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, December 6, 2016

How Leo Changed Behaviour With His Documentary

Being a vegetarian can lead to a wide range of responses, some curious, some don’t care, and some people use your being veggie as the butt of every joke and love the old ‘but plants are living things too’. Any response is fine by me, we all have a right to our own opinions, but I can’t deny being surprised when a friend who fitted in to the latter category told me he had gone veggie. I immediately asked him what was going on and in response to the shock plastered across my face he said ‘Haven’t you seen the Leonardo DiCaprio documentary?’

I had to see how Leo had done it and immediately went and watched the documentary which already had over 8 million views after just a few days. It was an hour and a half long film about climate change in which he travelled around the world speaking to people ranging from scientists and Obama, to the Pope. Within this was a section on how cutting out beef or even meat altogether was something we as individuals can do to help stop climate change. What really struck me was that he made it very clear that YOU could make a change, it was not a documentary that was designed for you to passively sit through thinking ‘Wow this awful hope someone manages to fix it’. It was made very clear to the viewer that they had had the ability to change their behaviour, and as a result make an impact on helping to stop climate change. I believe this what influenced people like my friend to change their behaviour and become vegetarian.

In psychology a theory that applies to this is called the bystander effect, and in this documentary I believe this effect is prevented. This is when an individual is much less likely to help a victim when other people are present, with more people being present strengthening this effect. Normally this effect is used a much smaller context, for example if someone falls over in the street, It might be that no one helps that person because no one else who is walking past is. In this case the ‘victim’ is our planet which is being destroyed by climate change, and the world’s population are other people present to stop people helping or ‘diffuse responsibility’ and make us all as individuals bystanders. Diffusion of responsibility is key to this concept. This is when an individual is less likely to take action when there are other people around as they feel others are responsible or think someone has already done something (Darley &Latane, 1968).

Latane and Darley proposed 5 cognitive and behavioural processes that bystanders go through before helping and so not being apathetic to the situation. When going through these processes it almost seemed to me like the documentary was designed with the bystander effect in mind as it seemed to use so many methods of preventing it.
  •  The first stage is to notice the victim. This documentary forces the viewer to do this as the whole focus is on the problem of climate change, and everything and everyone this effects. They demonstrate this by talking to scientists who explain the problem and its effects, as well as going to places that are already effected by climate change such as a melting ice in the Canadian Artic, or a flooded onion field where all the crop has been ruined by rising water levels.

·       The next stage is interpreting the situation as an emergency. This is constantly emphasised throughout as they talk about the time pressure of the situation and the fact that we only have a small window within which we can change our behaviour and stop climate change.
·         This is followed by degree of responsibility, so whether you can help and whether it is your job to. It is explained clearly that we can help as we are able to help halt climate change by cutting out beef or even all meat and that it is all of our jobs individually to do this as it is our planet. This prevents diffusion of responsibility.
·         This also covers the next stage which is form of assistance, in this case the form of assistance is cutting out beef or meat in order to help the planet.
·         Then the final process is actually implementing the helping behaviour which in the case of my friend was done when he went vegetarian.

So the key to this documentary having an effect is that it does not allow for diffusion of responsibility. A classic study which demonstrates diffusion of responsibility was done by Latane and Darley (1968). They did a study in which the participant was in a room of other people who they believed were also participants but were in fact fully informed of what was going on in the experiment and had been told not to react and carry on filling in questionnaires. As the participant sat filling in a questionnaire smoke filled the room, but everyone else just carried on with what they were doing. They found a surprising amount of the time participants did not respond and tell anyone about the smoke when no one else in the room reacted. They also found that the more people in the room the stronger this effect was with even fewer participants doing anything about the smoke.

This graph from the study shows how differently someone behaves when alone compared to when with people. It is clear the presence of people has a real effect on behaviour, with people being far less responsive to the smoke when in a group of 3. Perhaps why the documentary had such a dramatic effect on my friend is it didn’t allow for this unresponsiveness. It of course helps that it was done by Leonardo DiCaprio, had a dramatic sound track and some impressive science but I think what pushed this documentary to change people’s behaviour was that it emphasised that the viewer as an individual was responsible and could make a change. It did not allow for diffusion of responsibility and essentially created an environment where they were alone in a room with smoke coming in and they alone had decide how they would react.


Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: diffusion of responsibility. Journal of personality and social psychology, 8, 377.

Latane, B., & Darley, J. M. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies. Journal of personality and social psychology, 10, 215.

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