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.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

I did it because they told me to!!

Whilst we like to think we make our decisions by ourselves, sometimes we cannot help the power other people may exert over us. As students, we complete assignments because our lecturers or teachers tell us do, at work we do certain things because that’s what our boss wants. So what does this mean for advertisements?

Compliance to authority stems from the superior knowledge and power that the authority figure is perceived to hold, making it beneficial to take their advice, especially as they may control our rewards and punishments (Cialdini, 2007). When asked to perform a menial task, participants were more likely to comply to the request of someone who was dressed as a guard compared to if they were dressed as a milkman or civilian (Bickman, 1974). People valued the guard’s request more as he was seen to be an authoritative figure in that situation. We commonly see this tactic in advertising, with almost every face care product being ‘approved by dermatologists’ and all toothpastes being ‘recommended by dentists’, who are experts in their field. Therefore, their expertise is transferred to the product. But what can we do to resist this?

Sagrain et al (2002) investigated whether giving participants interventions to help resist the persuasiveness of authoritative adverts, comparing legitimate (honest) appeals, where the authority behind the advert is genuinely an expert in the field and illegitimate (dishonest) appeals with no expert information. These interventions were put into place to help participants discriminate between the legitimacy of the ads. Figure 1 demonstrates the difference in persuasiveness between legitimate and illegitimate authority. Participants therefore were able to significantly distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate authorities as shown by their susceptibility to the persuasiveness of the advert. Further studies trained participants about their own vulnerability to these adverts, however this had no significant effect on ratings. 
Figure 1: 'The effects of the resistance treatment and the perception of vulnerability on the perceived persuasiveness of advertisements containing legitimate and illegitimate authorities'

This study does not uncover ways to enable people to become resistant to authoritative adverts in general. However, the idea that the legitimacy of adverts can be discriminated and acted upon reassures us that at least, we are responding to truthful material. So the next time an advert appears, promising us their product can fix all you problems (much like Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses), taking time to consider the legitimacy of the advert's authority can go some way to resisting it’s persuasiveness.

So don’t be a fool. Have a think. As much as we’d all like to think there are experts in every field- especially for tasty products like chocolate- the real expert may just be you.

Kimberley Brett


  • Bickman, L. (1974). The social power of uniform. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 4, 47-61.
  • Cialdini, R.B. (2007).Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: HarperCollins.
  • Sagarin, B, J., Cialdini, R. B., Rice, W. E. & Serna, S. B. (2002). Dispelling the illusions of invulnerability: The motivations and mechanisms of resistance to persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 526-41.

1 comment:

  1. Very well written, but would have liked a bit more info on the Sagrain study.


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