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.

Monday, November 28, 2016

God: The first user of persuasive techniques.

Anyone who knows me personally would know that when it comes to religion and God, I am a huge skeptic. However, by looking at the statistics, it is obvious that a lot of people have been convinced and persuaded by ‘God’s words and teachings’ (Pew Research Center, 2015). Each person has their own personal reason for their belief, however, after a few lectures on persuasion and influence, I soon came to recognise that many of the techniques found to be persuasively successful have also been used by religion. I agree that it would be a tremendous oversimplification to claim that these techniques are the reason behind the spread and acceptance of theology. Nevertheless, I do believe that they have a significant impact on people’s decision to believe in a certain religion.

According to Robert Cialdini, one of the six main principles that are involved when influencing people’s attitudes and behaviour is the Reciprocity Principle.  The principle states that humans tend to give back, or reciprocate, the same behaviour that they have received. Therefore, in order to be able to persuade someone to do something for us, we must first do something for them. Once the favour has been done, they would then feel indebted and thus more likely to be persuaded to behave in a certain manner. Further support is provided Garner(2005) who found that participants given a hand written note were more likely to fill in a survey than those asked verbally. According to Cialdini, the effort that had gone through writing a note was recognized by the participant and obligated them into reciprocating that effort. This is why, participants who were provided the hand written note were also found to provide better quality responses. In religion, especially the Abrahamic ones, it is a common belief that most of the things we possess, including our soul and body, were created by the all-powerful God. Now, if I were to believe in God, I could easily see how people would feel indebted and obligated to spend their lives worshipping their creator.

The Principle of Commitment and Consistency, which is another of Cialdini’s six core principles, can also be found in the Abrahamic religions. According to this principle, people are more likely to actually do something once they have publicly claimed or promised to do so. Once we make a promise, we feel obliged to fulfill our promise and stay true to our words. In addition, once we have made a decision and committed to something, we try and convince ourselves that we have made the right call by developing new justifications to confirm our decision. One of the most obvious examples of this tactic being used in religion is the sacrament of Confirmation performed in Christianity. The confirmation ritual allows those who have already been baptized to confirm their belief and the promises made on their behalf. Unfortunately, the act of baptism, which is mainly performed at infancy, creates a sense of commitment itself, and many would feel obliged to stay consistent with the decision made on their behalf as a child. In addition, most Catholic churches carry out the ritual around the age of 14, when the child still lacks the intellectual capacity and sufficient knowledge needed to make such a significant judgment. This is one of the reasons why many people, including myself, believe that the notion of theology should not be introduced to a child until much later in their lives. If we were to allow children to live the first 20 years of their lives without the mention of any God or religion, we would be able to provide them with the opportunity to make a well-balanced decision, rather than indoctrinate them and force them down a certain path.

Another persuasive tactic, which arguably could be religions’ most effective technique, is providing a sense of belonging. This was actually brought to my attention by an atheist friend who claimed that growing up in a Hindu family, with religious parents and relatives, actually created a sense of alienation for her. The religion, according to her, formed a community for the rest, which she felt left out of. As pointed out in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we are social beings who need to interact and communicate      
with one another. Religion, tactfully, uses this need and merges social interaction and religious rituals together, hence creating a community of people with similar attitudes and beliefs. This, in my opinion, is actually one of the few positive aspects of religion. However, this too can be used as a persuasive tool, especially if a person does not already hold a strong view towards a certain faith. People who are born or move into such communities with different beliefs may begin to feel excluded. In order to be able to feel like they belong, they may begin to partake in some of theses rituals. Eventually, this could create a cognitive dissonance, where one’s attitudes are no longer aligned with their behaviour. However, as mentioned previously, people seek consistency and thus when an inconsistency arises, they begin to try and change something in order to eliminate the dissonance. Many would consider changing their behaviour first, however, unsurprisingly, humans find it more difficult to change their behaviour than their attitude. In our case, their behaviour allows them to interact with the rest of the community and provides them with a sense of belonging. Hence, in most cases, it is our attitudes that are changed to accommodate our behaviour.

The last technique that I will be discussing is the ‘appeal to fear’. Fear appeal is when persuasion is attempted through the presentation of potential risk and an arousal of fear. The stimuli creates a sense of anxiety, which in turn leads to a negative physiological state that compels the body to respond in any way in order to get rid of the threat and decrease the level of distress. If we take a look at Islam and Christianity, we are able to see that their Gods have presented them with similar notions of hell; a place made for the torment and punishment of those who have sinned and disobeyed His laws. By presenting them with an endless fear-evoking stimulus, many people may alter their beliefs and attitudes purely to eradicate the sense of anxiety. As Bertrand Russell points out, “Religion is based primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death” (Russell, 1957).

As mentioned previously, persuasive techniques may not be the only answer to why religion has been able to spread so vastly, yet it is one of many rational responses. Most of the techniques I have discussed do not refer to logic in any way and instead, they appeal to emotions such as fear and a sense of belonging. Maybe if the ideas proposed were a bit more realistic and consistent, then they would no longer need to scare us into believing; reasoning with us would be enough.


Garner, R. (2005). Post-It® Note Persuasion: A Sticky Influence. Journal of Consumer Psychology , 15 (3), 230-237.

Huitt, W. (2007). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Educational Psychology Interactive

Pew Research Center. (2015, April 2). The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050. Retrieved November 29, 2016, from Pew Research Center:

Russell, B. (1957). Why I am not a Christian, and other essays on religion and related subjects. New York City, NY: Simon and Schuster.

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