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, January 22, 2015

Wow, What a Great Audience!

In this clip from the popular animated series South Park, five young boys are trying to raise money for their scouts club. They are joined by Jimmy, an aspiring comedian living with disabilities, who takes to the stage to provide entertainment in order to support their cause.

By putting Jimmy centre stage the boys have cleverly made him the communicator, or the source of their persuasive message ‘to help by donating to scouts’. Making a disabled child their poster boy has set in motion a persuasive technique called altercasting (Pratkanis, 2007). This is a social interaction in which an ego (in this case Jimmy) adopts certain lines of action (bringing attention to his disability) to place the audience into a social role that specifies an interpersonal task (to donate).  Different roles are associated with different responsibilities and privileges that alter interaction. Placing people into certain roles secures influence by exploiting the social pressures that come with accepting a role.

In this specific clip the Dependency-Responsibility Altercast (Pratkanis, 2007) is exhibited. The source takes on the role of a ‘disabled person’, which demonstrates dependency on the audience, thereby placing them in the role of the ‘responsible agent’.

This is supported by a study carried out by Doob and Ecker (1970). A 79 item questionnaire was asked to be completed by 121 subjects, half were asked by someone wearing an eye patch whilst the other half were asked by individuals without an eye patch. Questionnaires were only considered completed if participants sent it back to the experimenters by post. As seen in the table below, 69.2% of subjects completed the task when asked by a confederate wearing an eye patch whilst only 40% of subjects complied when asked by an individual not wearing an eye patch. 

Acceptance of Questionnaire (%)
Completion of Questionnaire (%)
No Eye Patch
Eye Patch

Researchers have attributed the difference in compliance to the stigma attached to disability. The physically visible eye patch suggests a handicap which makes the audience want to help the stigmatised individual in some way as they are placed in a role of responsibility. Just like the eye patch, Jimmy and his crutches suggests a vulnerability, illustrating how Jimmy is dependent on the audience members for getting donations. Such is the efficacy of the Dependency-Responsibility Altercast, and, whilst humorous in nature, this clip is a perfect example of persuasion in practise.

Doob, A.N., & Ecker, B.P (1970). Stigma and compliance, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 14, 302-304.

Pratkanis, A. R. (2007). Social influence analysis: An index of tactics. The science of social influence: Advances and future progress, 17-82.

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