By Kim Borg and Denise Goodwin
Someone (possibly George Bernard Shaw) once said: If you want to tell people the truth, youd better make them laugh or theyll kill you. While comedy can certainly soften a message, can it really change our behaviour?
ABC radio will tonight host a live comedy debate ahead of the next series of its popular War on Waste television series. The topic: whether the show actually works in reducing waste.
Behavioural science, which examines why people do or dont do things, can unravel the puzzle. Essentially, humour is very good at getting peoples attention and helping them remember information. But it can backfire if we dont take the behaviour change message seriously.
Can you feel it?
We know that simply telling people facts doesnt usually motivate change. When it comes to wide-ranging behaviour change campaigns (like anti-speeding, moderate drinking and anti-smoking), a common strategy is to tap into our emotions.
Behaviour change campaigns often frame messages in terms of personal loss or gain. This rationale is based on exchange theory, which focuses on the costbenefit exchange of adopting a behaviour.
This framing can then evoke an emotional response. For example, loss framing, which focuses on negative outcomes of a behaviour, can make us feel guilty, shocked, angry, or sad. In theory, when we see such messages we will reflect on our own behaviours and then adjust them to avoid those negative feelings in the future.
Gain-framed messages, which focus on positive outcomes, are more persuasive than loss-framed messages when attempting to change peoples behaviour. But positive emotions, like humour, are less common in social marketing.
Funny ads are easier to recall and can increase awareness, knowledge, and actions. They can also engage a larger audience. For example, Dumb ways to die, a campaign by Metro Trains in Melbourne to promote rail safety, went viral in 2012 and has racked up more than 168 million views on YouTube. This campaign showed that, sometimes, a life-and-death issue can be discussed with humour.
Just humour me
According to evolutionary theory, positive emotions encourage the uptake of behaviours (like feeling pride for carrying a reusable water bottle), whereas negative emotions promote withdrawal behaviours (like feeling guilty for forgetting to refuse a plastic straw).
Positive appeals are also more likely to get people talking and are better at encouraging voluntary compliance with a behavioural request. Unlike negative appeals, positivity doesnt trigger a defensive response when trying to change behaviour.
When a positive appeal like humour is added to negative messaging, we can capture peoples attention while avoiding unhelpful defensive responses. But, be warned: engagement doesnt always lead to desired behaviour change.
Too funny to succeed
But comedy can also backfire. Americas Centers for Disease Control tried to pair humour with fear in its Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic disaster preparedness campaign. This public service message unfortunately reduced individuals likelihood of developing an emergency plan. In this instance, humour trivialised the issue of disaster preparedness and compromised the ability of the message to encourage the desired behaviour.
Making people smile doesnt always make them change. If a message is meant to be threatening for example if you speed, you will die humour may not be the best tool. However, a social threat with a humour-based message can be effective. For example, the Pinkie safe driving campaign reduced simulated driving speeds by an average of 4km per hour.
Comedy, waste and consumption
Humour can be the hook that gets our attention. Comedy is usually a form of veiled (or not so veiled) criticism. It is used to hold up a mirror to society to ridicule our vices and shortcomings and shame us into improvement while our guard is down.
The first series of the ABCs War on Waste had a huge effect on consumers behaviours for instance, it helped to drive a 400% increase in KeepCup sales.
It tapped into the communitys anxiety that we are producing too much waste, and our growing realisation we have to do something about it. But it was presented in a cheeky, personable and positive way: Look at this tram full of coffee cups. Can you believe how much waste we produce? We have to change this behaviour. And heres how.
When Coles and Woolworths recently stopped providing free plastic shopping bags, some people voiced their resistance to the change. This resistance was met with mockery by comedians including Kitty Flannigan on The Weekly and Wil Anderson on Gruen, and even by the retail workers union.
This comedy backlash highlights another important point about humour and persuasion: we dont want to be the group being mocked. We want to be part of the in-group who are mocking the out-group.
Sometimes, when the truth hurts, laughter is how we deal with it. Its not the whole story, and theres a lot more to learn about humour and waste behaviours. But it can be a useful tool in helping us acknowledge what were doing wrong so we can do the right thing.
The ABC live radio debate on the War on Waste will be live-streamed between 7pm – 9pm on July 19.
Kim Borgis a Doctoral Candidate & Research Officer at BehaviourWorks Australia in Monash Sustainable Development Institute atMonash University and Denise Goodwinis a Research Fellow atMonash University.
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