Challenging Dogma - Spring 2011

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Beat Bullying: All The Right Pieces, Not Fitted Together– Nora Ramirez

Introduction: bullying as a public health issue
Bullying, within the last decades, has escalated from its previous school yard prank to a scale reaching international audiences. Bullying has been defined as “a specific form of aggression, which is intentional, repeated, and involves a disparity of power between the victim and perpetrators”(1). It includes using electronic forms of contact such as email, social network sites, cell phones, and other mass communication tools among individuals in the rising trend of cyberbullying(2). Bullying has been associated with adverse health problems such as loneliness, depression, suicidal risk, impaired academic performance, physical injury, alcohol and drug use(3).
According to the health behavior in school-aged children survey (HBSC), 12% US boys and 11% US girls experienced chronic bullying, while 13% boys and 8% girls did the bullying. In recent years, the manifestation of bullying has become more devastating as victims have no safe haven with the internet able to enter their homes, leading young adults to commit suicide. Others suffer constantly and take vengeance in the form of school shootings injuring and killing their perpetrators as well as innocent bystanders.
Furthermore, bullying is becoming a cyclical process. Many times, as the bullied decide to defend themselves, they, in turn, become the bully. Bullying may now be done anonymously allowing for great escalation of actions(2).
As a response, several organizations ranging from local communities to entire countries have launch campaigns against bullying. Many are focused on increasing awareness and support. However, some have failed to realize their goals as a lack of understanding on how social science theories influence and act on each other.

Beat Bullying Campaign
In the United Kingdom, Beat Bullying launched a campaign in late 2004 in an effort to increase awareness and prevention of bullying. The campaign consisted of having celebrities endorse blue wristbands as a fashion item that is meant to take a stand against bullying. Wristbands were then sold to the public to represent those who are against bullying. Unfortunately, as the Guardian reported, the strategy failed and gave the opposite result, increasing bullying specifically on those who wore the bracelets(4). With celebrity endorsement and the support of the UK government, it left many surprised how the campaign could fail. Its flaws lie in the campaign’s lack of correctly understanding and using social theories such as diffusion of innovation, social learning theory and psychological reactance theory. The campaign continues and others plan on adopting the strategy. A critical look is needed so as to improve the campaign to achieve the desirable goals.

Fashion trend: diffusion of innovation theory
The campaign wanted to rely on a fashionable item such as the using a popular trend (silicone bracelets) to spread their message. They would have celebrities such as entertainers and star athletes model the bracelets increasing the attractiveness of having one. Advertising the wristbands was a grand success, to the scale that not enough bracelets were produced for the demand. This created a scarcity of the product and the focus shifted on obtaining the rare and fashionable item instead of spreading the message.
The diffusion of innovation theory looks at how fast a new product or idea becomes popular among a population(5). A product is adopted first by early adopters before the majority of people buy into the trend. How quickly a product is adopted depends on how observable it is(5). The majority will look to the early adopters for guidance on a product(6), in this case the bracelets. The campaign was designed to have the early adopters be a select group of people, celebrities, so as to force the diffusion. The message for the campaign went no further than wearing a wristband to represent a stand against bullying. This representation was very observable on the arms of high profile people, which lead to the majority adopters wanting the band. However, the message itself was lost when not everybody could obtain the product. It became a symbol of following the latest fashion trends unattainable by many of the general public, as is the usual case for most accessories owned by the rich and famous.
The message itself was uninformative even if the band did not become a fashion accessory. The aim was to increase awareness; however, to those it affects the most, the victims, they are aware of the problem already. According to leadership expert, Simon Sinek, people buy their beliefs. In order to pass a tipping point of any innovation, the core values must be tapped. Those campaigns that succeed are because the question of “why” we do something was satisfied(7). He has constructed the golden circle of marketing to successfully tip any innovation. He believes that every campaign should begin with “why” we do anything, invoking the core value. Next, the campaign should explain “how” it will do it, followed by “what” it will do, always referring back to the main reason of “why.” The message would have been stronger had the campaign made its message why it will not tolerate bullying. Instead, it began on the outer part of the Simon’s golden circle. The campaign began with an item, the “what,” and used celebrity endorsement to spread their popularity, the “how.” By the time they wished to explain the “why,” the quick diffusion of the bracelet as a fashion accessory shadowed the diffusion of the lagging message. The diffusion of innovation was a success, yet on the wrong focus. With no strong message, the campaign was on its way to failure.

Wrong incentive: Social learning theory
The message against bullying was further lost when trying to use the social learning theory via celebrities to change the public’s behavior. The social learning theory is based on how expectancies and incentives influence behavior(8). According to the theory, people can change behavior with proper reinforcement, such as following a role model. In this case, the campaigned wanted to increase awareness and decrease bullying by having celebrities act as role models who are anti-bullying. However, behavior is regulated by the reinforcements as understood by the individual(8).
During the campaign, the non-bullying public had no incentive to change a behavior they did not posses (bullying) and thus interpreted the role models instead. The celebrities were successful role models, but as fashion and cool people to imitate, wearing the same wristband as them. The campaign was not aimed at the bullies themselves so there was no incentive for them to change their behavior either. Introduce of a rare product and the desire to follow a fashion style escalates while the message of anti-bullying disappears.
In addition to not targeting bullying behavior, the role models did not efficiently target the victims or witnesses either. Part of the reason the message was lost is the connection between celebrities and their role in beating bullying was not made. The celebrities were only asked to wear the wristbands and say the slogan. Yet, they offered no advice or methods of defeating bullying. To the misfortune of victims, bullies quickly noticed this and knew the blue bracelet meant no harm to them. It in fact, empowered the bully to pick their targets more easily.

The gray between black and white: Psychological reactance
The campaign was directed with an aim to band together everybody who is against bullying, whether to them or peers. The campaign would separate those who bullied and those who do not, strengthening the divide by visualizing everybody’s position via who wears a bracelet and who does not. Creating a divide in where there are only two sides and everybody stands on one or the other invokes aspects of psychological reactance theory.
The theory states that when a freedom of behavior is threatened, depending on the magnitude and the importance of what is threatened, people will react (9). The campaign thought it was providing a choice for people to decide to take a stand on bullying or not. However, it did not foresee the alternative interpretation of their campaign and many saw it not as a choice campaign, but as a labeling campaign. People were either bullies and did not wear bracelets, or people were victims and friends of victims who wore the same bracelets as their beloved celebrity. As such, the message made it clear; a bully will always be a bully. This took the choice away from them to be anything other than a representation of evil. The reaction, in this case, was not surprising as the bullies then believe that if they had no choice, they will show the world only what they want to see in them.
This is similar to what has happened in the anti-drug campaign. Teenagers were constantly exposed to anti-drug messages with no tolerance for any drug use. By constantly being told not to do drugs, it threatened their freedom of choice. In reaction, the youth began to rebel and form strong pro-drug beliefs increasing use (10).

Making the pieces fit: Improving the intervention
The campaign has several social science models incorporated in it. Many have the potential to making the campaign a success if only they were executed differently. Beat Bullying has been in existence for over a decade, each year playing an important role during Anti-Bullying Week. As an established organization, their campaign could improve their strategy without wasting more time and energy that it would take to create an entirely new campaign. The proposed intervention is to improve upon the flaws of the current intervention by adjusting the theories in place and introducing new ones.

Cure for scarcity: Social network theory and spreading the “why”
As discussed above, diffusion of innovation worked against the campaign because it began by idolizing a material item, blue wristbands. The interest in them dramatically increased when the item became rare. To improve on this backfire, the campaign should refocus on beginning with the message: to take a stand against bullying behavior. The campaign needs to show more explicitly the reasons to reject bullying behaviors and resonate with people’s core values.
The use of celebrities is applauded, yet it would be better to use them as symbols of the message (the “why”) instead of the bracelet (the “what”). The campaign needs to reduce the scarcity of the props used. They can be mass produced and sold for a nominal fee or given away for free. This way when celebrities show a bracelet, they indicate value is not monetary as anyone can obtain one. Next, to increase the message, ties to core values need to be strengthened. The campaign can use social network theory and social norm theory. Targeting those who would have a strong leadership opinion to be the early adopters would ensure the diffusion of the message pathway through several networks(7). One method is weaving the message into everyday lives such as in television shows. US television shows began to increase the use of seat belts by characters (11). This increased the norm of using seat belts and soon the statistics of using seat belts rose (12). In the case of bullying, if the early adopters buy into intolerance to bullying behavior because it justifies their core values, they can spread it through their network because they belief is strong. This spread will diffuse quickly as more people’s core values are touched until it becomes the norm. Celebrities will be just part of the norm and not the idolized image of high fashion.

Blurring the dividing line and reintroducing choice: Fundamental attribution error
The campaign succeeded in naming the evils of bullying. However, it strongly labeled people into categories, bullies and victims, with no blending of the two groups. For this reason, and due to psychological reactance, those who engaged in bullying felt they had no choice but to continue bullying.
Fundamental attribution error suggests peoples behaviors are explained disproportionately with internal personality characteristics while underestimating the situational context(13). In the campaign’s case, bullies are explained to be bullies because it is inherent to their being. The campaign, and therefore society, has decided that their future will be to become criminals, drug users, and poor academic performers with no chance of redemption.
To prevent this mislabeling, the attribution could be shifted by simply changing the framing of the campaign so that a person is peaceful because it is who they are. Further, bullying should be framed as a behavior that everybody is capable of participating in. If the public is shown that they can be bullies, then when they behave peacefully, they will attribute it to their personality. In essence, nothing has changed, except that their docile side is mentioned and focused on. Likewise, this change of attitude in viewing bullying as a behavior instead of a person will give those who currently bully a choice to choose to stop. And if they stop, it will be attributed to their being.
An example of the success of this is in the reusable bags movement. Before the movement to care about the planet came about, it was acceptable to use plastic bags, and we attributed it to being smart consumers and relishing in our technological inventions that was versatile plastic. As soon as the use of reusable bags succeeded, people began to attribute the use of plastic to inconsiderate types of people. However, when reminded that we all used plastic bags in the past, the focus was no longer on whom are selfish polluters versus future caring saviors, rather, the focus shifted to behavior. Now those who would use 20 plastic bags a day are able to redeem themselves by allowing them a choice to use reusable bags.

Joining with arms: Cognitive dissonance theory
The campaign rested heavily on taking a stand against bullying. However, even with the use of celebrities, taking as stand meant little other than obtaining a blue wristband to wear for other to see. It created a movement, but not as hoped. With selective targeting, it divided the victims and participants, yet it helped neither. Those in support of the campaign were becoming targets unable to use anything from the campaign to help them. Those who bullied were not shown an alternative. In order to improve on the campaign, the movement they wish to create should be one that will be valued as well as useful for everybody.
Cognitive dissonance theory is the idea that people do not like to have their attitudes and behaviors contradicting each other(14). It is best seen in ownership. People will value an object or idea they own or feel they own, but when threatened to be taken away, the value of it goes up. If they do not own it or have lost its ownership, the value drops. It is best exemplified in the lottery of Duke basketball tickets. In Dan Ariely’s book, he demonstrates people value the highly sought out tickets depending on whether they own it(15). Those who own it need to justify their adventure (long lines, day and night rituals, money spent) to obtain the tickets by placing high value on them. If he tried to buy them, the price increased several fold the original price. Those who were not able to own it needed to justify their loss by devaluing the tickets. When the investigator offers to sell them a ticket, they would not pay near what the tickets were originally priced.
The same can be applied to joining a movement. If people join a movement, they will be a part of it and feel a sense of ownership to their commitment, valuing it more. If they own their commitment, they will not want to have their behavior contradict it because that would be devaluing. Therefore, they will ensure their behavior is akin to the movement’s ideals. In the case of the campaign, instead of making a movement for everybody to wear a bracelet, they can include or replace it with the movement focusing on how and why to prevent bullying. The victims may find ways to protect themselves by finding value in not tolerating being bullied. The once bullies will find a higher value in not engaging in bullying.

Completing the puzzle:
How to get people to join the movement will depend on the use of celebrities again. However, instead of using them as mannequins for a wristband, they can be used as role models for core values. As mentioned previously, celebrities can be early adopters to diffuse the correct message. Yet, how that message is given determines the success. Asking them to speak against bullying is not enough as it does not show how they value what they are saying. As opinion leaders and the early adopters who will lead the majority adopters, it is important for them to set the tone of the movement. For example, celebrities can make short videos or write a personal story where they were once bullied, bullied others, or witnessed bullying and how they successfully handled it. This can serve as a model for those who experience it every day. With stories, it will humanize celebrities attributing their positive outcome to their being. If people join the movement, they will hold onto the core values of respect and success as modeled by the celebrities.
Beat Bullying campaign had flaws embedded in the execution of some social science theories that lead to a misfortunate outcome. Understanding how the theories work together will help in improving the intervention.

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