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.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Black Mirror comes to China

China's revealed plans to launch a somewhat ominous-sounding Social Credit System by 2020, whereby its 1.4 billion residents will be rated on social behaviours ranging from paying your bills on time to minor traffic violations (Creemers, 2015; Brown, 2018; Hatton, 2015). Individuals, businesses and even government officials will be analysed and assessed in a nationwide e-database to produce a measure of their online reputation, character and trustworthiness. This information can be used by banks to offer you a job, mortgage and loan, or even to decide which school your child qualifies for (Galeon & Bergan, 2017). Does this attempt at a somewhat utopian future sound familiar? Funnily enough, it has a striking resemblance to an episode of the dystopian series Black Mirror titled “Nosedive”. During the episode, individuals rated each other’s social behaviours online, consequently effecting their online reputation, character and trustworthiness. The scores they received would affect their daily lives, such as the house they are allowed to purchase.

The question at hand is how will the government be able to get its 1.4 billion residents on board? Well, the Social Credit System uses empirically supported persuasion techniques to implement behaviour change. I will explain these techniques below.

1) Commitment & Consistency

Many Westerners may envision the Social Credit System as a dystopian future; however, the same cannot be said for Chinese citizens. Research by the Dentsu Aegis Network (2018) interviewing 20,000 people found Chinese consumers trust their digital economy more than any other nation, with a staggering 70% believing their digital economy will have a positive impact on society. Francis Lam, the head of innovation and technology at Isobar China, a Shanghai-based marketing agency Isobar explains why this might be the case, "people feel proud of the advances made and how they affect our status in a global sense. So they are willing to try anything new" (Brown, 2018). This quotation reiterates Kissinger's (1982) claim that in order to strengthen a commitment, a reputation should be given to uphold. As China is under the Communist regime, they tend to have a collective mentality in which the status of the country as a whole is of greater importance than the individual. Due to this, as the state has a reputation of being a "scientific and technical superpower" (Samuelson, 2018). Chinese citizens are more likely to agree to the Social Credit System as they believe it will uphold their reputable status.

2) Agenda-Setting Theory

This theory claims that the news influences the perceived importance of issues by repeating and emphasising them (Kiousis, 2004; McCombs & Shaw, 1993; Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007). The closely controlled Chinese news often reports high profile cases of social and economic fraud on social media (Brehm & Loubere, 2018) creating an exaggerated ‘trust deficit’ within the country. This ties in nicely with the aims of the Social Credit System to reduce this ‘deficit’ by producing a measure of an individual’s trustworthiness. If individuals believe there is a real ‘trust deficit’ they will be more inclined to agree to more extreme measures, such as the Social Credit System, to combat this deficit.

3) Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is the idea that you can increase the frequency of behaviour by giving a reward when the desired behaviour is performed (Skinner, 1948). This type of reinforcement is very popular when training animals. When I was training my dog Monty to sit, every time he would sit on my command I would reward him with a piece of his favourite treat. Lo and behold, this increased the amount of times he would sit on my command. The Social Credit System plans to work in exactly the same way; just as Monty was given the reward of a delicious treat for following my command, individuals are given rewards of a good credit score (which will allow them access a range of benefits) for following rules, such as paying back their loans on time. Monty’s desired behaviour increased and so should that of the citizens under the Social Credit System. This ingeniously simple stimulus-response training - used by many of us on our pets - will be employed to change the behaviour of 1.4 billion people! So far, this has proved to be an effective method with pilot studies of the Social Credit System in China (Vincent, 2017). The utopic goal of managing citizen’s finances also appears to work in favour of society- improving debt activity and promoting a stable economy stable. The Social Credit System is therefore more likely to get citizens to perform the desired behaviours and be accepted as a positive idea.

I’d like to end by giving you something to ruminate on, a quote from Edward Bernays (1928) - a man referred to as the “father of public relations” (The New York Times, 1995).  “We’re living in a world by which we are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.” (p. 37).


Bernays, E. L. (1928). Propaganda. New York: Horace Liveright. p. 37

Brehm, S., & Loubere, N. (2018, January 15). China’s dystopian social credit system is a harbinger of the global age of the algorithm. Retrieved from

Brown, J. (2018, March 13). Would you choose a partner based on their ‘citizen score’? Retrieved from

Creemers, R. (2015, April 25). Planning outline for the construction of a social credit system. Retrieved from

Dentsu Aegis Network. (2018). Digital Society Index. Retrieved from

“Edward Bernays. ‘Father of Public Relations’ and Leader in Opinion Making, Dies at 103”. The New York Times, March 10, 1995.

Galeon, D., & Bergan, B. (2017, December 2). China’s “Social Credit System” will rate how valuable you are as a human. Retrieved from

Hatton, C. (2015, October 26). China ‘Social Credit’: Beijing sets up huge system. Retrieved from

Kiousis, S. (2004). `Explicating Media Salience: A Factor Analysis of New York Times Issue Coverage during the 2000 Presidential Election'. Journal of Communication, 54, 71-88.

Kissinger, H. (1982). Years of upheaval. Boston: Little, Brown.

McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1993). 'The evolution of agenda-setting research: 25 years in the marketplace of ideas'. Journal of Communication, 43, 58-67.

Samuelson, R. (2018, January 21). Will U.S. respond to Chinas tech growth? Does China’s growth in tech pose a threat? Retrieved from

Scheufele DA, Tewksbury D. Framing, agenda setting, and priming: The evolution of three media effects models. Journal of Communication, 57, 9-20. 

Skinner, B. F. (1948). Superstition’ in pigeon.  Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172.

Vincent, A. (2017, December 15). Black Mirror is coming true in China, where your ‘rating’ affects your home, transport and social circle. Retrieved from

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