Embracing comedy to change behaviour

By Mat Crompton, Strategy Director at Icon Agency

Comedy has been used as a key tool to change people’s attitudes and behaviours in communications and marketing campaigns for decades, however little has been written about its intersection with behavioural science and behaviour change theory.

This is surprising given their shared ambition and the fact behaviour change thinking has become such a prominent part of government and institutional thinking when addressing social issues.

This article will begin exploring the use of comedy as a tool for behaviour change, looking at:

  • Using comedy to reframe the context around social issues, confirming or challenging belief structures

  • How comedy can break down barriers making it easier to establish an emotional connection

  • How making people laugh can increase message salience and recall.

Reappraising beliefs

The importance of how an issue is framed cannot be underestimated when trying to influence people’s behaviour.

Framing an issue a certain way can affect a person’s belief system, either consolidating it or inspiring them to re-appraise their current thinking. This process can happen on an individual level or a collective one – a process known as ‘social norming’.

Satirical humour has been successfully reframing issues since the days of Aristophanes – Plato’s funnier friend. Satire, often political in nature, has been used to shine light on aspects of society that are deemed to require wider discourse or critique, and has been particularly effective at simplifying complex subjects allowing them to be digested with greater ease. Critics might point to a lack of nuance or the one-sided nature of satire as a reason for increased comprehension. However, the power of increasing engagement and cognition by adding levity to a potentially dull topic can’t be denied. Satire has the ability to ‘defamiliarise the mundane’ and, in doing so, get people to question their understanding of constructs often taken for granted (Westwood & Rhoades, 2013). Studies of satirical shows in the US, such as The Daily Show, support this theory by revealing a correlation between laughter and a greater understanding of important issues, such as science, technology, the environment and global warming.

There is a flip side to this. Depending on how satire is executed, it can entrench existing beliefs rather than open people’s minds up to new ones. Malcolm Gladwell makes this point in his podcast Revisionist History. He uses another US satirical show, the Colbert Report, to demonstrate how the target of his mockery – the political far(ish) right in the US – can be emboldened by his content. Gladwell says the danger is that they don’t recognise the humour – the veiled critique – and instead simply accept what is being said as true. This is known historically as Poe’s Law. In his original statement Nathan Poe asserted, “without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won't mistake for the genuine article.”

Anticipating unintended consequences like this is part of designing a behaviour change campaign and can be mitigated with audience testing, to a degree. Either way, the correlation between satirical comedy and the affect it can have on people’s existing belief systems is clear. The recent astounding success of Hannah Gatsby’s Nanette is anecdotal but clear evidence of this.

Developing an emotional connection

It is widely accepted in behaviour change theory that simply providing people with information is unlikely to result in a change in behaviour.

People can be aware of an issue and understand that change is possible but to inspire sustained behaviour change they need to have an emotional connection to it - an emotional reason as to why (Peter & Honea, 2012).

The study of how emotions affect behaviour is not new. Long established evolutionary and conditioning psychological theory states that positive emotions encourage the uptake of certain behaviours, while negative ones discourage others (Pavlov, 1890) (Campbell, Wood & McBride, 1997). It stands to reason that as humour generally creates a positive experience it will have a positive effect on behaviour (Kuiper, McKenzie & Belanger, 1995). However, perhaps more pertinent to the role humour can have in behaviour change is how it can break down personal barriers, and in doing so get people to access more complex emotions.

Adding levity, absurdity or irreverence to a subject can break down the stigma around a topic. The three tenants of stigma – fear, shame and embarrassment – can all be positively affected by making people laugh. In social marketing, humour has been found to be effective at breaking down stigma and communicating with young men, especially. This audience is often the hardest to connect with but a range of social issues including mental health (Lloyd, 2002) and sexual health have found humour to be more effective than other forms of communication in its ability to disarm, connect and generate a new behaviour.

Self-deprecation is inherent in many forms of comedy. This also tends to have a disarming effect on an audience, increasing the chance of developing an emotional connection. Self-deprecation demonstrates vulnerability and creates a safe space for the audience to access their more vulnerable feelings, too.

Aiding salience and recall

As stated earlier, using humour to communicate complex subjects can aid comprehension. The advantage of this is obvious: If you understand something you’re more likely to remember it. Increased comprehension also affects other cognitive aspects. The theory of cognitive fluency states that the easier or more fluent it is to process information, the more likely it will be perceived as true. While not particularly funny, the way the two political parties in America communicate on social issues is a good example of cognitive fluency at work. The simple messaging we see in every message is one of the many reasons behind the Trump success story – how effectively he was, and still is, able to simplify the populist ‘us’ vs ‘them’ narrative.

The positive feeling that comedy creates can also aid recall of the message it is conveying. Negative shock messaging has been shown to increase short term recall only. By contrast positive appeals are more likely to be remembered in the long term and to promote discussion, and are better at encouraging voluntary compliance with behavioural requests (Boudewyns, Turner, & Paquin, 2013). Perhaps unsurprisingly, research also shows that people are less likely to disagree with an argument when they are in a positive mood (Freedman et. al., 1978).

Given the evidence presented, it seems clear that humour should be used more readily and purposefully in social marketing and behaviour change communications. Social issues are by nature serious issues but by approaching them in a different way, by making people laugh and open up about them, we can inspire change. For good.

And finally, for all the science, here’s a simple quote to remember:

“If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh, or they’ll kill you.”
– George Bernard Shaw.