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.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Social Media: Are we really being manipulated?

My sister recently gave her Snapchat password to her friend in order to maintain their Snapchat streak (a number which tells you how many days you have snapped back and forth within a 24 hour window) while she was away without internet. To me, this seemed crazy, but it got me thinking about how much control social media has over our lives.

We are often told by some concerned individuals (who have somehow managed to avoid the social media bandwagon) about the dangers we face as a society reliant so heavily on social media usage. We often respond to these individuals by telling them that it’s our own choice and that we decide how often and when we use it. But how much control do we really have over how we spend our time online? Are we really at risk of being manipulated?

As it turns out we might not have as much control as we think. Our attention is constantly being pulled in a multitude of directions by the growing number of different social media platforms. There are an estimated 2.46 billion social media users today on many different platforms ("Number of social media users", 2017).The attention we give to social media isn’t just limited to when we are using it, more of our thoughts throughout the day come from the screens we are constantly checking an estimated 150 times a day for the average millennial (Brandon, 2017). Social media isn’t just a passive form of entertain we use to pass the time, its being used as a means to persuade us to do things and influence the way we behave.

How does it work?

Commitment trap:
Pratkanis (2011) defines commitment as something which binds an individual to behaviour. The formation of Snapchat streaks does exactly that. They give people something that they don’t want to lose, programming people to constantly access their accounts. As stated by Salanick (1977) commitments are strongest when they are visible and perceived as freely chosen. Snapchat streaks can be clearly seen with a visual number by the name of the person you have a Snapchat streak with and as with other social media, its use is perceived as something we chose to do. But in fact, it seems that we are just being manipulated into sending Snapchats for fear of losing the streak.

Social consensus:
The use of social media has fast become a social norm in our society; everyone is doing it. And if everyone else is using it, the likelihood is that you are using it too. Conformity like this has been shown in a study by Asch (1951), in which confederates select a clearly incorrect length line in a simple perceptual task. Few participants come to believe that the incorrect line is the correct answer, but social pressure to fit in with the group resulted in half of participants conforming at least once and went with the majority on over 35% of the trials. With the much of society using social media, this creates social pressure to conform to the majority. This pressure is hard to resist, as we want to be the same as those we associate with and not seen to be deviating from the norm.

Theory of Planned Behaviour:
Ajzen (1991) produced the Theory of Planned Behaviour which suggests a person’s behaviour is determined by their intention to perform the behaviour. This intention is controlled by their attitude towards the behaviour, subjective norms and perceived behavioural control.
This model may offer an explanation as to why people use social media. If people have favourable attitudes towards social media (attitudes), those around them and people of importance in their lives think they should engage in its use (subjective norms) and if it is easy for them to use (perceived behavioural control),  then they will have strong intentions for using social media and are consequently are more likely to use it.

Social modelling:
The presence of someone else displaying a behaviour E.g. using social media, increases the likelihood that the behaviour will be produced by observers. Pratkanis and Aronson (2001) state that the tendency to imitate social models is increasingly likely for models who are of high status, prestige and are attractive and confident. We are constantly bombarded by celebrities on social media. The presence that celebrities have and the portrayal of frequent social media use in their lives increases the chance that social media will be used frequently in the lives of their followers.

Our use of social media acts as reinforcement for our future use. Every time we click on something we see on Facebook for example, we are effectively telling it we like what we see, reinforcing the display of those things in the future through Facebook’s use of algorithms. This is known as positive reinforcement, in which good things happen in response to the behaviour (Skinner, 1938; Thorndike, 1927). For example, clicking on the latest Ed Sheeran video will result in Facebook suggesting more and more Ed Sheeran videos for you to watch. The increase of things we like appearing on our Facebook timelines, consequently increases the chance that we are going to check our timelines more so than if we didn’t like what we were seeing.

There are many different ways that social media has control over our lives and its ever increasing popularity means that its presence in society is only on the rise.


Asch, S. E., & Guetzkow, H. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgments. Groups, leadership, and men, 222-236.

Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational behavior and human decision processes50(2), 179-211.

Brandon, J. (2017, April 17) The Surprising Reason Millennials Check Their Phones 150 Times a Day. Retrieved from

Number of social media users worldwide from 2010 to 2021 (in billions). (2017, July). Retrieved from

Pratkanis, A. R. (Ed.). (2011). The science of social influence: Advances and future progress. Psychology Press.

Pratkanis, A. R., & Aronson, E. (2001). Age of propaganda: The everyday use and abuse of persuasion. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Salancik, G. R. (1977). Commitment is too easy!. Organizational Dynamics6(1), 62-80.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The Behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York: Appleton-Century

Thorndike, E. L. (1927). The Law of Effect. The American Journal of Psychology, 39, 212-222

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