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.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


Selfies themselves have exploded in popularity alongside the ever-expanding world of social media. Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscars selfie in 2014 became the most retweeted post in history at 2,070,132 retweets by the end of the Oscars ceremony ("Ellen’s Oscar selfie most retweeted ever – and more of us are taking them", 2014). Tom Hanks congratulated a newly-wed couple by sharing a selfie on Instagram, whilst the UK’s Prime Minister posed for selfies on the red carpet on Monday evening ("Theresa Manyia", 2016), all captured in figure one. Figures from 2014 state over 1,000,000 #selfies are taken each day, with 50% of men and 52% of woman having taken a selfie ("The year of the selfie- statistics, facts & figures", 2014). Perhaps it is no surprise then that the selfie phenomena provided an opportunity for the charity Cancer Research UK to raise over £8,000,000 for their charity ("#nomakeupselfie – why it worked", 2014).
Figure One. Left to right: Ellen's Oscar selfie, Tom Hanks wedding congratulations selfie, Theresa May posing for red carpet selfies with the public 

The #nomakeupselfie was initiated by Laura Lipmann- with a different hashtag. But, before long the internet had worked its magic and the no make-up selfie was generating tens of thousands of tweets a day. Cancer Research UK noticed the hashtag gaining momentum and attached a donation text number to the posts, raising £2,000,000 in the first 48 hours ("#nomakeupselfie – why it worked", 2014). It is safe to say the no make-up selfies are a perfect example of ‘going viral’.

How was it then that a simple selfie influenced so many people to donate? How was a viral phenomenon influencing people’s behaviour a) getting them to upload a post they would not usually post, and b) getting them to donate money they would not have considered doing before-hand? Below are various influence techniques that appear to have been at play throughout the #nomakeupselfie phenomena. 

Availability Heuristic and Agenda Setting Theory

The availability heuristic suggests the easier something comes to mind, the higher we estimate the frequency of an event (Schwarz et al, 1991). Agenda setting theory extends this and suggests the media can manipulate what we think about through the frequency of which it shares a story (Walgrave & Aelst, 2006). With tens of thousands of woman engaging, it is not surprising the posts filled our timelines and reached mainstream media (Deller & Tilton, 2015). The no-make up selfie was then at the forefront of our minds, and we very quickly believed that everyone was doing it.

Social Norms and Social Proof

Sherif and Sherif (1953) first defined social norms as our standards formed through our group interactions, that we will follow as individuals. Through the surge of no make-up selfie posts, the media ensured we perceived the no-make selfies as the latest norm. In the interest of fitting in and wanting to part of the 'in-group' of our online friendship networks, we soon are likely to have taken the selfie ourselves and are contributing to the mass selfie uploads, adding to the growing donations.

Social proof works in a similar way. Cialdini (2007) explains social proof as a weapon of influence; we view a behaviour as more correct and more appropriate in a given situation if others are doing it. The phenomena of social proof has filled social media in the past as it it simply astounding watching unsuspecting targets conform to others behaviour. Take for example, learning to stand at the sound of a bell because everyone else is doing it:

A similar technique has been used here in the #nomakeupselfie; we were seeing everyone else uploading a selfie and donating money. Therefore, we should conform and do the same. 

Celebrity Endorsement

Figure Two: Celebrity endorsement portfolios (Keating & Rice, 2013)

Celebrity endorsement ties into the influence of both availability heuristic and social norms, with multiple brands using celebrities to advertise their goods, as outlined in figure two (Keating & Rice, 2013). Research by  Keating and Rice (2013) measured recall of products when they were presented with a celebrity (celebrity cue) or with no cue. When looking at their results (displayed in figure three), it is understandable why such a vast majority of brands invest in celebrity marketing techniques, with moderate levels of celebrity cues significantly increasing recall of the products. Note the importance of having a moderate level of celebrity endorsement: too much or too little creates no improvement in recall at all. In the case of the no make up selfie, it seems the volume of celebrity endorsement was just right.

Figure Three: Percentage of consumers who recalled the product with and without celebrity cues (Keating & Rice,  2013)

If we extend this outside of purchasing environments, individuals are likely to have higher chances of recalling a given ‘thing’ if a celebrity has been associated with it. When recall is higher, the more likely the 'thing' is to be at the forefront of our minds. Again, the availability heuristic is at play; if the celebrities are taking part (as demonstrated by Holly Willoughby and Jodie Marsh in figure three), we are more likely to believe everyone must be doing it.  Thus, we are more likely to upload a no make-up selfie ourselves and make a donation to cancer research in order to fit in with the ever growing social norms.

Figure Three. Left to right: Holly Willoughby's and Jodie Marsh's #nomakeupselfie
Role Models

In addition, celebrities are traditionally seen as attractive and likeable individuals who are considered to be highly influential (Kamins et al, 1989), and therefore can be important influencers of behaviour (Bush, Martin & Bush, 2004). Celebrity endorsement allows the celebrities attractiveness, likability, knowledge and expertise to be associated with the 'thing' they are endorsing. If individuals are aspiring to be like a celebrity role model, they could be more likely to model their behaviours (Singh, Vinnicombe & James, 2006). In this case, individuals also upload a no make-up selfie and make the donation to Cancer Research UK.

Just Ask

One of the key ‘weapons’ Cialdini (2007) identifies for influencing behaviour is simply asking for what you want. Research has shown for example that 56% of females asked by a male stranger would agree to go on a date with him if he simply asked them too (Clark & Hatfield, 1989). As the #nomakeupselfie posts continued to grow, girls began to nominate three friends within their posts to  do the selfie next (Deller & Tilton, 2015). Captions to the selfies because  chain of names getting more and more people involved - "Thank you for the nomination (insert name here)... I nominate (friend one, friend two and friend three) to upload their #nomakeupselfie!". Like asking strangers on dates, people are more likely to perform a behaviour when they are asked to do so directly. In this case, posting a no make-up selfies and donating.


The British culture is one very heavily influenced by what others think of us. It is no secret we want to be viewed positively by our peers; a view that can be created through giving generously and selflessly (Li, Pickles & Savage, 2005). Compassion and generosity have been rated as two of the most important factors when rating how much we like other peers (Hartley et al, 2016). With these pre-conceived attitudes within the British culture, it is easy to see how so many were influenced to donate to Cancer Research UK; fast to be perceived as generous, selfless and therefore likeable to others. The no-make up selfies were considered both selfless through the donations and brave in uploading a photo in which they were not comfortable uploading, and as stated by Deller and Tilton (2015), selflessness and bravery is rewarded. The halo effect suggests we attribute our whole global evaluation of a person based on individual attributes we observe (Nisbett & Decamp Wilson, 1977); if we see others as selfless and brave, we are more likely to attribute more positive behaviours and traits to them. In turn, if people perceive us as selfless and brave, they will attribute more positive behaviours to us. The #nomakeupselfie has not only managed to raise over £8,000,000 for Cancer Research UK, but increase peoples perceptions of us. Win-win! 


Cialdini (2007) also identifies consistency as one of the techniques in influencing behaviour. This is a phenomenon that states once we have made a stand, particularly in public, we are more likely to act consistently with this behaviour. For example, students were significantly more likely to stick to the estimates they had given for the length of a line when they declared the length publicly, as opposed to keeping it private (Deutch & Gerard, 1955). Once individuals have taken their no-make up selfie and shared it on social media, they have made a public stand for their support for Cancer Research UK. They are therefore more likely to donate to the charity alongside their selfie in order to be consistent with their stand, hence the £8,000,000 raised alongside the tens of thousands of selfies uploaded ("#nomakeupselfie – why it worked", 2014).

Above are just a select few of the techniques that may have encouraged people to participate in the #nomakeupselfie's themselves. There is likely to have been many more influences at play, but whatever it was that got people involved has got charities and marketers hunting it down in in order to become the next fund-raising phenomenon. If we are to take anything away from these viral selfies, realise and remember that behavioural influences can be used for the greater good. Thanks to the posts and donations of bare-faced woman, 10 new clinical trials could be funded, amongst other streams of research ("#nomakeupselfie- some questions answered", 2014). A step closer to a cure for cancer has got to be making the world a better place. 


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