Tag Archives: theory of reasoned action

Social Pressure in the Age of COVID-19

29 Mar


   From the time we were in middle school, adults pressured us not to be pressured by peer pressure.  But in the midst of a public health crisis, peer pressure has become among the main communications strategies from government leaders and social media influencers in slowing the COVID-19 contagion.

    The message: save lives—stay home.

    Among the social media stars jumping on board is actress Emma Watson.

    The evolving messaging is firmly grounded in long established psychological theory.  Research by Martin Fishbein and Icek Azjen shows how action is based not just on our attitude about committing to a certain behavior, but also what society expects us to do.  Fishbein and Azjen called it subjective norms.   The more positive feelings that are shaped about one’s attitude for the behavior, combined with the attitude toward doing what’s expected of them, are predictors of a certain behavior or action.   The resulting Theory of Reasoned Action has become a bedrock tool not just in public health campaigns, but social responsibility movements and advertising.

Figure 1

     The COVID-19 pandemic led to the public health necessity for populations to immediately restrict person-to-person contact to limit the spread of the virus.  Both political and health leaders have issued stay-at-home orders to hopefully slow the growth of infections long enough for hospitals to expand their capacity to treat patients.  The simple message:  if you stay home you will save lives.  That’s pressure.

     The breakdown of Theory of Reasoned Action, or TRA, as it applies to the pandemic is fairly simple. (Figure 1)  One’s attitude about staying home is combined against the social norm of staying home.  The combined attitudes directly affect the attitude of acting which leads to the action.

     The TRA strategy is the cornerstone of the CDC’s pubic communications campaign put together by the AD Council.

    Whether he knows it or not, President Trump has played a partial role in building and reinforcing the social norm.   During one of his recent White House briefings he told Americans their actions on social distancing were “saving many, many lives.”   To be sure, in this age of political tribalism, one’s attitudes toward the controversial president are an independent variable in whether to act upon anything he recommends.  But in this case he makes the powerful appeal for others, not himself.

    Clearly, there are more influencers than just the president.  Collectively, social media stars and athletes such as Minnesota Twins pitcher Jake Odorizzi are applying their own pressure.

 

Figure 2

    Social pressure in public campaigns is nothing new.  The foundations of TRA go back to WWII when the War Advertising Council employed peer pressure to encourage Americans to buy war bonds.  One of their most famous campaigns created posters to change attitudes about home front discussions of anything related to war production and troop movements.  The resulting messaging was “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” (Figure 2)

    Arguable one of the most successful Ad Council campaigns in the past 75 years has been Smokey Bear.  The strategy to increase fire suppression relied on a societal expectation that preventing forest and wildlife destruction was an individual action.  The message was clear and simple: “Only you can prevent forest fires.” 

    Fast forward to 2020 and the same message is reapplied to COVID-19.  Only you can help save lives—maybe your own.  That’s powerful peer pressure.

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Trump, Clinton and the Psychology of Fear

2 Aug

Fear Blog.001

     A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas created one of the greatest narratives of good vs. evil.  In a curious twist of art imitates life, the archetype is very much alive in the 2016 presidential race.  Darth Vader vs. the Jedi.  The dark side vs. light.  Fear vs. unity.

     The deep political divides in America skew the perception of who is Darth Vader.   To the significant number of voters who don’t trust the Clintons, it’s definitely ‘Crooked Hillary.’  Likewise, to  a majority of immigrants and highly educated Americans, it’s ‘Demagogue Donald.’

     However, the campaign strategies now cast in the nomination acceptance speeches of both candidates paint a stark electoral narrative based on fear.  And Trump has doubled down. Trump Clinton Fear.003

     “America is far less safe and the world is far less stable,” Trump told the Republican delegates and the nation.

     Trump painted a picture of lawlessness and rampant terrorism with the clock set at midnight and an illegal immigrant hiding in every closet.  “Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens,” said Trump.

     As a campaign strategy, Trump’s politics of fear is grounded in well-established psychological and economic theory.  Psychologist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University established in 1979 that people when presented with a set of known risks are more motivated by loss than gain.  The resulting research is called Prospect Theory and it won Kahneman the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.  In short, Prospect Theory holds we are motivated by fear.

     Trump’s campaign strategy is clearly to use fear as a factor in the complex decision making process that voters will go through in deciding whether they can commit to him in the voting booth.  His strategy is well grounded in the fact that the vast majority of Americans believe the country is heading in the wrong direction.  When combined with the consumer behavior Theory of Trying by Richard Bagozzi, it establishes a clear framework for leading voters on the path toward supporting Trump.

     In the Theory of Trying model, there are three dimensions of attitude. (Figure 1)   One is toward success, one is toward failure and the other is toward trying.   In Trump’s case the attitudes toward success include better pay, secure jobs and safer streets.  In other words—attitudes framed as personal and social gains.  

Trump Clinton Fear.001

Figure 1

     The attitudes toward failure include stagnant income, job insecurity, fear of crime and terrorism—Prospect Theory’s framing of loss.   All of those are balanced against the efficacy of trying supporting Trump based upon his reputation as a successful businessman, and the perception that he’s not a quitter and on our side.  All three of those attitudes combine to influence the behavior on whether to vote for Trump.

   Hillary Clinton has taken a different approach based not on fear, but the social norms of rejecting fear. Trump Clinton Fear.004

     In her speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination, Clinton exclaimed, “We are not afraid!”

     She spent considerable time reinforcing universally held social truths that America is not a nation of bullies, and that “we are stronger together.”   In supporting her central thesis, she quoted FDR in saying, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”

     In forging such a strategy, Clinton is employing the Theory of Reasoned Action as advanced by Martin Fishbein and Icek Azjen.   This too, is a psychological consumer research theory based upon behavioral intentions and attitudes toward social norms and expectations.   In this model, the consumer/voter is weighing their behavior based on their attitudes toward Clinton, and their attitudes toward societal pressure. (Figure 2) 

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Figure 2

 

     The attitudes toward Clinton range from her experience and competence for the presidency, to her trustworthiness (or lack of) as a public figure.  The attitudes toward social norms include the notions that Americans stand up to bullies, that they don’t ban religions, and that Americans are stronger when they stand together.

     To be clear, Clinton is using her own fear factor.  One of the more striking passages from her acceptance speech implored voters to consider the risk of Donald Trump as president.

   “Imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis,” Clinton said.  “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

     The tactic was stolen straight from the playbook of LBJ in 1964.  In that presidential campaign, President Johnson exploited the fears of a nation still jittery from the near apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Republican nominee, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, had famously campaigned on the notion that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”   The Johnson campaign responded with an advertisement called “Daisy.”   The ad aired just once–so powerfully based in Prospect Theory that it never needed to air again.  LBJ won in a landslide.

     Both the Trump and Clinton campaigns have laid out their archetypal strategies both grounded in solid behavioral theory.  Fear of loss is a strong psychological motivator and one that Trump clearly hopes is a message he can ride to the White House.  Clinton’s arguments based upon established social norms of working together and rejecting fear are equally as accessible in the minds of voters.  The wild card in all of this may come down to individual personalities.  In other words, do the powerful negative attitudes toward either Clinton or Trump actually swamp the attitudes towards loss and social expectations?

     We’ll find out on Election Day which theory “Trumps.”

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