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

Spreading happiness: One Smile at a Time

Intuitively, we know that social interactions are good for us. Talking to others tends to make us feel better, and when we don’t talk to anyone we start to feel lonely and isolated. Although intuition and research don’t always agree with each other, this is one case where they do. In fact, studies have found that the positive effects of social interactions (and, on the flip side, the negative effects of social isolation) are further reaching than you might expect. Social isolation can negatively impact both physical and mental health. For example, Thurston and Kubzansky (2009) found that higher levels of loneliness were associated with a higher risk of heart disease in women. Hawkley and Cacioppo (2003) found that socially isolated young adults rated everyday events as more stressful, were less likely to actively cope with any problems they faced, and had poorer sleep quality.

Starting university is, for most students, a big life change. You are moving away from your family and friends, and while this can lead to lots of new friends and opportunities, it can also be easy to feel socially isolated. Ibrahim, Kelly, Adams and Glazebrook (2013) analysed 24 different studies looking at rates of depression among university students from a range of cultures and found that there was a mean prevalence of 30.6%. This a much higher rate than is normally found in the general population. The Mind website states that 3.3 in 100 people in England are diagnosed with depression (McManus, Bebbington, Jenkins, & Brugha, 2016). This suggests that university is a difficult time for a lot of people in terms of their mental health as prevalence rates among students are high.

So, we decided to encourage students to communicate with someone to spread a little bit of happiness!

Turning that frown upside down: What we did 

We created a postcard designed for students to give to a friend. We had 1000 postcards printed and we distributed them around campus. In some locations we left sign-up sheets and a stack of postcards for people to help themselves to and in other locations we stood and gave them out in person (e.g. outside the library and in several cafes around campus).

We based our project on the behavioural concept of implementation intentions. We thought it was interesting that getting someone to pledge the specifics of when, where and what they are going to do, makes it more likely that they will follow through and do it.

We know that many students suffer with poor mental health during their time at university on top of stress, loneliness, homesickness and much more. It is easy for students to lose touch with their friends when their workload increases. We wanted to encourage students to gift a little note to a friend, family member or stranger to brighten that person’s day. It is important that we stay in touch with our loved ones in times of stress and just starting the conversation can sometimes be difficult.


Our main persuasion technique: Implementation Intentions

Gollwitzer (1999) describes implementation intentions as ‘the when, where and how’ underlying a goal intention. For example, for the goal intention of losing weight, one of the implementation intentions might be to exercise daily for 60 minutes after work. You can think of implementation intentions as the instructions that you need to follow in order to fulfil your goal.

Research has shown that if you explicitly state your implementation intentions, you will be more likely to complete your goal. For example, Orbell, Hodgkins and Sheeran (1997) asked female participants how strongly they intended to perform a breast self-examination within the next month. Then, some of the participants were also asked to state when and where they would do this (implementation intentions). Of those who had strong goals to complete the self-exam, 100% went through with it if they had also provided implementation intentions, compared to only 53% of those who did not provide implementation intentions.

In our project, we asked people to write down when they would send the postcard (today, tomorrow or next week) and who they would send it to (friend, family or other). This formed each individual’s implementation intentions for sending their post card. Based on the research, anyone who took a postcard and filled in the implementation intentions should be more likely to actually send it than if we hadn’t asked them to provide this information.

Social Proof

The principle of social proof explains that the actions of those around us will help us make decisions about what behaviour is correct and appropriate for a situation. For example, Bandura, Grusec and Menlove (1967) studied nursery school age children with a fear of dogs who were shown another little boy playing with a dog for 20 minutes a day. After 4 days, 67% of the children were happy to be left alone with a dog. The children used the boy’s behaviour to infer how they should behave themselves. Similarly, 37% more Facebook users explored the advertised security features when shown the number of their friends that also used the features, compared to a control group (Das, Kramer, Dabbish & Hong, 2014). So, if your friends are doing it, you are likely to do it too!

The sign-up sheets that we left in various locations across the University of Warwick campus had several signitatures and pledges on them that we had previously obtained by asking friends to take a postcard first. Based on the principle of social proof, people should have been more likely to make a pledge than if we had put up blank sign-up sheets.

‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get!’

Just asking people to do something can be a powerful persuasion technique. For instance, Flynn and Bohns (2008) found that on average, participants needed to ask just 10.5 strangers to fill out a questionnaire in order to receive 5 ‘yes’ responses. This was in contrast to participants’ expectations; on average, people expected to have to ask 20.5 strangers. We ‘just asked’ people to take a postcard, either by speaking to them in person or through the sign-up sheets we put up. Hopefully, by explicitly asking people to take a postcard, we increased the rate of people who did so.


We used the persuasion technique of reciprocity by offering free postcards to students and then asking for a minute of their time in return. Research has shown that giving something away for free activates the reciprocity rule and makes us want to repay the favour to whoever gave us the gift. Kolyesnikova and Dodd (2009) found that offering free wine tasting lead to more money being spent on wine afterwards, compared to those who paid for the service of wine tasting. Being offered a free sample of wine activated the reciprocity rule and therefore, participants felt obliged to spend more money on wine in the winery afterwards. Those who paid for the service of wine tasting did not feel this commitment or obligation and so spent less. This means that people were more likely to stop and make the pledge to send the postcard if we offer them the free postcard first. We found that this was one of the best ways to get people to stop and fill in our pledge sheet.

The reciprocity effect even persists when the person who offered the initial favour is no longer present (Burger, Sanchez, Imberi, & Grande, 2009). Hopefully this was true for the people who took the postcards. We were not always present when the postcards were taken, as some were left in locations for people to help themselves to. Also, even in situations where we were present for the pledge, we were not present when the postcards were actually posted or given away. Based on the research, the reciprocity rule should still apply and people should feel encouraged to send their postcard because it was a free gift.

With our behaviour change project we have successfully handed out 1000 postcards in an attempt to spread happiness among students. If your friend seems stressed or distant, just ask them if they’re okay (or send a postcard). Reaching out to someone can make all the difference.

By Natasha Townsend, Clare Renshaw & Megan Day


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Ibrahim, A. K., Kelly, S. J., Adams, C. E., & Glazebrook, C. (2013). A systematic review of studies of depression prevalence in university students. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 47, 391-400.

Kolyesnikova, N., & Dodd, T. H. (2009). There is no such thing as a free wine tasting: The effect of a tasting fee on obligation to buy. Journal of Travel and Tourism Marketing, 26, 806-819.

McManus, S., Bebbington, P., Jenkins, R., & Brugha, T. (2016). Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014. Retrieved from

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Thurston, R. C., & Kubzansky, L. D. (2009). Women, loneliness, and incident coronary heart disease. Psychosomatic Medicine, 71, 836-842.

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