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.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Making a Murderer President

The New President of the Philippines

Rodrigo Duterte is the recently elected President of the Philippines. He won the presidential election by over five million votes. He has since received international criticism for being a killer, a title that might have some truth behind it. Duterte has even begun a ‘drug war’ in the Philippines, resulting in the deaths of many. He has not failed to come through on his promises, having killed about 2500 people insofar and only this week, helping to reestablish the long abolished death penalty. One would think this is something that, had it been known, would cause no Filipinos to vote for him. However, killing thousands is something that he vowed to do in his campaign. How and why did this man become the president of 98 million people?

The Yale Attitude Change Approach and Why It Works

Why was Duterte so successful? Why did claims of killing criminals and ‘fattening the fish in the ocean with their bodies’ cause people to vote for him rather than consider him a madman? There are many reasons behind this, stemming from not only his presidential campaign, but also how he presents himself as ‘one of the people’ and publicizes the successes he has had as mayor prior to the presidential race. A lot of these reasons fall into The Yale Attitude Change Approach (Hovland, 1953), showing how Duterte became so influential.

The Yale Attitude Change Approach is based on the principles of persuasion that who says what to whom affects what is persuasive. It suggests that the source must be confident, credible and popular (and attractive, but that one doesn’t really apply here). Duterte was previously a very popular mayor of a major city in the south of the Philippines, and he had successfully lowered crime rates within the city. Those who live in that area were probably the biggest proponents of his campaign. This shows how he is both credible and popular. He seemed to have proof of his abilities, so why wouldn’t he be able to do it for the rest of the country? He was also incredibly confident in himself and his achievements, making bold claims about how he would erase crime nationwide within six months. As a source of information, he does come off incredibly persuasive.

Hovland and Weiss (1951)

The message being imparted, according to the Yale Attitude Change Approach, must be sincere and of good quality. Undoubtedly, Duterte thinks he was being sincere in his claims. He truly seemed to believe that he was capable of eradicating crime. While some of his claims seemed preposterous to those who looked closely, much of the population is less educated about politics and assumed the best. Duterte is also funny. He projects the kind of humor that boys laugh at in the playground. A lot of these boys have become voting-age men, who think that Duterte, in his sexist jokes and heroic claims, is the greatest thing that could happen to the country. A personable president, who would have thought? The preceding president was also known for being a little more awkward and less affable, which may have contributed to this line of thought. A credible and funny message cuts through to the peripheral route of processing (Petty & Cacciopo, 1986). This, coupled with the low effort put into candidate decisions by majority of the population, made Duterte seem like the ideal candidate.

An example of campaign posters in the Philippines

The audience is of utmost importance within The Yale Attitude Change Approach. Hovland and Weiss (1951) suggested that the attitude of the audience towards the communicator is one of the most essential aspects in imparting a persuasive message. The audience needs to have similar beliefs, be paying less attention and be of a younger age (under 25). One of Duterte’s biggest agendas was  simply “CHANGE”. Though it seems it seems typical for a presidential candidate to want change, this was not actually something that had been proposed by a Filipino presidential candidate in a long time. The people wanted change too. As I mentioned earlier, people tend not to put too much effort into voting. Particularly in the Philippines, where campaign slogans are plastered everywhere and bribes are readily given out in the form of small amounts of money or food, people vote for whom they see or are told to vote for. Finally, though somewhat surprising, the 71-year-old Duterte actually won the “millennial” vote. Exit polls showed that most citizens from ages 18-35 voted the man into presidency (ABS-CBN News). As education has become better in recent years, almost 40% of registered voters were youths. 

Overall, by fitting Duterte’s campaign into the Yale Attitude Change Approach, it isn’t too surprising that he won the presidency. It’s also not surprising that despite the rising death tolls and terrible choices he has made, a lot of the Filipino people are still allying with him. There are a few other ways of persuasion that Duterte employed, whether he realized what he was doing or not.

Being a Cult Leader (like Hitler):

In his Mein Kampf, Hitler said that the best propaganda technique is to ‘confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over’. As you may already have realized from this blog post, Duterte wanted change, he wanted it now and he would kill for it. He repeated these, in varying ways, over and over. He essentially drilled this message into the voter’s brains and convinced them that it would happen. In the video above, you may see how he mentioned Hitler in a speech. The editing of the video mangled his message slightly (he never said he was going to be the next Hitler), but it’s amusing and a little terrifying to watch anyway.

Authority Rules! Especially if everyone is scared of it:

Terzi (2011)
Hovland and Weiss (1951) showed that a credible and authoritative source convinced students to think that nuclear submarines were safe.  As I’ve already outlined, Duterte seemed to be a very credible and authoritative source of information. What might add to this is that the Philippines has a power distance index of 94. According to Hofstede's (1991) cultural dimensions theory, the greater the power distance index, the more hierarchical it is. Duterte, as a politician, was way up in the hierarchy, while at least some of those who voted him in likely were not. Terzi (2011) showed that there was a positive correlation between power distance index and autocratic tendency. This suggests that a country with a high power distance index would appreciate an autocratic leader more, perhaps one like Duterte. In a well-known experiment, participants administered shock to others when an authority figure told them to (Milgram, 1963). Authority fosters obedience. So what might you think would happen when this credible, authoritative and likeable source told you to vote for him? And that kids, is how we elected another dictator.

Funny little bonus:
Duterte threatened to withdraw from the presidential race several times. He waited until people had begged and rallied to reenter himself into the running. Perhaps the scarcity principle might be at work here? Or maybe he just has a really big ego.


Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (1991). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind (Vol. 2). London: McGraw-Hill.

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

Hovland, C. I., & Weiss, W. (1951). The influence of source credibility on communication effectiveness. Public opinion quarterly15, 635-650.

More millennials voted for Duterte, exit poll shows. (2016). ABS-CBN News. Retrieved 11 December 2016, from

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. In Communication and persuasion (pp. 1-24). Springer New York.

Terzi, A. R. (2011). Relationship between power distance and autocratic-democratic tendencies. Educational Research and Reviews6, 528.

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