social norms
Posted in Behavioral theories message framing

How social norms shape our behavior – I

You must have been into a library; you stay silent. That is a classic social norm example. Another common one is littering. As we all know social norms can either be socially desirable or socially undesirable.

Every day we adhere to social norms that are an array of unwritten sets of rules we follow. In a way, these play a crucial role in the smooth functioning of a society. Once we deviate from it, we can expect negative consequences.

Robert Cialdini deconstructs the concept further; he describes two types of social norms: Descriptive and injunctive.

Descriptive (popular) social norms = What is being done

The descriptive social norm refers to actions that others seem to be doing. Irrespective of its impact – either socially desirable or socially undesirable – social norms exhibit a “contagious effect”. Take the example of littering; seeing others maintaining a clean environment persuades us to keep those places clean; in contrast, if we see others litter a place, we tend to follow it.

Need evidence?

Robert Cialdini’s 1991 report provides evidence. He together with his team demonstrated how “littering begets more littering”. Not only that, they further showed when a norm began to change; in a perfectly clean environment, the subjects adhered to that social norm even with one litter; with the increase of the number of litters, the “slippery slope began”. We tend to change our perceived descriptive social norm from the ” no one litters here” to “everyone litters here”.

This certainly goes beyond littering, even to policy making!

The interesting thing here is that we, most of the time inadvertently, promote socially undesirable norms with our statements highlighting socially undesirable behaviours as the norm. It results in a dangerous “boomerang effect”.

David Halpern in his excellent book memoir – “Inside the Nudge Unit” (David Cameron’s unit where he worked) writes, ” I have lost count of the number of examples of Robert Cialdini’s “big mistake” that I have seen”.

Injunctive social norms = what ought to be done

in contrast to the descriptive social norms, injunctive social norms refer to actions that people either approve or disapprove of (as we perceive). It could either be a displaying “do not litter” notice, the presence of a designated place to dispose of garbage, or what we see that another person removes and properly disposes of the litter.

As I understand, there is a very important difference between the descriptive social norms and the injunctive social norms; the former can be situation-specific while the latter’s influence can be very robust. For example, Cialdini and his team’s research demonstrated seeing that someone picking up and removing litter from a clean environment (social disapproval) lead others to imitate that behavior not only at that particular place but in other settings also.

How can we apply the above concepts usefully?


  • Using descriptive social norms is like a double-edged sword; it becomes effective only when most people engage in socially desirable behaviors; if most engage in socially undesirable behaviors it will backfire.
  • If we suspect most people engage in socially undesirable behaviors, Cialdini suggests using injunctive social norm focus.

I will write in a later post how descriptive and injunctive social norms influence, for better or worse, during this COVID 19 pandemic.

Posted in #covid-19 message framing

Do your part – stay apart; more relevant now

This message becomes more relevant now than before with the growing presence of the COVID 19 variants. The new variants are more transmissible; for example, the UK variant is said to be 56 percent more transmissible than the original COVID 19 virus.

What does that mean?

It means if the original one takes 20 days to double the number of us infected, this variant will do it within 10 days. Some epidemiologists predict the numbers can go up by more than 10 fold if the current lockdown restrictions are removed.

Posted in #covid-19 message framing

Message framing effect on vaccine hesitancy-II

In 2018 I explored the message framing effect on measles vaccine hesitancy among the US population. In that post, I highlighted the Hendrix et al. (2014) finding that more parents were modestly persuaded to vaccinate their children when the benefits to the child were emphasized when compared to the standard CDC information. That is about the measles vaccine. And, they explored parents’ intentions to vaccinate their children.

We do not know whether the same holds true for people living in other cultures and other vaccines.

This post is about a study on the influenza vaccine and 222 patients who attended a tertiary hospital in Turkey. These researchers have explored this personal-benefit versus social-benefit dualism with regard to the perceived risk level of the people. In their field experiment, they found the intentions to get vaccinated were higher among those perceived as high-risk when the personal-benefit was emphasized. On other hand, the intentions were higher among those who perceived low-risk when social-benefits were emphasized. In other words, at least for this population further division of the target audience and customizing the message accordingly is more beneficial.

Posted in #covid-19 message framing Risk communication

Cover your mouth AND the nose: Massage framing

The CDC has re-framed the face mask message: Cover your mouth AND the nose. This message emphasizes the importance of covering the nose by adding the word, “AND” in-between the mouth and nose.

Posted in message framing storytelling in science

The “Plastic Bag”; a short film by Ramin Bahrani

“They told me it’s out there: The Pacific Vortex. Paradise”; The “Plastic bag” anticipates his destiny through Werner Herzog’s voice.

“No one needs me here anymore, Not even my Maker”; the “Plastic bag” laments while observing the sunset on the beach. “He” is about to dive into the deep ocean heading for “paradise”: the gigantic plastic garbage dump that sits deep Pacific Ocean Vortex.

Ramin Bahrani opens his “Plastic bag” (2010), an 18 minutes long film with the above narration. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival and later screened at the New York Film Festival.

Ramin is an acclaimed Iranian-American filmmaker.

The technique of anthropomorphism

Ramin anthropomorphizes a plastic bag into a human; rather the bag thinks and feels like a human. This technique is called anthropomorphism, an excellent creative writing technique. It “transports” us into an imaginary world for a short period. After the visit, we return to the world where we lived prior to the journey with changed beliefs and attitudes. It helps to retain the message in our minds for a long time. We can find the same technique in Franz Kafka’s “metamorphosis”, Lewis Carrol’s “Alice in Wonderland”, and George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief”.

The long journey begins

Soon after the opening scene at the beach, Ramin takes us to a place where the plastic bag begins his long journey to the Deep Pacific ocean vortex. The starting place is the store’s cashier countertop from where his Maker, a young woman, places her bought- stuff into the bag. Besides carrying stuff to the woman’s home, the bag carries various kinds of duties for the woman from going with her to the tennis court, helping her with ice to ease her ankle pain, and even bagging her pet dog’s shit. However, it feels abandoned when the woman dumps him and ends up at a large garbage site.

From this garbage site until he sets into the deep Pacific ocean vortex, Ramin makes the bag traveling through the land, sky, forests, buildings, houses, and the ocean. Throughout this journey, the bag meets animals, fish, and even a “girlfriend” bag.

Human emotions

The bag voices its human feelings through Werner Herzog’s voice: love, hope, loss, frustration, and the yearning for reaching the ultimate destiny.

Intimate moments with the young woman

He feels happy for being “part of her life” and joy when he intimates with the lady’s skin to ease her ankle pain with ice.

“I made her happy and she made me happy”, the bag thinks. And, he yearns to be with her, “we would be together forever”.

Then, he feels despair when she abandons her and finds himself at a dumping site.

At the large garbage site

“Nothing could destroy me”, boasts the bag even after a large garbage truck running over it several times. Then, the wind takes him out of the site and the destiny.

Meeting his “girlfriend”

During his resumed journey, he meets his red-colored “girlfriend” plastic bag. He moves and dances gracefully with her.

You can watch the full movie here.

“Plastic bag” short film by Ramin Bahrani

Ramin’s laser-beam focus on the main narrative does not deviate even for a second to bring forward the bigger picture of the plastic pollution crisis. He is strictly disciplined about it. The focus directs at the plastic bag’s goal: Re-uniting his Maker or else finding its ultimate destiny – the 100 million tons gigantic garbage dump deep inside the Pacific Ocean vortex.

Iranian-American filmmaker, Ramin Bahrani (Source:
Extended Parallel Process Model
Posted in message framing

Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM)

Whenever we craft a message we need to have a clear idea of how we are going to evaluate the efficacy after releasing the message. The Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM) provides a useful model exactly for that.

Let first us see what it is and then how it helps us.

We need to keep in mind that this model particularly applies to fear- arousing messages.

What is EPPM?

The EPPM forces us to look at it from the message recipient’s point of view. According to the model, the message recipients process a message in two stages. in the first stage, the message recipients appraise the threat level; based on this initial appraisal, they proceed into stage two: To take action; it could either the danger control (appropriate/adaptive) or fear control (inappropriate/maladaptive).

Stage 1: Appraising the threat

First, as soon as we receive a fear-arousing message, we appraise its “perceived” threat level. Here the keyword is “perceived”. What matters most is the message recipient’s perceived threat level, not the message sender’s perceived threat level. Often, message senders who tend to be more knowledgeable than the message recipients become disappointed because the message senders think the recipients do not perceive to the level that the senders perceive. Being at a higher position in the social ladder, message framers put the blame on the message recipients.

What does the “perceived threat” refer to?

Although we employ here the fear appeal as the strategy, according to Kim Witte the threat differs from fear;

Fear is an emotion; the threat is a cognition

According to the, two criteria should fulfill to perceived the threat; the message recipients should perceive severity and susceptibility.

What does it mean by perceived severity?

Think of COVID 19 virus. First, the recipients assess how severe the problem is. In the first wave, our perceived severity became very much higher than now. Isn’t it? In other words, the perceived severity can vary with time.

What does it mean by perceived susceptibility?

Next, the recipients assess how much they are vulnerable in contracting the COVID 19 virus.

The perceived threat consists of the perceived severity and perceived susceptibility to the problem.

If the recipients perceive the problem is not severe enough and they are not vulnerable, they are very unlikely to do something about it. In contrast, if they perceive the problem is severe enough and they are susceptible, they feel they are under threat and think of doing something about it.

According to the EPPM, they switch into the next stage: Action. Here, the message recipients evaluate the actions they can resort to: Appraising the efficacy of the proposed action/s.

Stage 2: Appraising the efficacy

In this stage, they evaluate two dimensions of the proposed action/s.

Perceived self-efficacy

First, they evaluate whether the proposed action is doable. For example, in regards to COVID 19 pandemic response, the key messages we receive are “stay at home”, “wear a face mask”, “wash hands”, and “keep the distance”.

Perceived response efficacy

This is the final element; perceived response efficacy. Here, the recipients evaluate whether the proposed actions do really work for them.

Our message satisfies all the above-mentioned four criteria, according to the EPPM, the message recipients are highly likely to engage in the recommended behavior change. Obviously, we cannot expect one message can satisfy all these criteria for all the people. That is why we first have to define the target audience and study their socio-demographic and psychographic characteristics before crafting the message.

Danger control versus fear control

Whenever our message meets the four perceptions of the target audience, they delve into “danger control”. This is what we want them to do. The experts view this as a cognitive process.

However, there are many situations that our messages do not meet all the above criteria.

What will happen if some members of the target audience perceive a higher threat level with a lower level of perception that they are not capable of engaging in the suggested action?

According to Michael Basil and Kim Witte, in such situations message recipients will resort to “fear control” methods; this is an emotion control process. Here, they will ignore the message and somehow find reasons to justify their course of inaction.

What arguments they are likely to put forward? According to Michael Basil and Kim Witte, those are;

  • They may the risk is overstated unnecessarily.
  • They may the threat is not that severe.
  • They may, Whatever happens, may happen; we cannot do anything; this is life.
  • They may this is a deliberate attempt to limit their freedom.

What we have to do in message framing is to promote message recipients to adopt danger control actions not fear control ones.

EPPM elements against control strategies

This is only an introduction to the EPPM. There is much more to it. And, researchers have addressed the limitations of the model too. For example, this model only deals with the process of dealing with fear. However, fear is not the only emotion messages invoke. They can invoke anger and frustration too.

Researchers firmly advocate the self-efficacy and response efficacy perception levels should be higher than the problem severity and susceptibility perception levels for the message recipients to resort to danger control behaviors. If the reverse takes effect, they will resort to maladaptive fear control behaviors.

I will discuss its applications in another post.

Posted in message framing

Elaboration Likelihood Model -in-practice

I wrote a post earlier to introduce the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM).

This post discusses how Brian Flynn et al. (2011) applied this model in the public health field. The researchers studied how US grade 7-8 students processed anti-smoking messages using this model.

Studying how grade 7 – 8 students process anti-smoking messages

What they did: The researchers organized a group session for a random sample of 1771 Grade 7-8 US students to watch anti-smoking messages. After that, they gave a questionnaire to students and analyzed their responses.

Variables used
  • Message type:
    • arguments (facts) -rich: negative effects of smoking
    • arguments (facts)-light: social norms that favor non-smoking, refusal skills (no facts)
    • blended: a mix of the above two
  • Motivation level
    • high motivation group: non-smoking students who reported having smoking friends
  • Smoking status: an affirmative answer to the question: “have you smoked past 30 days?”
  • Central route indicators: has good facts, makes me think
  • Peripheral route indicators: looks cool, fun to watch
Key findings
  • Highly motivated students rated high fact-based messages.
  • The students with lower educational achievements showed difficulty in processing fact-based messages.
Got milk?
Posted in message framing

“Got milk?” and “Got Polio?: Me Neither

When I saw this, it reminded me of another famous advert with a similar narrative. It was aimed at increasing milk consumption among US consumers in the past: “Got Milk?”.

“Got Milk?” was one of the most famous US campaigns. Jeff Manning, the Executive Director for the California Milk Board hired an Advertising company in San Francisco to develop a campaign; “Got milk?” was the result.

The published literature about this campaign teaches us important lessons. I am attempting here to apply their strategies that may be applicable in raising vaccination rates and possibly to other campaigns too.

During that time, milk was seen as a nutritional healthy food, and advertised it echoing that sentiment. However, research showed that milk’s place was robbed by soda drinks due to soft drink companies’ aggressive advertising campaigns. These companies related soda drinks with youth lifestyle and happiness.

Instead of adopting this soda strategy, aimed at wooing new customers, the “Got milk?” campaign focused on already existing milk drinkers as the target audience. So, the campaign managers attempted to exploit the food – milk nexus; the majority of consumers drank milk with some food items such as cereals and at a specific time of the day – at breakfast.

Using deprivation as a marketing strategy

Instead of just highlighting the food – milk connection, they focused on a very specific situation that generated anxiety: an uneasy emotion. Through focus group research with milk consumers, they unearthed that consumers felt anxious whenever they tried to swallow either bread or cereals without milk. They translated this particular moment into the now-famous tagline: “Got milk?”. They finally created print adverts and television commercials highlighting this particular moment. You can watch a brief discussion between then-campaign designers: Jeff Goodby and a partner of Silverstein and Partners.

It seemed that several other campaigns that did not have any relation with the milk campaign copied this “got milk?” strategy – Got Jesus? Got beer? etc.

I like this one: “Got Polio? Me Neither” advert.


“Got milk?” campaign managers placed their ads at places where consumers make decisions for groceries: bus stops, grocery stores, in front of televisions at home, etc.

All these attempts were to make mental connection with the deprivation strategy in which was instigated by the television ads.

Image source: Goodby, Silverstein & Partners

a koala bear; pixabay
Posted in message framing storytelling in science

One death is a tragedy; a million a statistic!

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

An update: June 12 2020

In February 2020, I wrote the original blog post that appears below about koalas feared dead due to Australian wildfires. This is about a cognitive limitation of the human mind: “Collapse of compassion” or “compassion fatigue”.

I did not imagine writing an update this post with regard to human tragedy: The COVID 19 pandemic a few months later.

I thought of writing an update to it because now we are experiencing the same “compassion fatigue” with regard to 413,000 deaths of ours this time, not animals.

The original post: February 13, 2020

We know what happened in the recent wildfires in Australia; thousands of “koalas feared dead”. Can we imagine how thousands of deaths -more accurately “burnt to death” – look like?

It is not easy;

Instead, look at the above photo of a koala. It evokes strong emotions of love and affection.

On October 17, 2018, Max Fisher wrote a thought-provoking article to The NewYork Times. It was about Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. It was titled “How one journalist’s death provoked a backlash that thousands dead in Yemen did not”.

It is a very interesting question.


Max sees a parallel in his question with the “infamous” saying of Joseph Stalin, a one-time Russian dictator; that was the title of this post:

“The death of one is a tragedy, but the death of a million is just a statistic”


Yemen has been experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. People are dying even from Cholera, a disease that does not exist in most parts of the world. Still, we give very little attention to it. But the gruesome alleged killing of one journalist held the world’s attention months.

Furthermore, Max also reminds us how the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy brought the whole world’s eyes to the Syrian tragedy.

We can find more examples to support this phenomenon from history; two famous examples are the boat of no smiles from Vietnam, and the famine in Somalia. I do not want to add any more here. There are many more. These are gruesome.

Max explains the practical application of Stalin’s “theory”; that is why reporters begin their storytelling with one victim of a flood, famine, or any other major disaster. These stories attract our attention. And, then we go into details.

“Collapse of compassion” or “compassion collapse” are the terms used to explain this phenomenon.

What is the”Collapse of Compassion”?

This is a psychological phenomenon according to which our degree of compassion begins to vanish to the extent that the number of suffering rises up.

It becomes harder for us to comprehend the suffering of large numbers; Instead, we can be compassionate with just one or two individual sufferings.

This is a paradox; it is not what we expect to happen.

I have found several other attractive phrases to describe this phenomenon: compassion fatigue, compassion apathy, compassion fade.

This is a very big problem; weigh-in this paradox against a mass scale famine, genocide, or massive climate change issue.

How people apply this knowledge in practice?

This is the most crucial part.

So, our compassion is limited. When a large number of individuals are in need, we tend to ignore them leading to inaction. That is human nature.

The answer is there; If you need people to donate, highlight index cases in need. Then, call for action reducing the amount of contribution to a few dollars. That is what exactly not-for-profit organizations are doing. You can appreciate it if you follow their tv advertisements very closely.

So, if we show just one or two koalas in need, it will be much more effective to motivate donors rather than showing thousands of koalas!

Are there other ways that we could apply the phenomenon in practice?

Climate crisis
Posted in message framing

Message framing and Climate Crisis

Climate crisis is real; it is happening. And, people are concerned about it (except Trump). However, few seem to willing to act upon it as in the case of any other problem of our daily lives.

What type of climate change messages are more persuasive?

This is not a new question. Almost a quarter-century ago, researchers seem to have become interested in finding answers to this question. In 1995 summer Joel J Davis published a research paper dissecting responses from university students to four types of messages about climate change.

He constructed eight advertisements, each containing three short paragraphs; each paragraph emphasised one aspect of message framing, namely: gain-framed versus loss-framed; current outcome versus future outcomes; and taking less or doing more.

Gain-framed versus loss-framed: I explained the effect of gain-framed and loss-framed messages on persuasion in achieving different outcomes.

Current versus future outcomes: This is an important component with regard to the message relevancy to the target audience. If the target audience is more concerned about themselves, the message could become more persuasive if it highlights how they could be affected by climate change. On the other hand, if they are more concerned about future generations, then, the message may probably be adjusted accordingly. According to Joel Davis, researchers have shown that highlighting short-term outcomes were more persuasive.

Taking less versus doing more: In this research project, Joel Davis tested the effect of two different types suggested activities: taking less (e.g. conservation type activities) and doing more (e.g. recycling focused activities).

Altogether he created eight advertisements factorising above variables into three short paragraphs and given one to each respondent chosen randomly from 218 undergrad US students.

They found that simple, clear activities in the context of personally relevant (current rather than future), negative (loss-framed rather than gain-framed), and outcomes due to their inaction (doing less) were more persuasive.

While I was researching this topic, I found a very informative document about the psychology of climate change communication published by the Center for Research and Environment Decisions (CERD) in 2009. You can have access through this link.