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, February 4, 2016

Give us Your Money or Millions of Americans will Die

In the middle of 1940, during World War Two, the American government realised it was going to have to start preparing for the possibility of entering the war and greater income was needed to supply it's armed forces. Instead of increasing taxes, the American government came up with the great idea of guilt-tripping its population into funding the war preparation through war bonds, though technically they were called "national defence bonds" as America hadn't joined the war yet (in case you really care about what they were called). In case you're like I was and don't know exactly what a war bond is then I'll explain. A war bond is essentially a loan that a member of the public gives to the government, to be used to fund the war effort. The government then agrees to pay back said patriotic citizen after a certain period of time (usually after 5-10 years) but with added interest. Therefore this gallant American has not only helped defeat Hitler but has also made a little bit of profit out of it.

Sounds great, doesn't it?

After joining the war at the end of 1940 (allowing me to correctly call them "war bonds" now) the American government went for the hard sell by guilt-tripping its population into buying more war bonds. One such brilliant advert was the one below shouting "LET YOUR CONSCIENCE BE YOUR GUIDE... BUY MORE BONDS" whilst showing a photo of the graves of hundreds of soldiers. The advert is clearly designed to make you feel guilty as it suggests that if you don't buy more war bonds you would be the cause for the deaths of millions of American soldiers. The technique of making people feel guilty to get them to do what you want is known as 'guilt appeal' and is often used by charities to increase donations.

Guilt appeal has been shown to help increase pro-social behaviour as found by Basil, Ridgway, and Basil (2006). They asked 40 undergraduate students to look at 10 different charity adverts - 9 high guilt inducing and one control low guilt inducing advert. Amongst other measures, participants were then asked how likely they were to donate to the charity after seeing the advert. They found that participants were more likely to give higher probabilities of donating if they were shown high guilt adverts than low guilt adverts - shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Showing intent to donate ratings given after different levels of advert guilt exposure. 

There you go! Short and sweet evidence showing how guilt-tripping people can make them do what you want. It worked for Uncle Sam!


Basil, D. Z., Ridgway, N. M., & Basil, M. D. (2006). Guilt appeals: The mediating effect of                                  responsibility. Psychology & Marketing, 23(12), 1035-1054. 

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