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.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Killer Clowns, Agenda Setting Theory and the Theory of Planned Behaviour

 By now, we’ve all seen them in one way or another. Whether it be in person (Halloween is approaching…), on our social media newsfeeds or in the media. Newspaper headlines read ‘Killer clown craze: 12 of the creepiest UK sightings’ (The Telegraph, 17th Oct), ‘Killer clown with machete threatens two girls in Suffolk’ (The Telegraph, 16th Oct), ‘Childline flooded with calls about killer clown craze’ (Daily Mail, 13th Oct). With the number of these ‘killer clowns’ growing exponentially, you’ve got to ask the question of what took this from a Halloween outfit to a craze confining communities to their homes.

It may not come as a surprise that research has shown the media is strikingly successful in telling its audience what to think about. The more the media reports something, the more available that information is to us and the more frequently we think about it. The agenda setting theory, first proposed in 1922, outlines this effect. It is not surprising then, that killer clowns have become the topic of conversation with them consecutively filling newspaper headlines and their masks filling every scroll down social media. Could it be that this high exposure is what has caused the ‘craze’? Could it be that the volume of others putting on a mask is what is encouraging so many more to do the same?

Figure One: The Theory of Planned Behaviour

The theory of planned behaviour suggests there are three components that lead to an intention to perform a certain behaviour (see figure one).
Perceived behavioural control is simply the belief that you can control your behaviour. Perhaps the consequence of going out and scaring your community is too high; a risk of arrest, for example. But, thanks to the medias mass publications of clowns filling the streets, their perceived behavioural control is reassessed. An individual’s belief that they can to perform this behaviour grows, under the cover of a mask. Suddenly, a behaviour that seemed out of reach is not so anymore.
This of course, ties in with social norms. Whilst it may have been considered unacceptable to go and scare your local community before, suddenly a lot more people doing it and it rapidly becomes a much more normative, and therefore an accepted behaviour to perform. Of course, it is the media that ensures we are aware of the growing number of clowns in our streets.   
The attitude towards the behaviour, in this example at least, is likely to build from the other components. The majority of us are probably horrified by these killer clowns, however, there are clearly individuals who have a more positive attitude to the craze. Or perhaps a more positive attitude of the behaviour has been formed as a result of the high exposure; it could be considered humourous rather than horrifying.
According to the theory of planned behaviour, the combination of these three components lead to an intent to perform a behaviour. Although hard to get inside the head of a killer clown, you can see how putting on a mask, wig and wandering the local streets can suddenly be perceived as more acceptable; a belief that we possibly owe to media sources for sharing. This media exposure should boldly take its place in the diagram of the theory of planned behaviour, feeding into the three components that influence behaviour intentions (see figure two).

Figure Two: Addition of Agenda Setting to Theory of Planned Behaviour

The role of the media treads a very fine line. The damaging effects of them sharing the latest craze can clearly be seen, essentially taking what could have been a few separate instances to the ‘killer clown craze’. But, how long would it take for us to begin to resent the media should they stop sharing the latest horrors? Would we not be outraged if we came face-to-face with a killer clown only to find we could have been warned to stay in our homes, if the media had published the latest instances it had been informed of? Regardless, this latest craze illustrates the strength of agenda setting theory, and the power the media has over us and our behaviours.


Francis, J. J., Eccles, M. P., Johnston, M., Walker, A., Grimshaw, J., Foy, R., Kaner, E. F. S., Smith, L., & Bonetti, D. (2004). Constructing questionnaires based on the theory of planned behaviour. A manual for health services researchers, 2010, 2-12.

Rogers, E. M., Dearing, J. W., & Bregman, D. (1993). The anatomy of agendasetting research. Journal of communication, 43(2), 68-84.

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