Breaking Down Ads with the Message Learning Approach

The message learning approach (Yale Model of Persuasive Communication), developed by Hovland, Janis, and Kelley, describes how attitude formation and attitude change works. This theory had, and still has, applications to advertising and how advertising influences behavior. The message learning approach works through a “chain of persuasion,” with the stages of : Exposure, Attention, Comprehension, Yielding, Retention, and Action. Each stage represents a different aspect of the attitude formation/change process. Because the message learning approach has been applied to advertisements successfully, I figured I’d take a look at a few ads and deconstruct them by the message learning approach. Mainly, I’ll be focusing  on Attention (what about the message catches my attention?), Comprehension (do I understand the message?), and Yielding (how does the message lead to attitude change?) because some of the other stages won’t be easily discussed about in relation to an isolated ad.

Ad #1: Metro

 This ad is for the Metro news mobile app; Metro is a set of newspapers available in certain cities around the world.

Attention: Is this eye-catching enough? There is the novel component of the audience perspective coming from some sort of mailbox/newspaper box. Otherwise, there is not much going on, perhaps in order to focus the audience on the product. A good-looking person is used at the center of it, as unsurprisingly, good-looking people attract attention.

Comprehension: I think this ad rates pretty well on comprehension. The simplicity focuses the viewer’s attention on the newspaper, and they utilize a picture of what the app looks like to hammer home that message. Furthermore, the text makes it clear that you are inside the box that houses all the newspapers, and this person is getting the box even inside the car, so the link between mobile app and having the newspaper everywhere is well-drawn.

Yielding: This ad goes for the yielding concept of identification. The lady featured in the ad is on her way to work, like many people who may see this ad, so they will be able to identify with the idea of being on the go every morning and maybe not being able to get to a newsstand every day.

Ad #2: McDonald’s

This ad is for McDonald’s, specifically the large coffee. I assume it’s from somewhere in Europe, given the way the price is listed.

Attention: This ad does a nice job on using a slight illusion to grab your attention. Given the way the sky is over the liquid, you expect there to be ocean underneath, but instead, you can make out the rim of the coffee cup holding all the coffee.

Comprehension: I think this ad hits all the right notes in terms of comprehension. There is the visual analogy between the ocean and the coffee, the singular focus on the product sold, and even the price listed in the ad to let you know it is cheap to get an ocean’s worth of coffee. A simple message is easier to comprehend.

Yielding: In terms of yielding, I’m not sure that this ad in specific does anything to address that. Perhaps if the ad would feature lots of other people enjoying McDonald’s large coffee in a social manner, this ad would have to do with yielding, but on its own as it is, it doesn’t do much for yielding. I think they would rely on making the McDonald’s coffee cup ubiquitous like the Starbucks coffee cup in order to address yielding.

So despite this ads being for different kinds of products and from different countries all together, they still both contain several aspects of the message learning approach. These ads are just a small selection of the numerous ads that have elements of the message learning approach, showing that it is still an effective way to induce attitude formation/attitude change.

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What Can We Do With Attachment?

The dimensions of attachment and their corresponding prototypes

Attachment theory relates to how our relationships function with those closest to us. Attachment theory, established by John Bowlby, holds that attachment results from the close relationship needed between infant and caregiver in order for the infant to survive. Under attachment theory, we base our expectations for future relationships on the relationships we had at an early age; most prominently, those with our caregivers. Research done to characterize the attachment has resulted in the proliferation of the idea of “attachment styles”, which are descriptive categories for the attachment behaviors displayed by someone towards their attachment figure. According to Hazan and Shaver (1994), these attachment styles were initially characterized as secure (in which the caregiver is responsive to the infant), anxious/ambivalent (in which the caregiver sometimes is responsive and sometimes is not), and avoidant (in which the caregiver isn’t responsive). Later, attachment was categorized through the use of two dimensions, those being avoidance and anxiety experienced in the relationship with the attachment figure.

So beyond being a way to describe relationships, what can we use attachment for? Research done on applying attachment to therapy by Simon Fraser psychologist Marlene Moretti and colleagues has shown that focusing therapy on attachment concepts in the parent-teen relationship has benefits for aggressive behaving teens. This therapy notably centers on the parents of the teens that are at risk for aggressive behavior and does not actually directly intervene with the teen. Each week for the therapy features an attachment principle; examples given by the researchers include “Attachment is for life,” “Conflict is part of attachment,” and “Understanding, growth, and change begin with empathy.”  The therapy intends to improve security within the parent-teen relationship by focusing on these attachment principles. The researchers have also been able to involve a wider group of parents in the therapy through dissemination of their therapy manual and training.

While improving parenting is a relatively proximal application of attachment, other applications have been more abstract from the central focus on the parent-child of relationship. For example, Ciechanowski and colleagues applied attachment theory to health care, assessing how attachment related to symptom reporting and primary care use and costs in a sample of female patients. The researchers focused on attachment styles, putting the patients in the various attachment categories based on a self-report measure. They found that patients with a fearful attachment style and patients with a preoccupied attachment style reported more symptoms than those with a secure attachment style. They also found that patients with a preoccupied attachment style had significantly more primary care visits and costs than the other patients. The authors attributed these findings to preoccupied individuals being highly dependent on others as a result of how their attachment experience shaped their expectations for relationships.

These two research projects are quite disparate in their focus, but they both rely on attachment theory to provide the theoretical basis for their efforts. It is interesting to find that attachment theory, which began as a way to describe close relationships, has a varied set of applications to the real world.

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The Psychology of Pressure and “Clutch” in Sports

If you dig into sports writing and analysis, you will hear the words “pressure” and “clutch” used all the time. Analysts love to debate the hypothesized effects of pressure of the situation on athletes’ performance, whether it is the deciding game of a playoff series, the potential game-tying shot in a game, or the bottom of the 9th in a close ball game. Going hand-in-hand with pressure is the idea of clutch, which holds that some athletes have the ability to resist the pressure of tense situations and either perform up to expectations, or even supposedly exceed their normal ability and perform better in pressure situations. There’s even statistical metrics devoted to clutch ability in the pursuit of a way to define what being clutch means. Clutch is debated like a personality trait, in that analysts and fans posit that some athletes have it and some athletes just don’t have it in their DNA. So what’s the psychology surrounding this?

One of many ways to try to heap pressure on athletes

To understand pressure and clutch, we should turn to the Social Facilitation/Inhibition literature. The idea behind pressure impacting performance comes from early studies about performing tasks in front of other people. In these studies, the way other people’s presence would affect your performance would depend on the tasks you were performing; intellectual tasks were difficult, physical tasks were easier, new tasks were harder, familiar tasks were easier. It was theorized that arousal was the key factor here; others’ presence would physiologically arouse the subject, which would make the dominant response (things learned well and accessible) easier to undertake. So the more aroused you were, the easier dominant responses would be.

Billiards skills interacted with pressure

Michaels et al., (1982) tested the effect of arousal on performance on pool players. Michaels found that good players made more shots in front of people compared to in front of no one, while bad players did worse in front of people than when alone. This makes sense when applied to pro sports, as professional athletes who are very good at what they do and very skilled should do better than the average non-athlete when put in front of people. But within that subset of professional athletes, are some better in front of people than others?

Looking at a study by Otten (2009), we see some evidence for being clutch, albeit in non-professional athletes. Otten had college undergraduates shoot 15 basketball free-throws, first without any sort of pressure at all. After that initial round, he told the students that they were going to be video-taped for the purpose of studying the effects of pressure on their performance, and additionally, that a psychology class would be viewing the video (which wasn’t actually true). After that, all the participants completed a battery of measures, including anxiety and self-focus measures, among others. Otten created a model using the various measures to understand what exactly contributed to performance under pressure, and found that perceived control (in relation to the task/sport) was the only significant predictor of performance under pressure.

These results would suggest that if there is something such as being clutch, it is related to feeling in control when you are playing a sport. So maybe being clutch isn’t some personality trait and isn’t part of a “have it/don’t have it” dichotomy. Rather, it might be tied in to the athlete’s mindset, the degree to which they feel mastery of the task and that they control the task. So perhaps clutch can be trained; maybe we can coach athletes to always try to maintain a sense of control over their sport in the face of pressure. But for now, what exactly makes up the supposed quality of being clutch is not completely realized and begs for more research.

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Positive Social Influence: Social Proof and Group Therapy

I’ve already discussed how social influence can potentially have a negative backlash due to the employment of concepts that may have negative consequences for relationships. However, there is an area through which social influence can have a very good benefit: group therapy. In group therapy, the group members have the potential to influence each other to invest in the therapy, to participate in the group activities that are meant to help them, and to receive benefits from the therapy.

The social influence principle that presumably could be driving benefits in group therapy is social proof. Social proof essentially is the idea “monkey see, monkey do,” holding that we cue our behavior off of others, especially when we see others’ behavior as correct. We see others’ behavior as correct when we are unsure of ourselves and the situation is ambiguous. The classic empirical support of this concept came from Asch in 1955, where he demonstrated that subjects would conform to clearly wrong answers to a task given by other members of group as long as the other members were unanimous in their wrong answers. In this situation, the subject is unsure of his own (right) opinion because everyone else is disagreeing with him.

So how would social proof lead to positive group therapy? Theoretically, in group therapy, the group members could take cues from each other about how to behave in group. From a structural standpoint, if the therapist can establish support of the group therapy process in most of the members, then the group would be self-regulating in that with the majority of people “buying into” the group therapy process, they would be able to keep the rest of the group “bought-in” to the group therapy through social proof. So if the therapist can make sure they can engage most of the group in the process, those who might be on the fence whether they want to commit to also being engaged in the therapy process would be influenced to do so through social proof.

So how does the existing evidence back this up? Decidedly mixed, with results depending on what purpose the group is serving, who the group is serving, and other factors. Thomas Dishion, among others, have found that negative social influence called peer contagion exists. In this peer contagion, the negative behaviors of adolescents spread from adolescent to adolescent by this process called deviancy training, where adolescents learn from other adolescents’ deviant behaviors and take them on. Specifically in group therapy, this has negative effects, as deviancy training occurs in group therapies of adolescents, especially those who have externalizing behavior problems.

So does this sink the ship of social proof, at least for group therapies? I wouldn’t discount the potential positive influence of social proof just yet. Studies have found that adolescents rely on parents and peers as influences to abstain from antisocial behavior. Also, deviancy training has been found to not occur with internalizing problems, as peers can’t  observe internalizing problems by definition, therefore they cannot learn from them to engage in more internalizing problems. Additionally, I have been involved in some research investigating a group therapy for PTSD in adolescents, looking for any specific benefits that the group nature of the therapy confers. We have found some preliminary evidence supporting the idea that peers can influence each other to benefit more from therapy, leading us investigating whether those who are more susceptible to peer influence benefit from therapy more than those who are not. So perhaps social proof may be limited on its impact of group therapy, but it may be instrumental in showing that there are more reasons to utilize group therapy beyond saving money.

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Reciprocity and Commitment and Consistency: A Good Way to Get Things Done, A Bad Way to Make Friends?

Two principles of social influence are reciprocity and commitment and consistency. These two principles have been backed up by plenty of empirical evidence showing that they are effective ways to influence others’ behavior, but they both rely on what we might label as “deceitful” strategies. So while the use of these principles may be a great way to get what you want out of others, is there some sort of downside or backlash that comes from the use of these principles?

Reciprocity at work.

First, let’s do a quick introduction to reciprocity and commitment and consistency (C & C). Reciprocity is a concept that holds that we feel obligated to reciprocate when someone gives us something. This was exemplified through a study by Dennis Regan in 1971 in which a confederate either gave or didn’t give a subject a free Coke before a sham study, then asked the subject after the study if he/she wanted to buy raffle tickets. Subjects who received the free Coke bought raffle tickets 2 times more than those who didn’t, presumably because they felt obligated to reciprocate because of the free Coke.

Commitment and consistency is the concept that states that once you make a decision (commitment), there is pressure to behave in-line with that decision (consistency). One example of this is the low-ball technique, in which car salespeople offer a really good price on the car, let the prospective buyer take it home and drive it around while they think about the potential purchase. During this, the salespeople are running the paperwork, and call the buyer, saying that they made a mistake with the pricing, and it is actually a higher price, which is no longer a really good deal. However, because the buyer already has the car with them at home, has driven it around, and generally gotten used to the idea of having the car, they tend to pay the higher price anyway. In this, they have made the commitment by having the car with them at home, doing the things they would be doing if the bought the car, so even when the price is raised, they stay consistent to that behavior.

So these two concepts lead to some very effective social influence, but is there some sort of cost to this effective social influence? Because of the ways in which these concept are deployed, whoever is trying to do the influencing risks doing harm to their relationship to the person they are trying to influence. This isn’t a problem if you aren’t interested in maintaining a relationship, but if you are, you might not necessarily want to employ reciprocity and commitment and consistency. Reciprocity often involves placing an uninvited debt on the influence target. In the Coke study, the free Coke was never asked for by the subject, but when it was given, it came with a debt. With commitment and consistency, most of the potentially problematic elements are related to the commitment. Obviously, the low-ball technique is a fairly insidious way to induce a commitment, as in the example of the car salesperson, they are intentionally deceiving the buyer to get the car home with him, sealing that commitment.  I think that if the influence target is aware (or made aware) of the process going on, like if they realize in reciprocity that they never asked for the first favor, or that in C & C that they did not actually want to make a commitment, it could lead to resentment of the person who is employing the social influence concepts. So maybe take a second before you try to influence someone, and consider what happens to your relationship with that person as a result.

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