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, March 14, 2017

Breaking Barriers: The Stigma Surrounding Homelessness.

Christiana Amao, Rhea Rattan, Simi Jhooty, Costanza Gentile, Deanne Hay, Tanya Nyamadzawo.

 Homelessness: a complex, multifaceted existence involving broad social policies, economic shifts, disruptions in social support and family disparities (Toro, Tricket, Wall & Salem, 1991).

The main causes of
homelessness in the UK
A 16% increase in homelessness in the UK over the last year, has led to almost 300,000 people seeking living assistance and over 4,000 people sleeping rough on any one night across England alone.  For this reason, social media is regularly swarmed with news regarding the homeless (RT International, 2016). Yet, there is still a large and hidden population of homeless people including a surprising proportion of students (The Guardian, 2016). There are a number of stereotypes that exist regarding homeless people, and these negative attitudes often lead to discrimination. These perceptions alongside the alarmingly increasing rates of homelessness in the UK signify a need to challenge the stigmatisation and stereotyping of homeless individuals that continues to perpetuate our society today.  

Our project was motivated by a critical study by Philips (2015). Phillip’s study highlighted the importance of the community’s attitudes towards homelessness. Like our project, they interviewed a number of undergraduate students on how they perceived homelessness, and ways to decrease the stigma. They found a relationship between positive attitudes toward homelessness and the successful recovery from it. Homeless individuals in the “Housing First Program” who were based in community homes rather than shelters, were more successful at reintegrating and finding permanent housing in the future. This program is similar to the residency program at the Salvation Army and its effectiveness inspired us to take a bottom- up approach and concentrate on our student community’s attitude towards homelessness for our project.

As students in a position, to raise local awareness towards this unjust stigmatization, we aimed to change attitudes by challenging the misconceptions and stereotypes directly linked to the homelessness crisis. As we felt that despite claims of an accepting society, the stigmas around homeless are still prevalent and sometimes considered the “norm” due to their implicit nature; this needs to change.

To achieve our aim, we contacted the Salvation Army in Coventry. There we met a support worker who allowed us to gain a deeper insight into the key issues the homeless faced, stressing that the misconceptions surrounding homelessness deterred many people from volunteering. Five homeless individuals from the shelter, six students from the University of Warwick and the support worker were interviewed with the prime focus of challenging five main misconceptions of homelessness. These were; substance abuse, mental health, criminal records, low motivation for job seeking and the reason for their homeless situation. The students shared their perceptions, the homeless individuals shared their experiences and the support worker ways that the audience could help and actions that could change the current stigmas. (see interview questions below).

After compiling the interviews, we created a short and informative video highlighting the most important issues, the unique experiences, the struggles and ways to combat them. In order to reach a wide audience base, we shared the video on YouTube and plastered it on social media platforms. We also teamed up with Warwick TV, a student run society who were able to display our film on the open air screen on central campus, with hundreds of students viewing the video. It was essential not only to present this video, but to include follow up details (included below) to ensure our audience was aware of the relevant methods to support the homeless and play an active role in making a change. For example, they were provided with a phone number and website should they wish to volunteer or donate to the Salvation Army. (see more info below)

Behaviour change in action: a student after watching our video

Research has shown that the source, message and audience must acquire certain characteristics in order for the message to be effective and persuasive (Clark & Evans, 2014; Petty & Cacioppo, 1984). Firstly, the credibility of the source is crucial, as the audience needs to trust where the information is coming from. We provided a credible source for both students’ attitudes and the reality of homelessness by interviewing actual homeless people and students from a respected University. Furthermore, we increased the credibility of the message by providing an unbiased view; we achieved this by including both the positive and negative aspects from the interviewees answers in order to be as truthful as possible and to acknowledge the presence and reasons for these stereotypes. Keeping the primacy and recency effect in mind, we ensured that we presented essential contact information at the end of the video so that the audience considered this information the most. Finally, our audience consisted mostly of fellow University students and so were similar to the students in the video; for example in terms of age making us more relatable and relevant.

Ellie Goulding using her fan base to raise
awareness about homelessness
By not limiting our method of broadcast to avenues accessible to warwick students alone such as the big screen, we were able to tap into the positive effects of social media in raising awareness and challenging stigmas. For example, by tweeting our video we were able to piggy-back on the vertical identification effect stimulated by celebrities who have spoken against the stigmatization of homelessness. The vertical identification effect involves ‘ordinary’ individuals imitating ‘superior’ individuals like celebrities in order to identify with them. For example, singer Ellie Goulding challenged those who stigmatized the homeless to change their views and combat the issue by supporting the Independents ‘Young and homeless helpline’, specifically targeting 16-25 years olds facing homelessness. She too explained that there is a misconception over homelessness and many stereotypes exist when in reality, many homeless individuals come from normal background but something goes wrong, big or small (Huffington Post, 2015). Things that can be done to help consist of sparing time to speak to the homeless, as human interaction is invaluable. Her post was shared by multiple media outlets and reached thousands of people across the globe.

Our video on the large screen in the piazza
A large audience exposure into a persuasive and informative outcome was our main objective after producing the video so it was shared on multiple social media platforms including Facebook, twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube, then displayed on the Warwick TV screen at the center of campus for an entire month. This meant that hundreds more students apart from the 202 from YouTube were continually exposed to our video. According to the mere exposure effect, this consistent and constant presentation facilitates persuasion. Since our audience is repeatedly exposed to our video, it is perceived as more desirable. As a result, our audience views abandoning their misconceptions on homelessness and changing their attitudes as a desirable outcome. 

Furthermore, we maximized the effects a number of other cognitive biases such as the availability heuristic (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973) and cognitive dissonance. The availability heuristic in media illustrates that that the public perceptions of unusual situations can be strongly influenced by the media. By assuming that interacting with homeless people is a rare occurrence for the average student, they are more likely to revert to the positive attitudes suggested in the video when they interact with homeless people. Also, we hoped that the compassion and empathy aroused by showing homelessness from a humane perspective would induce cognitive dissonance, due to the conflicting beliefs negative attitudes and compassion. We expected the occurrence of this phenomenon to force individuals to implement behavior change in order to resolve this conflict, either through new cognitions or by changing preexisting cognitions. We also provided assistance for the resolution of this dissonance by providing suggestions of ways to help at the end of the video (replacing the negative attitudes with positive ones). 
“In future, research focused on volunteerism may be beneficial to promote following through on the desire to volunteer through encouragement to seek such opportunities” (Philips, 2015).

 Interview questions

  1. In your own words, describe a typical homeless person.
  2. What is your view on the association, if any, between homelessness and mental health?
  3. What is your view on the association, if any, between homelessness and ability to get a job?
  4. What is your view on the association, if any, between homelessness and criminality/jail?
  5. What is your view on the association, if any, between homelessness and drugs?
  6. Why do you think people become homeless?
  7. What would you say is the hardest thing about being homeless?

Information at the end of video

Phone: 024 7601 1770

Volunteer website:

Clark, J. K., & Evans, A. T. (2014). Source Credibility and Persuasion: The Role of Message Position  in Self-Validation. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 1024-1036.
Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1984). The effects of involvement on responses to argument quantity and quality: Central and peripheral routes to persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 69-81.
Phillips, L. (2015). Homelessness: Perception of Causes and Solutions. Journal of Poverty, 19, 1-19.
Toro, P. A., Trickett, E. J., Wall, D. D., & Salem, D. A. (1991). Homelessness in the United States: An ecological perspective. American Psychologist, 46, 1208.
Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive psychology, 5, 207-232.
"Homeless Man 'froze to Death' in Birmingham on Coldest Night." RT International. Published 1 Dec. 2016. Accessed: 25th Feb. 2017.
Lightfoot, Liz. "Hidden Homeless: The Students Ashamed to Admit They've Nowhere to Sleep." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 21 June 2016. Accessed: 25 Feb. 2017.

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