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.

Thursday, March 2, 2017


Our aim for this project was to help endangered animals. This cause is important as through deforestation, pollution and destruction of habitats, humans have caused a large amount of species to go extinct. Over the course of our 100-day project, between 15,000 and 20,000 species of plants, insects, birds and mammals went extinct. This rate is nearly 1000 times higher than the natural expected extinction rate (Vidal, 2016). We felt that as this was a problem solely caused by the selfishness of humans, the best way to combat it would be to draw on the generosity of humans.

But how to do this? We're constantly bombarded with adverts encouraging us to help the homeless, give aid to Africa or provide refuge to refugees, and we felt these constant pleas were overwhelming and becoming counter-productive. Viewers of these adverts may well have suffered from compassion fatigue (Moeller, 1999; Abendroth & Flannery, 2006), a phenomenon which causes empathy levels to drop after witnessing consecutive cries for help. We sought to find a new way to engage a younger audience.

As Instagram has over 500 million active users, many of whom are under 35 years old (Parker, 2016), it is an ideal place to try and acquire a new generation of charity givers. Instagram is a social media site dedicated to sharing photos, and because of its various search features, these pictures can be viewed by potentially millions of people every day. It offered our project a quick and easy way to get our message across to a large audience.

One of the most popular types of images to post on Instagram are memes. They take the form of images which are overlaid with text and are often humorous or satirical. Memes develop within pop culture, and often adept commentaries of the current state of the world (for example, there has been a sharp rise in Trump-related memes in the last year). By using memes on Instagram, people can like our memes, tag their friends in them, and be inspired to make their own. Our memes took the initial approach of being funny, by using puns or funny images, but then struck a serious tone about the message we were trying to get across.

So, over the course of 100 days, we created and posted 100 memes onto our Instagram account. Here they are beautifully presented in video format;

One of the main persuasive techniques used in our project is humour (in the form of memes). In terms of the elaboration likelihood model (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986), humour aids persuasion by taking the peripheral route (Lyttle, 2001), and has been found to be effective in numerous contexts (Berlo & Kumata, 1956; Wallinger, 1997; Conway & Dubé, 2002). A possible explanation for the effects of humour on persuasion is that humour creates positive affect (Kuiper & Martin, 1995), and that people are less likely to disagree with a message when they are in a good mood (Freedman et al, 1978). They are also more likely to rely on peripheral cues (Bless & Schwarz, 1999). Furthermore, humour may help to increase liking of the source, as a shared sense of humour may hint at shared underlying values (Meyer et al, 1997), increasing chances of persuasion.

For the duration of the project, we posted one meme per day for 100 days. The reason for posting so frequently and for so long is because of mere-repeated-exposure and the availability heuristic. Mere-repeated-exposure to a stimulus can change preferences towards an object, even if people do not engage with it (Zajonc, 2001). The availability heuristic, a cognitive shortcut involved in peripheral decision making (Tversky & Kahneman, 1978; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986), helps us to recall information that is presented in higher frequency and that is more available to us. So, by posting 100 memes in 100 days, followers of @SaveTheAnimemes on Instagram should hopefully have been exposed to enough stimuli at a high enough frequency to change their attitudes towards endangered animals.

One goal that we strived to keep consistent throughout the project was posting on our Instagram daily, including during the holidays. The reasoning behind this is an effect known as the ‘sleeper effect’ (Hovland & Weiss, 1951; Cook & Flay, 1978). The ‘sleeper effect’ suggests that participants become more persuaded by a message over time. Hovland et al. (1949) suggest this is because the audience forgets where the message came from and only recall the merits of the message. While this effect often displays an initially low uptake of the intended message, as receivers gradually begin to forget the source, their overall persuasion is increased.

Within our memes and messages, we aimed to vary the language used. All of the memes deployed the use of humour, as humour is an effective tool for drawing attention towards our message (Chan, 2010), but we aimed to vary the type of humour used. Some of the memes were topical; we used several that referenced Donald Trump as this would draw even further attention to our message. We also used rhetorical questions such as “So you’re telling me you love animals, but you won’t donate to help save them?” Messages such as these attempted to employ cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1962). We aimed to persuade our followers to donate by creating an uncomfortable feeling within them, implying that they love animals, but do little to help them. Subsequently, by offering them the opportunity to donate to our cause, we were also offering them a means to rid themselves of this inner conflict.

Other memes used humour and empathy to attract attention as empathy has also been shown to have a predictable and unique effect on persuading an audience (Shen, 2010).

Another technique of persuasion we attempted to utilise is commonly known as the ‘foot-in-the-door’ technique (Freedman & Fraser, 1966). This theory states that when people are presented with a large request, they are more likely to comply if they have first complied with a smaller request. In Freedman and Fraser’s original study, this was shown by asking varying degrees of compliance of Californian housewives. In solitude, the ‘large’ request of asking the housewives if they would be agreeable to 6 men coming into their homes to classify their household objects was unlikely to be agreed to. However, if preceded by the smaller request to answer several questions about which household products they used, they were far more likely to agree. This was illustrated in their findings: only 25% of participants agreed to perform the large request in isolation, compared with 50% subjected to the ‘foot-in-the-door’ technique. Applying this to our own project, we decided not to ask our followers for donations until day 14 of our 100-day project, by which point most had already been following for some time. Before this point, the only request we subjected our followers to was asking them to ‘like’ our pictures, an effortless task which, when compared with the far larger request of parting with their money, appears very small. As many of our followers had been liking our pictures daily for two weeks, we hypothesise that this made them more likely to comply with the larger request when we eventually exposed them to it. This is demonstrated by the amount of money we raised.  

In conclusion, our chosen format could provide us with a quantifiable method of determining whether we produced change. Our Instagram account displayed how many followers and ‘likes’ we attained, demonstrating how many potential patrons our posts could reach, and our JustGiving page conveys an unaltered, monetary sum which is sent directly to the WWF.  At the time of writing this blog post, we have managed to amass 6550 likes, 636 followers and have raised £134.76 for the WWF. While this did not quite hit the £200 target we initially set ourselves, we still managed to raise a significant amount of money, and the number of followers and likes indicates that even though not everybody donated money, it caught the attention of many people. This is something that we hope caused, if not monetary donations, an increased thinking time about the problems we as a species are causing in the endangerment of animals. Thank you for taking the time to read this post, and please feel free to donate to our JustGiving page below if you feel compelled to help our cause.

All figures correct as of 02/03/2017


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Project completed by Tom Mason, Will Gray, Rory Flanagan and Josh Nicolini

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