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, April 24, 2018

#Lookwhostalking: Addressing the increase of communication difficulties observed in young children entering Nursery and Reception classes

A few months ago, I was privileged to be able to interview an Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) leader at a local primary school in Coventry, England. My intent was to ascertain whether psychological methods could be used to positively address current issues within education. We talked at length about a notable increase of communication difficulties observed in young children entering Nursery and Reception classes. The Communication Trust (2017) states that over one million children have some form of long term and persistent speech, language and communication difficulties. They also report that two thirds of 7-14 year olds with serious behaviour problems suffer with a language impairment, and at least 60% of adolescents in young offender institutions experience some form of communication difficulties. The EYFS leader suggested that a decrease in parent-child communication was, in her opinion, the primary cause of a decline in communication development. She gave examples of numerous incidences where she had challenged parents or carers who were collecting their child from school; the parents were engrossed in their personal handheld devices, many also using headphones and thus ignoring their child. Imagine a situation where a child finishes school brimming with excitement to discuss the many experiences of their day but is met with a dismissive and uninterested response. An upsetting yet daily experience for many children, where countless opportunities to explore and discuss the events of their day are regularly overlooked in favour of selfish pursuits from their primary caregiver.

The recent influx of handheld devices has led to many positive outcomes such as; round the clock access to news and current affairs, immediate connectivity to friends and family and the ability to interact with like-minded others around the globe. However, there are also many consequences to overuse of such devices to be aware of. In 2017, 42% of children under 8 years old owned a personal tablet or mobile device (Common Sense Media, 2017). It is understandable that with hectic lives and busy schedules, parents may search for easy solutions to entertain their children whilst they relax at home, feeling that they are furthering their child’s knowledge and understanding of technology. Although this could be considered to prepare children for the modern world, there is evidence to suggest that it could cause severe developmental delays (Chonchaiya & Pruksananonda, 2008). Use of the device is not the cause for these detrimental consequences. However, extended use which replaces stimulating parent-child communication, leading to an overall decrease in two-way communication throughout the household.

If you consider how little time parents have with their children between school and bedtime, the fact that children spend on average 48 minutes each day on a handheld device is worrisome (Common Sense Media, 2017). It is shocking to learn that 57% of young children are not read to daily (Common Sense Media, 2017). It is well known that sharing a story is fundamental to developing literacy skills and language acquisition (Jones, 2018). Unfortunately, instead of hearing a bedtime story half of children under 8 years old spend their final few hours before bed in front of the television (Common Sense Media, 2017). Screen time is known to have a detrimental effect on both sleep quality and memory consolidation (Grønli et al., 2016). Consequently, these children are deprived of a daily opportunity to develop their communication skills.

Following the interview, I decided to design a video which would increase awareness of this developing issue, while challenging the viewers to increase the amount of conscious time which they dedicated to parent-child communication. The video begins by stating the problem reported by the EYFS leader and presents quantitative statistics to support these qualitative observations. It proceeds to inform parents about the consequences of decreased parent-child communication. I researched simple to administer activities which families could integrate into their daily lives to improve parent-child communication. These included eating as a family (Fulkerson et al., 2010), engaging in playful behaviour (Ginsburg, 2007), and shared reading (Horst, Parsons, & Bryan, 2011). I challenged parents to make a commitment to their children by incorporating one or more of these activities. The video ends by highlighting the potential positive outcomes such as developing their child’s communication skills, vocabulary, and improving attachments.

The campaign follows the format of the successful and widely popular ALS ice bucket challenge which reached a wider audience using nominations to generate additional participants, leading to increased donations (Woolf, 2016). Similarly, I asked parents to share their activities and nominate others to post their own. During the design of the video and campaign, I used a variety of persuasive psychological methods to facilitate behaviour change. The following techniques were used to create and spread the message within the video:

Foot in door technique: The first step was to create a Facebook group from which I would post my final video. Upon creating the page, I asked people within my social network to ‘like’ it so that I could show them the video once it had been completed. According to the foot in the door technique, I could use compliance tactics to increase the distribution of my video (Freedman & Fraser, 1966). Once a person has agreed to a small request, they are more likely to agree to a larger request. Although quite an old technique, the effect is still found to work with time consuming computer-based favours. Through email communication, a person is more likely to complete a 15-20 minute online survey after initially responding to a smaller favour (Guéguen, 2002). Using this technique, I was able to make another request for people to engage in the campaign, requesting personal images which could be used in the video (as free to use google images were limiting and appeared ingenuine). Making these additional small requests in an increasingly demanding order meant that once the video was ready to be published, I could expect more people to be willing to participate in the larger request of sharing the video and/or taking part in the activities outlined within it.

Sadvertising: My next step was to gather imagery and music which I could use for the video. The annual John Lewis Christmas adverts are some of the most anticipated and talked about adverts of recent times (Ashton, 2016). Their adverts are highly emotive and appear to be purposefully so, with a combination of slow melancholic instruments and a heart-warming tale, progressing from sad to uplifting through the course of the advertisement. Emotional appeal adverts evoke empathic emotions and produce favourable attitudes towards helping, especially in females (Wang, 2008). It is for this reason that I purposely selected a well-known song to carry the message of my video, Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’. This song was originally released in 1964 but returned to the charts in 2016, thus meaning a range of viewers would be familiar with the song. I searched for an instrumental version of this song and found a musician who composes violin and piano pieces. The artist gave me permission to use her cover version as a backing track. Here is a link to the original video:

Guilt and the negativity effect: The video begins with negative and sad images presented in black and white. This is a technique used effectively by charitable organisations (Hudson, 2013). A study by Basil, Ridgway and Basil (2006) found that guilt appeals induce a sense of responsibility in the targeted audience. The negativity effect is the finding that negative information receives more attention and is more influential than positive information (Lau, 1982). Therefore, the beginning of the video is particularly negative, focusing on the consequences of reduced communication with children. This should induce a receptive state of mind in audience members, with the anticipated effect that they will be more willing to accept the suggestions provided regarding how to help their children.

Authority: The beginning of the video starts with a quote from a professional deemed to have authority in an educational setting, the EYFS leader of a large school. Authority has been shown to persuade people to do all forms of things, from giving a stranger some change for a parking meter (Bushman, 1984), to administering dangerously high dosages of drugs (Hofling, Brotzman, Dalrymple, Graves, & Pierce, 1966). The video makes use of data from scientific papers and paediatrician reports, all of which derive from a person or organisation in positions of authority on the subject. This should therefore increase the audiences trust in the information provided in the video.

Pique technique: In my project, you will notice that I have suggested parents give up 16 minutes of their day to focus on communicating with their child. This may seem like an odd duration of time, but it is intentionally unusual. According to the persuasion tactic known as the pique technique, unusual requests result in increased cooperation (Santos, Leve, & Pratkanis, 1994). This study demonstrates that asking for an unusual amount of cash, for example 17 or 37 cents, piques the person’s interest and increases their liking of the person making the request, this results in greater compliance to the request. It is for this reason that I selected the arbitrary number of 16, which is simply a third of the amount of time children use per day, on handheld devices (48 minutes).

Egoistic messages: By directly referring to the viewer’s own children, I highlight a personal benefit to them. When people perceive personal gain, they are more likely to comply to a request (Chang, 2014). In this study, people made larger donations to charity when they were reminded of how good the donation will make them feel, as opposed to how much the donation would help the benefactor. This finding suggests that the method of addressing the viewers own children will encourage them to make greater time donations to the campaign. This should continue to manifest over the coming months in the form of continued practice or communicating for longer than the suggested 16 minutes.

Making public commitment: In the video I ask the audience to comment on, or share the video indicating their individual ideas and how they intend to increase interactions with their child. This is asking the person to publicly commit their intentions towards the project. This has been shown to result in increased compliance due to people wanting to appear consistent to others (Cialdini, 2007). An example of this is that the more public a weight loss commitment is, the more likely a person is to maintain long-term weight-loss behaviour (Nyer & Dellande, 2009).

Rejection then retreat technique: I originally targeted everyone who ‘liked’ the Facebook page, asking them to participate by posting a picture or video of them communicating with their child. If refused (many didn’t have children), I asked a smaller request of sharing the campaign video. The rejection then retreat technique suggests people are more likely to feel the need to reciprocate with a concession of their own once you have made one yourself (reducing the original request) (Cialdini et al., 1975). Cialdini found that when asked, only 17% of people agreed to chaperone juvenile offenders on a trip to the zoo. Cialdini was able to increase compliance to 50% for the same request if he first asked a larger favour (volunteering 2 hours per week for 2 years in a juvenile centre). The rejection then retreat technique is effective in the sales profession, where it is common to be denied. Sales people will often follow a denial by asking “Do you know anybody else who may be interested?”. Names obtained by the salesperson are especially useful, because people are more likely to purchase from them if they learn that a friend has recommended them (Cialdini, 2007).

Multiple sources: I asked people and organisations to share the video on their own social media pages. Obviously, exposing the video to more eyes means that the message is spread further, but there is another benefit to this. Studies suggest that the larger the amount of people saying (or supporting) something increases its validity in the eyes of the audience (Harkins & Petty, 1981; Harkins & Petty, 1987; Moore, Mowen, & Reardon, 1994). This means that the more people share this video, the more people will value its information. Therefore, the earlier use of the foot in the door technique (Freedman & Fraser, 1966) will become important, as it will facilitate a higher amount of willingness to share the video.

The campaign has only just begun, so it is difficult to gauge how successful the campaign can be in the long term. At present, the video has 246 views on YouTube, 9 ‘likes’ and 7 comments, and the original Facebook post has reached 1178 people. The post has been shared 16 times on Facebook, but I anticipate this to increase considerably if I can obtain the support of people with large followings. I have approached charities which share a similar goal to this campaign, to request their help in introducing it to a larger audience. I am currently awaiting responses from the Thirty Million Words initiative, Every Child a Reader, and Reach Out & Read. In the meantime, I have received positive communication from many individuals such as a secondary school teacher and a probation officer, who are both new first-time parents. It has been rewarding to know that the campaign is appreciated and taken seriously by these people, as these are the perfect audience to help make a change.
Overall, this project has been an absolute pleasure to work on, and I feel that this very important dilemma has been highlighted appropriately. After gauging the early reaction to the campaign, I am optimistic of talkative, family orientated generations to come! To end this post I present some of the wonderful examples already shared. I welcome you to take a look who’s talking!


Ashton, J. (2016). The man behind John Lewis's festive advert on why it's no longer about sadvertising. Retrieved from

Basil, D. Z., Ridgway, N. M., & Basil, M. D. (2006). Guilt appeals: The mediating effect of responsibility. Psychology & Marketing, 23, 1035-1054.

Bushman, B. J. (1984). Perceived symbols of authority and their influence on compliance. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 14, 501-508.

Chang, C. (2014). Guilt regulation: The relative effects of altruistic versus egoistic appeals for charity advertising. Journal of Advertising, 43, 211-227.

Chonchaiya, W., & Pruksananonda, C. (2008). Television viewing associates with delayed language development. Acta Paediatrica, 97, 977-982.

Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York, NY: Collins.

Cialdini, R. B., Vincent, J. E., Lewis, S. K., Catalan, J., Wheeler, D., & Darby, B. L. (1975). Reciprocal concessions procedure for inducing compliance: The door-in-the-face technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 206-215.

Common Sense Media. (2017). The common sense census: Media use by kids age zero to eight. Retrieved from

Freedman, J. L., & Fraser, S. C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 195-202.

Fulkerson, J. A., Pasch, K. E., Stigler, M. H., Farbakhsh, K., Perry, C. L., & Komro, K. A. (2010). Longitudinal associations between family dinner and adolescent perceptions of parent-child communication among racially diverse urban youth. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 261-270.

Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119, 182-191.

Grønli, J., Byrkjedal, I. K., Bjorvatn, B., Nødtvedt, Ø., Hamre, B., & Pallesen, S. (2016). Reading from an iPad or from a book in bed: the impact on human sleep. A randomized controlled crossover trial. Sleep medicine, 21, 86-92.

Guéguen, N. (2002). Foot-in-the-door technique and computer-mediated communication. Computers in Human Behavior, 18, 11-15.

Harkins, S. G., & Petty, R. E. (1981). The multiple source effect in persuasion: The effects of distraction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 7, 627-635.

Harkins, S. G., & Petty, R. E. (1987). Information utility and the multiple source effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 260-268.

Hofling, C. K., Brotzman, E., Dalrymple, S., Graves, N., & Pierce, C. M. (1966). An experimental study in nurse-physician relationships. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 143, 171-180.

Horst, J. S., Parsons, K. L., & Bryan, N. M. (2011). Get the story straight: Contextual repetition promotes word learning from storybooks. Frontiers in Psychology, 2, 17.

Hudson, S. (2013). Are emotive appeals effective in persuading people to give to charity? Retrieved from

Jones, P. (2018). The Brainy Benefits of Bedtime Stories. Retrieved from

Lau, R. R. (1982). Negativity in political perception. Political Behavior, 4, 353-377.

Moore, D. J., Mowen, J. C., & Reardon, R. (1994). Multiple sources in advertising appeals: When product endorsers are paid by the advertising sponsor. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 22, 234-243.

Nyer, P. U., & Dellande, S. (2010). Public commitment as a motivator for weight loss. Psychology & Marketing, 27, 1-12.

Santos, M. D., Leve, C., & Pratkanis, A. R. (1994). Hey buddy, can you spare seventeen cents? Mindful persuasion and the pique technique. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24, 755-764.

The Communication Trust. (2017). Communication difficulties – Facts and Stats.  Retrieved from

Wang, C. L. (2008). Gender differences in responding to sad emotional appeal: A moderated mediation explanation. Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing, 19, 55-70.

Woolf, N. (2016). Remember the ice bucket challenge? It just funded an ALS breakthrough.  Retrieved from

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