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

The Story of how Leo swayed me using the Yale Attitude Change Approach

The dialogue surrounding climate change has been around since I developed the cognitive tools necessary to reflect on my world intellectually. Having always had a respect for academics and now as a student of science myself I never once doubted the large host of research converging towards climate change being an impending threat for life on earth as we know it. However, I must also admit that whilst I knew this in the back of my mind I never consciously deliberated the matter or made changes to my behaviour. I certainly never hit the streets in protest or thought I’d write a blogpost on it.

Yet here we are! This post is dedicated to a documentary I finished watching just 20 minutes ago.  I needed those 20 minutes to process and collect my thoughts and so it is in the frenzied aftermath of my watching ‘Before the Flood’ that I write this. This documentary has been pivotal for me in terms of revaluating the impact my lifestyle and behaviours have on my home – this beautiful blue planet. I could write about climate change and why, in the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, it is the “single greatest threat to a sustainable future”. Instead I’ll stick to my own area of expertise and, in light of the Yale Attitude Change Approach, illustrate exactly how this documentary was able to convey its message so persuasively and subsequently influence my behaviour to change.

The Yale Attitude Change Approach is the study of the conditions under which people are most likely to change their attitudes in response to a persuasive message. According to this approach, there are certain factors and effects that come into play in each of the components of a persuasive message (Hovland, Janis & Kelley, 1953). The basic paradigm of this approach is "who said what to whom"—the source of the communication, the nature of the communication, and the nature of the audience (Aronson, Wilson & Akert, 2013).

Who (source of communication):

·      The speaker should be attractive to the audience

Leonardo DiCaprio, the primary messenger in this documentary, consistently appears on various lists for the ‘sexist men’. For example, Empire magazine listed him 31st in a list for the 100 sexiest male move stars ("100 Sexiest Movie Stars: The Men", 2013). As shallow as it may appear, the research does support that attractive people make for more convincing messengers. For example, one study by Chaiken (1979) supported that participants are more easily persuaded by the message of an attractive messenger as opposed to an unattractive one. A study by Patzer (1983) found that in a marketing context there are strong positive correlations between physical attractiveness and source credibility. The science clearly implicates, even if only in part, Leo’s sandy locks and American brogue in my persuasion.

·     The speaker should be credible to the audience. 

Furthermore, Leonardo DiCaprio is an Academy Award winning actor and a UN Messenger of Peace. These are important titles to have. His acting award tells us that he is a talented and renowned individual in his field. This plays into his title as UN Messenger of Peace as only distinguished individuals, carefully selected from the fields of literature, science, entertainment or other fields of public life and who are dedicated to the work of the UN make the cut. This cultivates an air of credibility as it not only displays his philanthropy but also puts him on par with other illustrious Messengers of Peace such as Jane Goodall, Paulo Coelho and HRH Princess Haya. What’s more, leaders such as US President Barack Obama, Pope Francis and other notable academics in the fields of economics and environmental science were a part of the documentary to spread the message alongside himself. These people all have important titles in common. Studies have shown what a powerful tool of influence this can be. One devastating account of the authority of titles comes from a study involving the gross over prescription of an unauthorised drug by a doctor to a hospital patient (Hofling et al., 1996). In the study, a person claiming the title ‘doctor’ told a nurse over the phone to prescribe a large amount of an unauthorised drug to a patient and a shocking 95% of the time the nurse, with relevant professional intelligence of their own, simply complied. The researchers concluded that the experiment strongly confirms the overbearing influence a mere title can have. Perhaps my persuasion becomes a little more understandable in this light.

Says what (nature of communication):

·     Present two-sided arguments (refuting the ‘wrong’ argument)

If we go back and consider how the documentary was structured we find that before we are even presented with the devastating reality of climate change we were inoculated against the opposing message, namely - that climate change is a myth. Pfau (1992) has shown that inoculating consumers with an opposing message can result in deflecting the persuasiveness of comparatives in the realm of advertising. A study conducted by Pfau and Burgoon (1988) involving the U.S. Senate campaign during October 1986 found that political campaign messages can be designed to inoculate supporters of candidates against subsequent attack messages of opposing candidates. A substantial body of research has accumulated concerning the persuasive effects of two-sided arguments of this kind (for a review see Allen, 1991). Two-sided messages labelled "refutational," include supporting arguments directly refuting the opposing ones (e.g., McCroskey, Young, & Scott, 1972). The accumulated research shows refutational two-sided messages are more persuasive than both one-sided messages and nonrefutational two-sided messages (Allen, 1991; Allen et al., 1990) – ‘non refutational’ being composed of both arguments favouring the source's position and opposing arguments, but not including direct refutation of the opposing arguments (e.g., Bettinghaus & Basehart, 1969). When we analyse ‘Before the Flood’ we observe the refutational two-sided message technique being utilised highly effectively through the initial presentation of the opposing message – that climate change is not a scientific fact - before it being empirically and very powerfully refuted throughout the rest of the documentary.

To whom (the nature of the audience):

·     The best age range is 18-25.

The Yale Attitude Change Approach argues that young adults are the most susceptible to persuasive messages. One explanation is the impressionable years hypothesis. The hypothesis posits that the socializing influences individuals experience when they are young have a profound impact on their thinking throughout their lives (Hess & Torney, 1967). Newcomb and colleagues (1967) found evidence of significant political socialization between ages 18 and 25 and other research has shown that beyond the ages of 18-25 people’s attitudes are more stable and resistant to change (Krosnick & Alwain, 1989; Sears, 1981). It makes sense why I might have been so moved by ‘Before the Flood’ as I am 20 years old and, according to the impressionable years hypothesis, in the process of defining important aspects of my self-concept. In terms of climate change I see this as a positive impact. It is people my age who are going to be the leaders, economists, academics and corporate CEOs of tomorrow. Thus, it is important that this message is ingrained in each and every one of us so we do not leave this beautiful planet in irrevocable ruin for our successors. Or as the Native American proverb so poignantly puts it “we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

And on that note, here's a little food for thought.

Allen, M. (1991). Meta-analysis comparing the effectiveness of one-sided and two-sided messages. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 55, 390-404.

Allen, M., Hale, J., Mongeau, P., Berkowitz-Stafford, S., Stafford, S., Shanahan, W., Agee, P., Dillon, K., Jackson, R., & Ray, C. (1990). Testing a mode! of message sidedness: Three replications. Communication Monographs, 57, 275-291.

Bettinghavis, E. P. & Basehart, J. R. (1969). Some specific factors affecting attitude change. Journal of Communication, 18, 227-239.

Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., Akert, R. M. (2013) Social Psychology. Boston, Massachusetts: Pearson.
Chaiken, S. (1979). Communicator physical attractiveness and persuasion. Journal of Personality and social Psychology, 37, 1387.

Hess, R. D., & Torney, J. V. (1967). The development of political attitudes in children. Chicago: Aldine.

Hofling, C. K., Brotzman, E., Dalrymple, S., Graves, N., & Pierce, C. M. (1966). An experimental study in nurse-physician relationships. The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 143, 171-180.

Hovland, C. I., Janis, I. L., & Kelley, H. H. (1953). Communication and persuasion; psychological studies of opinion change.

Krosnick, J. A., & Alwin, D. F. (1989). Aging and susceptibility to attitude change. Journal of personality and social psychology, 57, 416.

McCroskey, J. C, Young, T. J., & Scott, M. D. (1972). The effects of message sidedness and evidence on inoculation against counterpersuasion in small group communication. Speech Monographs, 39, 205-212.

Newcomb, T. M., Koenig, K. E., Hacks, R., & Warwick, D. P. (1967). Persistence and change: Bennington College and its students after 25 years. New York: Wiley. Nunn, C. Z., Crockett, H.

Patzer, G. L. (1983). Source credibility as a function of communicator physical attractiveness. Journal of business research, 11, 229-241.

Pfau, M. (1992). The potential of inoculation in promoting resistance to the effectiveness of comparative advertising messages. Communication Quarterly, 40, 26-44.

Sears, D. O. (1981). Life stage effects on attitude change, especially among the elderly. In S. B. Kiesler, J. N. Morgan, & V. K. Oppenheimer (Eds. ), Aging: Social change (pp. 183-204). New York: Academic Press. 

The 100 Sexiest Movie Stars: The Men. (2013, 7 October). Retrieved from


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