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, May 3, 2018



In the modern world, mobile phones allow us to constantly stay connected with our friends, families, check social media, browse news. Whilst being an amazing communication tool, having a mobile phone leads to a certain preoccupation with excessively checking it for updates, which diminishes our ability to concentrate and maintain attention on one task (Carr, 2010; Wajcman & Rose, 2011). This blog post will aim to explore the implications of the presence of a mobile phone while studying, as well as consider what can be done to avoid distraction and increase productivity. 

The phenomenon of distraction by phone is especially prevalent amongst students. A study by Robers, Yaya and Manolis (2014) discovered that male college students spent 8 hours per day using their mobile phones, whilst female college students spent almost 10 hours. Furthermore, the results of a 500-student sample questionnaire have demonstrated that 73% of students are unable to study without technology in general and 38% cannot resist not checking their devices for a period longer than 10 minutes (Kessler, 2011).

These findings have been supported experimentally by Rosen, Carrier and Cheever (2013), who showed that students were unable to study for more than 6 minutes before switching to technology. Another more recent survey by McCoy (2016) has shown that students spent almost 21% of time in class using their mobile phone for non-class related purposes. In addition, the same research has shown that there has been an increase since 2013 to 2015 in the average number of times a phone was used in a school day – from 10.93 to 11.43, indicating that the severity of this issue is on the rise.

Such findings should definitely be a cause for concern, and students should seek to decrease the distractions caused by the phone. This excessive use of phones and inability to focus when studying can have serious repercussions for productivity and time management. For instance, those students who were texting while doing a reading comprehension task required more time to finish it than those who were not (Bowman, Levine, Waite, & Gendron, 2009; Fox, Rosen, & Crawford, 2009).

Phone distraction can also negatively impact academic performance itself, as frequent text messaging and using social media is correlated with lower grades (Harman & Sato, 2011; Walsh, Fielder, Carey, & Carey, 2013).  Moreover, Rosen, Lim, Carrier and Cheever (2011) conducted an experiment where students were asked to watch a lecture, the understanding of which would later be tested. They were split into three conditions based on the number of text messages each group would receive: none, 4 or 8. Those who received the highest number of text messages performed significantly worse than the non-interrupted participants. Hence, texting in class and when revising can infringe upon the quantity of information recalled.

In order to see whether students at the University of Warwick are concerned with their level of procrastination, an informal poll via Facebook was conducted, the results of which are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Results of an informal poll on phone procrastination at Warwick.
We found these facts highly disturbing and wanted to raise awareness about the influence of procrastination on academic attainment and, most importantly, provide a way for students to control their procrastination. One of our main aims is to show that, even in such a hyper-connected world, it is vital to have the ability to switch off and work with no distractions.

Action and persuasion techniques implemented

Step 1: Contacting the Study happy team

In order to encourage students to use their phone less whilst studying, we decided to collaborate with the ‘Study Happy’ team at Warwick, who primarily focus on the students’ wellbeing. As we knew that it would be hard to convince the Student Wellbeing officer, we decided to use the door-in-the-face technique to convince her. We approached her with the request of asking more than we expected to get from her – to install phone lockers on every floor of the library. As they had already allocated funds for the year, she was extremely hesitant. We then presented the idea of holding a ‘phone free’ event as a concession to installing lockers. She agreed to hold the event, because our request drew on the reciprocity rule, as she felt obliged to reciprocate a concession (Cialdini, 2009). This technique has been previously tested by Cialdini et al. (1975), who wanted to convince a group of students to take a group of delinquents on a trip to the zoo. Compliance rates were much higher in the condition where this favour was preceded by a larger request to spend 2 hours per week as counsellors to the same offenders for a minimum of two years.

With the event date in place, our two main aims were to get students to come to our event and promote the importance of switching off their phones to students who can’t make it to the event.

Step 2: Promoting the event

Since our target audience is students, we made a poster that was distributed in paper form around lecture theatres and shown on all the main library TV screens, as shown in Figure 2 and 3. By doing so, we increased students’ familiarity with the phrase “Switch off & work!”. An increase in familiarity through mere exposure leads to attraction and influence the decision making of students to attend the event and reduce procrastination (Hekkert, Thurgood, & Whitfield, 2013). This effect was supported by Zajonc (1968) when he exposed his English-speaking participants to unfamiliar Chinese ideographs. The results demonstrated that students rated the characters to have a positive meaning when they saw them more frequently. With an increase in familiarity, we hope that students would have a more positive impression of the phrase and thus sign up online when they see the “Switch off & work!” event being promoted.

A Facebook page ( , Figure 4) was also created and was shared by the Warwick library. This increased the audience reached as well as the liking of the event, as the library is seen as a familiar and trustworthy brand to the students. As seen from an advertising study using television ads and computer internet ads done by Campbell and Keller (2003), repetition of advertising attributed to a known, familiar brand was more effective compared to an unfamiliar brand.  

Additionally, we used the scarcity technique with the ‘LIMITED SPACES AVAILABLE’ sign on the poster and the number remaining available spots were stated on the signup page. The scarcity principle is the idea that people value items, that are limited in numbers, much more than abundant resources. The effect of limited supply has been shown in a study by Worchel, Lee and Adewole (1975), on the cookie jar experiment. Participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of the cookies that were either in an abundant or limited supply. It was found that though both jars of cookies are similar, the near-empty jar was valued more. Hence suggesting that with the limited supply of seats available, students are more likely to be attracted to register for the event so to not miss out on it.

In order to sign up to the event, students had to actively register by clicking a link and entering their details. We thought this would ensure that they would attend the event as they have made an active commitment. The effectiveness of this technique is supported by an experiment by Allison & Messick (1988), who asked students to volunteer for an AIDS education project by either actively filling out a form or passively stating that they are not wishing to participate. Results showed that 74% of the people who were in the active commitment condition attended the project.

Figure 2. Promotional poster

Figure 3. Promotional poster displayed on TV screen on floor 2 of the library
Figure 4. Facebook page advertising the event

Step 3: Educational poster

Not only was the aim of this project to promote the phone free event but also to educate students on the harm of phone procrastination. We did so by creating a poster (Figure 5) and putting it up around the university campus, as shown in Figure 6.

We used a variety of persuasion techniques when designing it, as we wanted to ensure that the maximum level of attitude change is achieved. We referred to the Elaboration likelihood model (Petty & Cacioppo,1986) in order to choose which persuasion route, we wanted to resort to. Firstly, if a person has the motivation to attend to the information or it is personally relevant to them, they will focus on the information presented to them and will not be fooled by simple advertising tricks. This has been tested by Petty, Cacioppo & Goldman (1981), who gave undergraduate students a list of arguments for introducing comprehensive exit exams. They manipulated the personal relevance of the argument by suggesting that the changes will be implemented before their graduation (relevant) or after (irrelevant). Results have demonstrated that when it was not personally relevant to the students, they were persuaded by the expertise of the presenter. However, when the personal relevance was high, students ignored the presenter and focused on the coherence of the argument. This directly applied to our issue, as phone procrastination is a personally relevant issue to the majority of the students, especially during exam time. Hence, we resorted to the central route of persuasion. It suggests that when people care about the issue, the information in the advertisement will be put under scrutiny and will only be able to change the attitude of the reader if it is coherent and the content of the message is of high quality (Petty & Hinsenkamp,  2017).  Therefore, we used research evidence in order to communicate the negative impact phone procrastination can have on educational attainment. However, the clarity and the fluency of the argument can enhance the ability to understand it, as sometimes, even when the information is personally relevant, the cognitive resources available for processing may be limited, infringing on the ability to process the content. This motivated us to state the research results in simpler language so that anyone can understand it without putting much effort in. Not only did we increase the fluency of the message but also implemented the use of rhetorical questions, as according to Burnkrant & Howard (1984) they motivate more thorough processing of the message. This hopefully increased the understanding of the issue in the reader.

Furthermore, in order to increase the clarity of the message and hence the understanding we resorted to using natural frequencies when communicating the research to the students by saying that ⅖ students can’t resist their phones instead of 40%. The use of natural frequencies rather than percentages makes the information more intelligible and easier to understand. The use of natural frequencies has been previously supported by Alk et al. (2011) when studying ways of reporting medical risk. In that study, participants were presented with the same risk in either natural frequency, percentages or relative risk format. It was found that people understood the risk of a health outcome better when it was presented as a natural frequency. Hence by presenting the risk of being a victim of phone procrastination during work to the students in the form of natural frequency, they would be able to understand the outcome better.

Furthermore, we used the ‘foot-in-the-door’ technique, which implies that people are more likely to comply with a big request after they have already complied with a smaller request. For example, in the Freedman and Fraser study (1966), the experimenters initially requested to install a small sign in people’s backyards, which increased their compliance to later install a large sign. In our poster, we asked a small favour to put phones away for just an hour, to then increase the probability of students attending our event.

Figure 5. The educational poster

Figure 6. The educational poster in front of the library

Step 4: The ‘switch off and work’ event

The event took place in the library teaching grid on the 1st of May, lasting from 11am to 3pm. Around 30 students attended the event out of 40 spaces available. They were seated as shown in Figure 7. When designing the event, we initially suggested storing the phones of the participants for the duration of the event. However, for security reasons, this was not allowed by the Library and we referred to the power of authority and public commitment persuasion techniques in order to encourage the students to put their phones away.

The event coordinator, who gave the instructions to put the phones away for the duration of the event, was dressed in a library uniform. This attire is associated with authority, which students feel obligated to comply to. Bickman (1974) has demonstrated that it is much harder to resist a request when it comes from an authority figure. In order to test this, random people on the street were asked by a confederate dressed in either civilian, milkman or guard attire to pick up a paper bag. The compliance rates were the highest when the requestor was dressed as a guard.

Instead of asking students to put their phones in their bags, they placed them into an envelope during the event and sealed it. Putting their phone in the envelope is considered to be a public commitment to refrain from checking notifications. The effectiveness of this technique was supported by Deutsch & Gerard (1955). The experiment asked the participants to either write down an estimate of the length of line shown to them and after handing their answer in; writing it down privately; or keeping it in their head. It was found that participants who made a public commitment were the most loyal to their answer while those who did not write it down at all were the least loyal. In addition, if they decided to tear the envelope in front of everyone, it would attract everyone’s attention, putting them at risk of being perceived as a weak-willed individual who failed to stick by their commitment during the event. Since people want to look like a consistent person who sticks to their commitment (Tedeschi, Schlenker, & Bonoma, 1971), they would think twice before tearing the envelope.

Figure 7. Event

After our event, we wanted to get students to preserve the behavior of studying without their phones. Hence, we gave everyone participating a flyer with information on how to reduce phone procrastination that they could refer to (Figure 8). Additionally, we asked all the attendees to write down how they will make sure they will use their phone less whilst studying, as Gollwitzer (1999) has shown that concretely deciding what, when and how you will do something greatly increases the likelihood of further actions.

Figure 8.  Flyers with tips how to stop procrastination

Measuring behaviour change

      The educational poster was placed outside the library in the smoking area. Thousands of people pass that spot every day, which exposed them to the information.

      Furthermore, 40 spaces were available at the event and 30 people attended it. None of them checked their phones during the event. Students said that they did not realise how much the presence of a phone impacted their performance and managed to massively increase their productivity.

      We have also influenced the action of the Study happy team, as they have considered running this event on a permanent basis because it was so successful, as shown in the email below.

      Overall, we believe that we managed to increase awareness about mobile phones being a significant distraction and hopefully caused some long term behaviour change.

By Daria Ovcharenko, Yun Shiuan Lau and Daria Vlasova


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