Tag Archives: behaviour

Slogans and logos

Via MindHacks, here’s Language Log dissecting some recent research into the persuasive power of logos and slogans.

A recent paper by Juliano Laran et al. (2011) suggests that resistance to persuasion can be triggered in a highly automatic and unconscious manner. The work builds on some interesting results involving commercial brands and implicit priming effects. For example, previous work has shown that subliminally flashing the Apple logo can spur study participants to think more creatively, and that presenting a Walmart logo can encourage frugal behavior whereas presenting a Nordstrom logo leads to greater indulgence. In other words, the brands activate a set of associations that in turn trigger certain cognitive or behavioral goals. Nifty results.

But brand names and logos, argue Laran and colleagues, are different from other commercial messages in that they’re not necessarily perceived as inherently persuasive—despite the fact that they’re often designed with great care, we may normally take them to be primarilyreferential, much as any proper name might be. Slogans (or, as they say in the industry, taglines) are transparently persuasive according to the authors. Perhaps people react to these latter messages in knee-jerk reverse-psychology manner by blocking and even countering the typical brand associations.

Laran et al. found that when they had people look at cost-conscious brand names like Walmart in an alleged memory study and then later take part in an imaginary shopping task, they were able to replicate the implicit priming effect: people were willing to spend quite a bit less than if they’d seen luxury-brand logos. But when subjects saw slogans (e.g. Save money. Live better.) instead of the brand names, there was a reverse priming effect: now, the luxury-brand slogans triggered more penny-pinching behavior than the economy-brand slogans.

Interesting; we’re more resistant to suggestion using language directly than we are to implicit suggestion encoded by association with images and/or designs.

Someone should do a spoof of They Live with this research rolled into it…

The Stanford Prison Experiment: forty years on

Via MindHacks, the Stanford University alumni magazine has interviewed a bunch of participants in the infamous Prison Experiment for the fortieth anniversary thereof. The ethics of the SPE are quite rightfully questioned, even to this day, but even so it’s a hugely valuable data point in our understanding of human nature and its response to cultural roles.

Phil Zimbardo:

We had arranged for everyone involved—the prisoners, guards and staff—to be interviewed on Friday by other faculty members and graduate students who had not been involved in the study. Christina Maslach, who had just finished her PhD, came down the night before. She’s standing outside the guard quarters and watches the guards line up the prisoners for the 10 o’clock toilet run. The prisoners come out, and the guards put bags over their heads, chain their feet together and make them put their hands on each other’s shoulders, like a chain gang. They’re yelling and cursing at them. Christina starts tearing up. She said, “I can’t look at this.”

I ran after her and we had this argument outside Jordan Hall. She said, “It’s terrible what you’re doing to these boys. How can you see what I saw and not care about the suffering?” But I didn’t see what she saw. And I suddenly began to feel ashamed. This is when I realized I had been transformed by the prison study to become the prison administrator. At that point I said, “You’re right. We’ve got to end the study.”

Christina Maslach:

At first Phil didn’t seem different. I didn’t see any change in him until I actually went down to the basement and saw the prison. I met one guard who seemed nice and sweet and charming, and then I saw him in the yard later and I thought, “Oh my God, what happened here?” I saw the prisoners being marched to go down to the men’s room. I was getting sick to my stomach, physically ill. I said, “I can’t watch this.” But no one else was having the same problem.

Phil came after me and said, “What’s the matter with you?” That’s when I had this feeling like, “I don’t know you. How can you not see this?” It felt like we were standing on two different cliffs across a chasm.

Dave Eshelman:

What came over me was not an accident. It was planned. I set out with a definite plan in mind, to try to force the action, force something to happen, so that the researchers would have something to work with. After all, what could they possibly learn from guys sitting around like it was a country club? So I consciously created this persona. I was in all kinds of drama productions in high school and college. It was something I was very familiar with: to take on another personality before you step out on the stage. I was kind of running my own experiment in there, by saying, “How far can I push these things and how much abuse will these people take before they say, ‘knock it off?'” But the other guards didn’t stop me. They seemed to join in. They were taking my lead. Not a single guard said, “I don’t think we should do this.”

The fact that I ramped up the intimidation and the mental abuse without any real sense as to whether I was hurting anybody— I definitely regret that. But in the long run, no one suffered any lasting damage. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, my first reaction was, this is so familiar to me. I knew exactly what was going on. I could picture myself in the middle of that and watching it spin out of control. When you have little or no supervision as to what you’re doing, and no one steps in and says, “Hey, you can’t do this”—things just keep escalating. You think, how can we top what we did yesterday? How do we do something even more outrageous? I felt a deep sense of familiarity with that whole situation.

Every time I’m reminded of the SPE, I find myself thinking that every politician, general and CEO in the world should be forced to study it in intimate detail.

That thought is immediately followed by the horrible suspicion that they already have.

Regendering corporations

Here’s a blog-post transcription of a recent “tweet-lecture” by Jess Nevins about a paper titled “An Organizational Approach to Undoing Gender: The Unlikely Case of Offshore Oil Platforms”, which looks at the dangers of performative maleness (and ways of countering such) in “High Risk Organisations”such as oil drilling rigs. In short, the oil companies wanted to reduce the number of worker injuries, and did so by switching the cultural attitudes that ruled the workplace from rugged individualist machismo to a more cautious collectivism… which didn’t just change the company culture and safety record, but the emotional attitudes of the workers themselves:

Employees became comfortable sharing their problems at home with supervisors, as a way to help maintain group safety. One worker, first thing one morning, told his coworkers about his sick child and said: “This is what I’m dealing with at home. If you all would please keep me focused and understand if I’m a little distracted, I’d appreciate it.”

The authors: “Workers displayed raw fears in our presence, with no indication of shame.”

One inexperienced worker precipitated a shut-down because he followed the advice of his physically intimidating coworker. After error analysis “this exchange led to a larger team discussion about the need to guard against one’s potential to intimidate, however unwittingly, or to be intimidated.” Production goals on the rigs “were stated in relative terms rather than absolute numbers,” which workers saw as concrete evidence of the company’s concern with safety over profit and the bottom line.

One of the oil rigs made light of the mistakes by establishing the “Millionaires Club,” made up of workers whose mistake cost the company millions of dollars. “To become a member was not a source of shame, but rather a mark of being human.”

One worker described “how he had become less blaming and more attentive to others’ feelings” from the emphasis on learning from mistakes. “You realize you need to change when you see a look on someone’s face after they made a mistake like that–and you see the hurt. Because that’s something you don’t want to cause.”


The money quote:

“A man is a man when he can think like a woman,” which means “being sensitive, compassionate, in touch with my feelings; knowing when to laugh and when to cry.” The authors add that “several interviewees corroborated this view, offering definitions of manhood that similarly emphasized humility, feelings, approachability and compassion.”

Imagine, just for a moment what a country run by a government that had been “regendered”- not by swapping out all the men for women, but by redefining its goals – might look like.

In the final section the authors provide a theoretical how-to for undoing corporate gender. “By consistently putting collectivistic goals front and center, cultural practices anchor men to work goals that connect them to others. Men’s sense that others’ well-being is at stake in how they perform their jobs gives them a compelling reason to deviate from conventional masculinity when the work requires it.”

(Emphasis mine.)

I dare say there’ll be more than a few guys reading this and thinking it’s some liberal feminist plot to emasculate men. If you’re one of them, I invite you to read it again; the point isn’t that men need to act like women, it’s that there are clear benefits to everyone – at both the personal and organisational levels – when men act less like macho dicks.

And if that’s still sticking in your craw and making you want to shout at someone, then I think you’ve just provided your own confirmatory data-point.

Rethinking reproductive restrictions

We mentioned this little lot in passing back in April, but given that they’re cropping up in UK headlines again (and that their modus operandi connects to last week’s discussion of reproductive licensing), I thought it worth mentioning again. I refer, of course, to Project Prevention, a US-based charity now operating in the UK whose ‘work’ involves offering drug addicts and other members of “the undeserving poor” £200 in cash in exchange for undergoing voluntary sterilisation.

I mention it primarily because it makes me think again about my position with regards to reproductive licensing; after all, is it not inconsistent of me to approve of reproductive licensing, if only as a principle with no obvious fair and corruption-proof method of implementation, but to be genuinely horrified by the crudely manipulative way that Project Prevention are approaching the same basic idea? It occurs to me that Project Prevention’s founders and staff probably believe quite earnestly that they’re working toward a social good, namely preventing the birth of children to parents unfit to care for them… but for them, that’s justification for a methodology that I find instantly appalling.

In other words, I’d like to say to Silvia and the other commenters on my post from last week: I think you were right. There may well be a logical core to the idea of restricting reproductive rights, but like many logical ideals, it can’t be brought into the messy sphere of human life without turning into a value judgement that no one has the right to make over someone else. A better – if admittedly harder – solution would be to work towards a society where the root causes of bad parenting are eradicated, rather than bad parents themselves; a utopian dream, perhaps, but a far more humanist one.

Behavioural bribery: the sublime and the scary

Compare and contrast:

TIME reports on the research of a Harvard economist that strongly suggests financial reward structures are a highly effective way of motivating academic performance and/or good behaviour in school-aged children. (We mentioned this last year, as it happens.)

Meanwhile, did you know there’s a “charitable” organisation in the US that offers drug addicts a cash incentive to apply for sterilisation – not of their needles, but of themselves? [via Lauren Beukes] And they’re coming to the UK, too, which is a relief – I was thinking only the other day that we just don’t have enough heavy-handed moralising in this country.