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, March 5, 2015

Make them scared before you ask them to do anything

The day when I was doing the laundry, I accidentally mixed the white clothes with the coloured ones in the same load. I panicked as I saw the big green stains on one of my mum's favourite white skirts. I dried it, folded it and sneakily put it at the bottom of the pile of clothes, hoping that my mum wouldn't realise. And this is what happened later on that night:

Mum: Natasha!!!!
Me: Yes. (in a shaky voice)
Mum: I need you to come over right now.
Me: (became scared and walked to her room)
Mum: Could you please help me with the bedding? I need to make some food for your dad now.

Normally I would just leave it and go back to my room, but I complied right away. This is not very typical of me. As I did some research on this, I've figured out the reason behind this - this is an example of the fear-then-relief phenomenon.

Dolinski and Nawrat (1998) conducted four field studies and one laboratory experiment to examine the fear-then-relief phenomenon, which suggests that people who experience fear which is immediately relieved are more likely to respond positively to subsequent requests. In their first field study, groups 1 and 2 were selected from people who jaywalked (crossing the road in the wrong place). Group 3 were selected from people who walked along the sidewalk legally. For group 1, when people cross the road, they heard a policeman's whistle which was in fact blown by an experimenter. This was to induce fear in these participants who then generally walked faster or looked around upon hearing the whistle. After 20 seconds, another experimenter approached these participants and asked them to fill in the Self-Description Inventory, which was expected to take 10 minutes to complete. For group 2, participants also jaywalked but no whistle was produced. Group 3 was the control condition where participants were walking on the sidewalk and no whistle was produced.

Results of this study were consistent with Dolinski and Nawrat’s predictions - as shown in table 1, the whistle group (group 1) had the highest compliance rate (59%) compared to the other two groups (46% and 41% respectively), meaning that a sudden decrease in negative emotion can temporarily enhance conformity to social pressure. It was believed that when the feelings of fear dissipates, the feelings of relief occurs. At this state of relief, a person's cognitive resources are already depleted to a certain extent. This is because the feared stimulus has caused cognitive fatigue, and being in a state of relief further depletes thinking capacity by thinking about previous fearful experience, and 'how lucky I was just now!', or other similar thoughts. Therefore, there might not be enough cognitive resources to deal with the subsequent request. At this state, automatic processing is likely to be employed, such that people's will make decisions basing on 'the first thing that comes to mind', which might explain the increased compliance.

I was relieved at the moment my mum told me to do the bedding because I had been scared about her finding out that I ruined her favourite skirt. My cognitive resources might have depleted at that time, which resulted in my subsequent compliance.


Dolinski, D., & Nawrat, R. (1998). "Fear-then-relief" procedure for producing compliance: Beware when the danger is over.Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 34(1), 27-50.

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