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.

Friday, February 7, 2014

You are tidy > be tidy: attribution > persaution

You are a primary school teacher and your class of 9 to 10 year olds are misbehaving: littering everywhere. What should you do? You can tell them to be tidy (persuasion) or tell them that they are tidy (attribution). In the heat of the moment most teachers get angry and shout at the pupils ‘tidy up now or you’ll be staying behind after school!’ You would think that this would scare the children senseless and give them enough incentive to stop littering but it turns out that this is not the best way to change their behaviour.

Miller, Brickman, and Bolen (1975) tested the two options above, persuasion and attribution, to compare their effects on behaviour. They assigned two 5th grade (9-10 year olds) classrooms to either persuasion or attribution while a third was designated as a control. In the persuasion condition the teacher gave a class on ecology and how to stop littering for example, while in the attribution condition the teacher commended the students for not throwing sweet rappers on the floor. This continued for the full 8 days.

Before the ‘interventions’, a baseline measurement of littering was taken. The classes were given a written assignment and were told to dispose of the assignment in the bin. The experimenters measured the number of students who correctly used the bin compared to throwing it on the floor. 16%, 15% and 20% of the students in the persuasion, attribution and control classes respectively, correctly disposed of their work.

The graph below shows the increase in the percentage of students who used the bin, after each of the three interventions. You can clearly see that attribution had the most improvement, followed by persuasion and then the control group. Importantly, the effects of attribution remained at a 2-week follow up test while the effects of persuasion fell to slightly below the control condition.

Why is this the case? The researchers explain that persuasive techniques do not ‘tap the internal self-concept of the target’ (p. 439). When children are told that they are tidy, they assimilate this into their self-concept. Cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957) argues that we like to behaviour in accordance with this self-concept otherwise we feel discomfort. As such, by changing the children’s idea of who they are, their behaviour changed to align itself with that new self-concept. This is far more lasting than simply scaring a child into doing something that they do not want to do.


Miller, R. L., Brickman, P., & Bolen, D. (1975). Attribution versus persuasion as a means for modifying behaviour. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 31.3, 430-441.

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Steven Cass

1 comment:

  1. This was great Steven, I am more learned as a result of it.


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