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

Remember the ALS Ice Bucket Storm?

I will never forget the summer of 2014. I graduated high school, was eagerly anticipating my next big adventure at university, and had my brother pour a most debilitatingly ice-cold bucket of water over my head in the name of Lou Gehrig’s disease. A social media frenzy had taken over – the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. 

The exact origins of the fad are unknown but the received wisdom is that it started with a Boston College student who was diagnosed with the disease in 2012. The challenge entailed the simple act of pouring an ice cold bucket of water over one's head, uploading a video of the act to social media, making a donation to ALS research, and then nominating three other friends to take on the very same challenge.

As of August 2014, The ALS Association had received $31.5 million in donations compared to $1.9 million during the same time period (July 29 to August 20) the previous year (Deighton, 2014) and the Ice Bucket Challenge had over 2.4 million tagged videos on Facebook (Stampler, 2014). But how exactly was this social media fad so effective in influencing hordes of individuals to donate towards ALS research?

A simple explanation could have been its timing. The challenge was fortuitously instigated at the start of the summer, getting underway in June 2014 and peaking in August 2014. Obviously, high summer is a more suitable time to perform the act of tipping an ice-cold bucket of water over the head than, say, December. However, timing alone could not possibly account for such a social media frenzy and the sheer magnitude of donations that came in. Perhaps psychology can shed some light?

1.     Perceptual Salience.

Could the influence of the ice bucket challenge have had its roots in our perceptual processes? Attention research has shown that the kind of stimuli that capture our gaze is the appearance of new visual objects (Yantis, 1993; Yantis & Jonides, 1996) and objects that are interesting (Elazary & Itty, 2008). Indeed, the ice-bucket challenge presents viewers with both a novel and visually interesting stimulus:-a campaign of this kind had never been implemented before and the nature of the challenge was peculiar. Thus, the novelty and uniqueness of the challenge was likely implicated in it becoming almost hysterically popular with the consequence being the number of donations that came in.

2.     Commitment and Consistency

According to Cialdini, one of the most effective ‘weapons of influence’ is our "obsessive desire to be consistent and to appear consistent with what we have already done" (1984 p 37). Compelling evidence for this comes from psychologist Thomas Moriarty who staged thefts on Jones Beach in New York. This study revealed that participants who had previously committed to protecting a confederate’s belongings after being requested to do so were much more likely to intervene during the theft with behaviours including chasing and stopping the thief, restraining the thief physically or even demanding an explanation for the theft (Moriarty, 1975). However, this should not be surprising as psychologist have long understood the power of consistency in motivating human behaviour. For example, Leon Festinger’s (1962) “Effort justification” is one explanation as to why participants of the ice bucket challenge are likely to have donated. One of the most classic examples of effort justification is Aronson and Mills's (1952) study on a group of young women who volunteered to join a discussion group on the topic of the psychology of sex. The women were placed in a mild-embarrassment condition which involved reading aloud sex-related words (e.g. prostitute or virgin), a severe-embarrassment condition which involved saying highly sexual words (e.g. f*ck or c*ck) and a control group who did not read sex related words at all. All subjects then listened to a recording of a dull discussion about sexual behaviour in animals. When asked to rate the group and its members, the severe-embarrassment group's ratings were significantly higher whereas control and mild-embarrassment groups did not differ. Aronson and Mills concluded that this was because those whose initiation process was more difficult (embarrassment equalling effort), had to increase their subjective value of the discussion group to resolve their subsequent cognitive dissonance. 

Stripping into one’s bathing suit, preparing a bucket of ice-cold water, asking one friend to pour the bucket over your head while another films it being poured all over you only for you to then upload it onto social media and to consequently challenge three other friends to do exactly the same thing in the name of ALS research is an effortful and uncomfortable process to say the least. Thus, it makes sense to assume the participants of the Ice Bucket Challenge - who persisted in this effortful task for ALS - donated for the same reason Moriarty’s participants chased the thief and Aronson and Mill’s participants rated their groups so highly - “to be and to appear consistent with what they had already done”.

3.     Public Image

A further explanation for the success of the ice bucket challenge could have been the communal and innately public nature of it. Psychologists are well aware of how desire to maintain a good reputation is also a powerful ‘weapon of influence’. Results from experimental economic games have shown that manipulating reputational opportunities affects prosocial behaviour and that opportunities for reputation formation can play an important role in sustaining cooperation and prosocial behaviour (Hayley & Fessler, 2005). The nature of the challenge allowed those taking part to publicly display social responsibility through charitable behaviour, and cooperation through accepting the challenge from a friend. Thus, desire to maintain a good reputation is likely to have contributed to the viral spread of the challenge and the magnitude of donations that came in. 

4.     Use of Role Models

Perhaps one of the most powerful 'weapon of influence' utilised by this campaign was its involvement of celebrities. The influence of celebrities in the 21st century extends far beyond the traditional domain of the entertainment sector. They are important figures in campaigns for social change and the global internet is one of the major drivers of this phenomenon (Choi & Berger, 2010). Celebrities such as Oprah, Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift undertook the challenge. Perhaps more powerfully the challenge was not liable solely for celebrities but famous athletes, leading businessmen and influential entrepreneurs who too took part in the challenge. Lebron James, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to name a few. For many, these individuals are important role models and research has shown how influential role models can be in dictating our behaviour. Role models can strongly influence purchase intentions and behaviour (Martin & Bush, 2000). An individual’s role model has even been implicated in the prediction of women’s career choices (Quimby & Santis, 2006). Thus, role models are looked up to by others and their actions are emulated by those admirers. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is evidence of this. For all those individuals on social media, seeing the singer or athlete they admire most donate and dedicate themselves to ALS was likely a very strong motivation to play a part in spreading the message and fundraising for the cause.  

But what became of it? As it turns out the funds raised from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge helped identify a new gene associated with the disease the following year. Although only present in 3% of ALS cases, the NEK1 gene was found present in both inherited and sporadic forms of the disease which researchers believe will provide them a new target for the development of possible treatments (Cirulli et al., 2015).

However small this breakthrough may seem, the ALS Ice Bucket challenge highlights two very important things: first, that working together we can bring about real change and awareness of social issues and second, never to underestimate the power of influence in dictating human behaviour.

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Cialdini, R. B. (1987). Influence (Vol. 3). A. Michel.

Cirulli, E. T., Lasseigne, B. N., Petrovski, S., Sapp, P. C., Dion, P. A., Leblond, C. S., ... & Ren, Z. (2015). Exome sequencing in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis identifies risk genes and pathways. Science, 347, 1436-1441.

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Haley, K. J., & Fessler, D. M. (2005). Nobody's watching?: Subtle cues affect generosity in an anonymous economic game. Evolution and Human behavior, 26, 245-256.

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Yantis, S., & Jonides, J. (1996). Attentional capture by abrupt onsets: New perceptual objects or visual masking? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 22, 1505–1513.

Quimby, J. L., & Santis, A. M. (2006). The influence of role models on women's career choices. The Career Development Quarterly, 54, 297-306.

Stampler, L. (2014, August 15) This Is How Many Ice Bucket Challenge Videos People Have Posted on Facebook. Receieved from

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