Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills 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, November 5, 2016

Banned Books: How Censorship Leads to Increased Sales

Across the world, hundreds of books are challenged every year, and some of these challenges result in the banning of these books from all public libraries and bookstores. Books can be banned on the basis of the actual content of the book or on how the book may be interpreted. For instance, some books have been banned due to the inclusion of excessive violence, profane language or sexual content, while others have been censored due to the political or religious agendas associated with them.

After the completion of Animal Farm in 1943, George Orwell found that no publisher would print the book due to its criticism of the regime of the USSR, who were a powerful ally of Britain. Once the book was eventually published, it was banned in numerous communist countries and is still censored today in the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis was originally banned from sale in Australia due to its excessive violence, and today is censored to all Australians under 18 years old. More recently, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky was banned in public libraries in the US for containing ‘explicit sexual content of a homosexual nature’, and the Fifty Shades trilogy by E. L. James is censored in Malaysia for containing ‘sadistic material’.

However, the banning of books does not always create the desired effect. In fact, in some instances, censoring books can actually have a paradoxical effect by increasing people’s interest in the book and, subsequently, the number of sales. For example, after the Vatican banned Just Love by Sister Margaret Farley, the book rose from number 142,982 to number 16 on the Amazon sellers list (Sister Farley’s revenge: Want to popularize a book? Ban it, 2012). During Banned Book Week in 2014, all but one of the 10 most challenged books saw a rise in sales (Does being ‘banned’ help book sales?, 2014). Additionally, certain banned books, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby are now thought of as classics, and are known as 'the banned books that shaped America'. So why does censorship increase people’s interest in banned books, and why do people seem to enjoy them so much?

Psychological Reactance
The scarcity principle states that opportunities with limited availability appear to be more valuable to us. Stemming from the scarcity principle, Psychological Reactance Theory (Brehm, 1966) proposes that whenever free choice is limited or threatened, we are motivated to retain our freedom by reacting against this censorship, hence the term psychological reactance. In terms of banned books, censorship restricts our free access to the book, so we react against this restriction by wanting and trying to possess the book more than before.

A study by Ashmore, Ramchandra and Jones (1971) demonstrated the effect of psychological reactance on student’s attitudes towards allowing police on campus. When a speech on the issue was banned, students who agreed with the subject of the speech became more favourable of it, while students who had initially disagreed with the speech changed their attitudes in favour of the speech. Further evidence for psychological reactance comes from a study by Worchel and Arnold (1973), who found that censorship of a speech caused potential audiences to align their attitudes with the views of the speech, resulting in a greater desire to hear it. Similarly, when a book is banned, people may change their attitudes towards the book and, subsequently, have a greater desire to read it.

                                        The ‘Romeo and Juliet Effect'

The ‘Romeo and Juliet effect' may also help to explain the increased interest in books that are censored. The ‘Romeo and Juliet effect' states that interference of any kind leads to increased psychological reactance, which subsequently leads to greater liking. For instance, a study by Driscoll, Davis and Lipetz (1972) found that parental interference led to couples showing greater love and a greater desire for marriage than those who did not have interfering parents. To illustrate the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ effect in terms of censored books, Zellinger et al. (1974) found that participants who learnt of an age restriction on a pornographic book wanted to read the book more and believed they would enjoy it more than those who believed the book was freely available to them (see Table 1). This may explain why certain banned books, such as Animal Farm, are some of the most well-liked books in history, still appearing on recommended book lists even decades after publication.

Table 1. Mean valuations of books with and without age restrictions

The Consistency Principle
Once a stand has been taken, there is a natural tendency to behave and adjust attitudes in ways that are consistent with that stand. The paradoxical effect of banned books and people's increased liking of them may be related to the consistency principle, as acquiring a banned book often takes quite a lot of effort. Evidence has shown that the more effort that goes into a commitment, the greater its ability to influence the attitudes of the person who made it. For example, Aronson and Mills (1959) found that college women who had to endure a severely embarrassing initiation ceremony in order to gain access to a sex discussion group convinced themselves that the discussion was more worthwhile and valuable than those who did not complete such an initiation (see Table 2). The greater effort and commitment that is needed to acquire censored books could involve defying a religious or political leader or lying about age, all of which would have negative consequences. This may explain why people seem to enjoy banned books more, and why a number of banned books are known today as classics.

Table 2. Mean ratings of discussion and other participants for the control, mild and severe initiation groups

In conclusion, the censorship of books has a paradoxical effect in terms of interest and sales due to the perceived reduction in freedom, which results in greater psychological reactance, and a greater desire to read the book. It also takes more effort to acquire censored books and the extra commitment leads to increased enjoyment.

Aronson, E., & Mills, J. (1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group.
          Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, 177-181.

Ashmore, R. D., Ramchandra, V., & Jones, R. A. (1971). Censorship as an attitude
           change inductionPaper presented at the meeting of the Eastern
           Psychological Association, New York.

Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York: Academic Press.

Does being ‘banned’ help book sales? (2014, October 21). Retrieved November 4,
          2016 from

Driscoll, R., Davis, K. E., & Lipetz, M. E. (1972). Parental interference and romantic
          love: The Romeo and Juliet effect. Journal of Personality and Social
          Psychology, 24, 1- 10.

Sister Farley’s revenge: Want to popularize a book? Ban it. (2012, June 21).
          Retrieved November 4, 2016 from

Worchel, S., & Arnold, S. E. (1973). The effects of censorship and the attractiveness
         of the censor on attitude change. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,
         9, 365-377.

Zellinger, D. A., Fromkin, H. L., Speller, D. E., & Kohn, C. A. (1975). A commodity
          theory analysis of the effects of age restrictions upon pornographic materials.
          Journal of Applied Psychology, 60, 94−99.

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