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The Things We Do: How (not What) Movies Inspire Us

Roxanne Bauer's picture

At the basis of communication and public policy are assumptions about human beings- their rationality or irrationality, their foibles, wants and preferences. A lot depends on whether these assumptions are correct. In this feature, we bring you fascinating examples of human behavior from across the globe.

A recent article in The New York Times, “Divining Why One Film Spurs Activism, While Others Falter” highlights the work of Participant Media, an entertainment company that produces film, television, publishing and digital content that inspires social change. According to Participant Media’s website, the company “launches campaigns that bring together government entities, foundations, schools, and others to raise awareness and drive people to take action on issues from each film or television show.” 

But all of this begs the question: are these films successful in doing what they set out to do? Do people learn from the films and change their ways?  What pushes us beyond social media activism to stand up and do something about our outrage?

To answer these questions, Participant is partnering with the Media Impact Project of USC- Annenberg to develop a tool called the Participant Index. The Index compiles raw audience numbers with conventional and social media indicators and then matches these results with those of an online survey that asks respondents whether they shared information with others, how content affected them emotionally, and whether absorbing the content led to behavior change.  

Since we won’t know for some time which films are most successful, let’s dig into the Index itself.  The methodology of the database relies on two assumptions:  that information sharing and experiencing emotional responses are excellent ways to change behaviors.

Does sharing information contribute to changes in behavior?

In a perfect market, all information is public, allowing consumers to sift through the data to make rational and informed decisions. Yet, this perfect market of information rarely happens because private firms have an incentive to keep trade secrets, resulting in incomplete and asymmetric information for the consumer, as demonstrated in George A. Akerlof’s famous article on the marketplace of lemons.

This creates, for the consumer, a need for information channels and ‘trusted’ sources. In a 1987 study on word-of-mouth behavior, Johnson Brown and Reingen found that weak social ties, characterized by limited or few interactions, are critical in the flow of word-of-mouth information across different groups and strong social ties, those that have many interactions, were shown to be important at the micro level of referral behavior.  Weak ties signal to individuals which information is shared among connections and strong social ties were most successful in translating communication into action. Additionally, some researchers think consumers with uninformed priors are more easily influenced by information from interested parties while consumers who have informed priors are relatively unaffected.  These studies point to the tendency to trust the opinions of those we know, but only when we don’t know much ourselves.

Taking a different perspective, Kahneman and Tversky (1979) demonstrated that decision makers handle uncertain rewards and risks based on the way alternatives were framed and not on the actual value of the options.  In particular, they showed individuals rate choices and their risky outcomes in relation to other options, and our acceptance of a choice can be manipulated by how we discuss the alternatives.  Clearly, we like to pick the best of the possible solutions.

These studies, while not exhaustive of the literature, suggest that information sharing is important and can influence people to take action, depending on the information priors of the individual and the way a message is discussed. 

Do emotional experiences lead to behavior change?

In a review of three studies, Juan-Jose Igartua relates that identification with the characters of a story leads to greater enjoyment, affective impact, cognitive elaboration and reflection. Identification also predicts the incidental impact of the film on attitudes and beliefs.  We are more likely to think about those stories which strike a chord with our own values or backgrounds.  This is an important point because others, including Thomas Osterhus, have found that consumer trust in the source of a message and positive attributions of responsibility must be activated for pro-social positioning strategies to work.

However, while emotional response may be critical in soliciting responses from an audience, it may not always be sufficient. In a study of whether emotion causes changes in behavior, Manucia, Baumann, and Cialdini (1984), separated participants into two groups. One group was given a placebo and told that the pill would render them emotionally immune to stimuli for about an hour, and the other group was not given the placebo.  Those who were not given the pill were more likely to help others when they became sad, but the effect disappeared with the group that was rendered emotionally immune.  Sadness only encouraged participants to help when they believed that their moods were changeable, suggesting that people help others to make themselves feel good. Other studies have shown that sadness can cause an increase in eating, but that this effect is eliminated if people are told that eating will not alter their moods.  Likewise, Steenberger and Aderman (1979) showed that people respond to failure with introspection and self-improvement only when there is a chance for progress. Otherwise, they avoid introspection.

These studies suggest that emotional responses must be paired with relatable messengers and clearly defined solutions that are perceived to be beneficial to each individual.

What might this mean for film?

Marc Karzen, a social media entrepreneur and owner RelishMix told the New York Times, Participant will probably affirm what conventional film studios are learning through other means: that the impact of content is less about persuasion than about nudging an audience to act on their inclinations.

Photography by SparkMedia, available on WikimediaCommons
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