W. (1981). The effect of a prosocial label on helping behavior. Social Psychology Quarterly, 44, 142-147.