A Primetime Psychology Experiment: Does TV Affect Behavior?

By Neuroskeptic | September 26, 2015 4:14 pm

A remarkable paper just published in PLoS ONE reports on what is, I think, one of the largest psychological experiments of all time.

Researchers Elizabeth L. Paluck and colleagues partnered with a TV network to insert certain themes (or messages) into popular dramas shown on US TV. They then looked to see whether these themes had an effect on real world behavior, ranging from Google searches to drink-driving arrests.

The study was based on three prime time Spanish-language dramas (telenovelas) which have a viewership of around 1.2 million people per week. Telenovelas are a genre similar to English-language soap operas except shorter, most lasting about a year. Into these shows, eight messages were added, ranging from health and safety (benefits of low cholesterol, dangers of drink driving) to community building (register to vote, scholarships for Hispanic students.)

In total, there were 23 scenes, featuring 16 minutes and 51 seconds of footage. The scenes were “not central to the shows’ plots” but “many involved the shows’ main characters.” What makes this a genuine experiment (rather than just an observational study) is that the researchers used randomization to determine when in the season to broadcast each message.

So did it work? Not really. The airing of scenes featuring the Hispanic Scholarship Fund did lead to large (but temporary) spikes in the number of people visiting that organization’s website.

paluck_plos

However, there was no evidence that messages about voter registration led to increases in the number of Hispanics actually registering:

paluck_voteNor did Google searches for terms related to the messages increase following each broadcast:

search_terms_paluck

The authors conclude that

In our study, the airtime devoted to the suite of messages would have been worth millions of dollars, but the cumulative effect of these messages on the general population was small and short-lived.

The use of telenovelas to spread health and social messages has a long history. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the genre has “decreased credibility” among viewers today because of heavy-handed government messaging in the past. I wonder if this could be part of the reason for the weak effects? Perhaps this paper will affect the credibility of telenovelas still further?

One thing Paluck et al. don’t discuss is the ethics of this project. They obtained Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. However, at least on the face of it, there is an ethical issue here. This was an experimental manipulation of human behavior, but the participants did not give informed consent to be part of the research. Now, when Facebook announced that they had done a randomized study on nearly 700,000 unsuspecting users, people weren’t happy. The present study differs from that one in a number of ways but I think some people will be uncomfortable about it.

Incidentally, two of the authors on this paper, Donald P. Green and Lynn Vavreck, were in the spotlight recently over their association with alleged science fraud, Michael LaCour. Green co-authored a paper with him, which has since been retracted. Vavreck was LaCour’s PhD supervisor.

ResearchBlogging.orgPaluck EL, Lagunes P, Green DP, Vavreck L, Peer L, & Gomila R (2015). Does Product Placement Change Television Viewers’ Social Behavior? PloS ONE, 10 (9) PMID: 26398217

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ethics, media, papers, select, Top Posts
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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    TV is bursting with sitcoms. There is no laughter in the streets.

    http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8306/8003175091_ecca312fa2.jpg
    http://datadrivendetroit.org/files/2014/11/MCI_DRPS_OccupiedStructures.jpg
    Deeetroit – not funny.

    • Doug Huffman

      I only glimpse sit-coms incidentally and find those glimpses bathetic and unfunny compendia of vulgarity – just like Detroit. I’ve a free range mind, twelve years TV free.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        Chopped is educational for fundamentals of meal preparation and dregs of human bathos. An interesting game is predicting the winner before the first basket opens. We’re thinking a three-parameter fit applicable for most endeavors: raw ability (gotta know something), obsession (immune to emotional attack), seduction (pander to the judges).

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  • Doug Huffman

    Was the null hypothesis effective?

    Perhaps a more fundamental question needs first be investigated, can the presence or absence of broadcast TV in a home be objectively detected in behavior? Was that implicit premise of Nineteen Eighty-Four valid?

    • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

      “Dewey Defeats Truman!” Telephone polls gave Dewey the election. Democrat Truman’s constituency was poverty wanting more Roosevelt handouts – without telephones. Psychology is invalid even, especially, when it studies itself. Sociology, political science, education, centralized charity, economics – legislatively enforced disasters.

      Network TV uncomfortably discovered that shamelessly pandering Cable was the glass teat to be suckled. TV as a whole succumbs to unregulated private suppliers over the Internet. Appetite resists analysis, hence advertising from focus groups.

      • Emkay

        ….

      • Maia

        “poverty wanting more Roosevelt HANDOUTS”? Social Security and the FHA are handouts? Emergency Relief? Securities Exchange Commission?

  • Денис Бурчаков

    I’m not sure whether telenovelas audience is really a target for HSF. Was that decision okay marketing-wise? Also, what would happen in case people did register? Clearly an ethical issue.

  • Bill C

    I understand the terminology difference between a randomized controlled study and an observational one, but what difference does it really make here? The randomization could have by pure chance aligned the messages with something else to make Hispanics interested in voting (e.g. national address by a politician). Then the researchers would have to deal with this in a manner mathematically similar to choosing the dates in the first place. Although 3 occurrences gives more statistical power than 1. What am I missing?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      It’s true that such coincidences could happen by chance. The advantage of randomization is that it ensures that they can only happen by chance.

      With an observational study, the coincidences could happen either by chance or because of a confounding factor.

      Random chance is a quantifiable risk, confounds are ultimately impossible to measure.

      • Bill C

        OK, but in this case I fail to see how random chance and confounds differ. This seems like a case where there is insufficient control to separate the two.

  • smut clyde

    If someone chooses to watch TV, could one argue that there is implicit consent to exposure to behavioural manipulation, in the form of advertising?

    • Emkay

      of course… bad programming producers have always screamed “well just turn the channel”…

  • templeruins

    This is completely unethical.

    • feloniousgrammar

      I don’t see how this is any more unethical than advertising, which clearly does influence people— I mean the crap that people believe they have to buy, Jiminy.

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  • BidBadUnicorn

    Hello Neurosceptic! This is my 1st comment here but I am dedicated and happy reader for a long time.

    I would like to see those scene. I suspects that they were rather dull and straight forward. If this is the case, than most of the people could possible be aware of the fact that they are manipulated – in the sense that they recognise those scenes as a commercial or promotion of some idea or product.
    But still this is impressive study in terms of the scale and sample size.

  • Thom Baguley

    This feels different. I think it is because these kinds of soaps often have ‘pro-social’ messages. For example the longest running UK radio soap started as post-war propaganda to increase agricultural productivity through the adoption of more efficient farming methods. So if the researchers merely manipulated the order of the campaigning messages that seems different to creating them.

  • Evie S.

    A scholarship is a valuable thing. The other manipulations were bound to fail: voting, dieting car seats…

    The number of visits to the Hispanic Scholarship Fund site is impressive. Visit the site if you want to see why it didn’t go viral. Half of the messaging is on fund-raising, and it’s in English. To translate it, you have to notice two buttons in the upper right, inexplicably labeled ENG and ESP. Any telenovela viewers who don’t speak or read much English might be looking for ANG and ESP. I know pixels are expensive, but the fund might want to make the translation options salient and explicit. “Traducir al español” might fly. I clicked “ESP” and waited 11 seconds for the page to re-load in Spanish, for what it’s worth.

    https://hsf.net/

    This study could have been done ethically by looking for mentions of similar real-world topics in un-manipulated episodes of any number of shows and checking web searches for searches on those topics.

    .

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Good point. Their Twitter account seems to tweet only in English https://twitter.com/HSFNews

  • ohwilleke

    My intuition is that there are media exposures that have been quite effective at changing behavior.

    For example, look at long term trends for margarine v. butter or pork consumption, look at the campaign to lie babies on their backs or to not shake babies, look at some of the successful early immunization campaigns, look at declining DUI rates and increased seat belt and helmet use even before they became required by law, look at the rise of voluntary recycling and changing attitudes towards gay rights and gay marriage. Look at some of the highly effective Japanese public service media campaigns. Look at documented changes in behavior and hormone levels in fan’s blood following wins and losses of their favor sports teams. Look at declines in infectious disease rates in the time period between the widespread adoption of the germ theory of disease and the availability of any effective vaccines or antibiotics.

    The question is as much, what is effective at changing behavior through mass media, as it is whether mass media can ever be effective at changing behavior. A ham handed and short lived incident may not cut it. Repetition ad nauseum, and better execution, for example, may be important.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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