Challenging Dogma - Spring 2011

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Faulty use of the Social Learning Theory by the Department of Transportation in its Fight against Distracted Driving – Neve Cikojevic


On November 2010 the U.S Department of Transportation launched a video campaign called “Faces of Distracted Driving”. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced in a statement before the release of the video campaign “we’ve told Americans to click it or get a ticket”, “we’ve reminded Americans that if they’re over the speed limit, they’ll be under arrest” (1). It is under the same association that LaHood foresees positive outcomes with the “Faces of Distracted Driving” campaign only this time the underlying message is drive under distraction and you will die or you will kill somebody (2). The target audience for this campaign is unclear, presumably it is geared towards the teenage population, we figure this from another LaHood statement “distracted driving has become a deadly epidemic on America's roads, and teens are especially vulnerable because of their inexperience behind the wheel and, often, peer pressure” (3). Yet the campaign's videos reveal stories of individuals of all ages which does nothing for the targeting of this particular group (2). Since the launch of the campaign a survey by Consumer Reports National Research Center to examine its effects has shown that 63% of respondents under 30 reported using a cell phone, 30% of them texted while driving and only 30% considered using a cell phone a distraction (4). Even in this early stage after “Faces of Distracted Driving” ads have been viewed over 100,000 times (2) the campaigns' efforts seem insufficient as the application of the Social Learning Theory fails to be conveyed in the appropriate manner.

The Social Learning Theory has been used in many commercials to date mainly for the purpose of getting the target audience to model a desired behavior (5). The theory focuses on the effect others have on an individual’s behavior, where the individual models attitude, behavior and reactions of others (5). Bandura states that the theory promotes attention, memory and motivation and so it works on psychological and behavioral levels (5). The first principle of the Social Learning Theory states that observational learning is achieved through seeing symbolic coding, words, labels and mental images of modeled behavior. The second principle states that individuals adopt a modeled behavior when it produces results that they deem beneficial. The third principle places importance on the model and how admired they are by the target audience, meaning that an individual is likely to consider adopting a behavior when an admirable figure models it, as long as there is relevant worth to the individual (5).

“Faces of Distracted Driving” targets people under 30 years of age, as only 30% of this particular population considered using a cell phone a distraction (4), social learning theory has been used in previous efforts to straighten out the behaviors of this population. Even though the campaigns effects are not fully known yet, a post release survey by consumer reports does not look promising(4), its efforts are likely to be unsuccessful because among other reasons the campaign fails to interpret good behavior and instead it focuses on negative outcomes.

“Faces of Distracted Driving” fails to create a desired model behavior.

According to the Social Learning Theory observational learning is achieved through seeing symbolic coding, words, labels and mental images of modeled behavior(5). The main video offered at the website shows pictures of people of various ages along with the sound of words, the first narrator says “I couldn't believe this happened to our family” the second says “why aren't people screaming from the rooftops that this is dangerous” then a another woman cries “because someone made one stupid mistake I am an only child” followed by a man with a serious voice who says “I said you've got to stop this you're going to have a wreck”, a sound of a cell phone ringing is heard and the words “hear the stories...get the message” appear on the screen(2). A recent similar public health campaign called “Above the influence”, also based on the Social Learning Theory recently released three new ads. One of the ads of “Above the Influence” portrays a teenager who has lost his brain and somehow has wrecked his parents car but we are not shown how and another ad shows a teenage boy with no body just clothes running around a park trying to find himself (6). It seems that in order to understand these public health ads one has to fill in the blanks because the message is not direct. Similarly in the main ad of “Faces of Distracted Driving” we are meant to assume that the voices that describe the victim and the unfortunate event are those of relatives speaking against distracted driving. The Department of Transportation as part of the campaign has a collection of ads where the families of the victims talk about how the accident happened and what the cause of it was, in many of these messages teenagers and young adults are blamed for ending someone’s' life due to driving while texting or talking on the cell phone. The message of “Faces of Distracted Driving” ad is based on a warning that if you are driving while distracted you will die or cause others harm, it definitely fails to promote model behavior but emphasizes negative outcomes. Blaming teens and telling them that they are unskilled drivers is likely to result in psychological reactance and not likely to have a positive outcome. Psychological reactance is the emotional reaction a teen may have to the enforcement of rules and regulations that threaten his freedom(10). Most observers especially the targeted audience will not relate to the ads because of the human nature to think that the type of incident portrayed will not happen to them and they are not susceptible to it. This goes in accordance to optimistic bias, the tendency to be overly optimistic about ones own actions. According to Weinstein in a study conducted to examine perceived susceptibility of health and safety risks, college students reported extreme optimism when it came to their own risky behavior, a high percentage of the individuals had perceived that they are at low risk for causing harm due to risky behavior, and that their actions were controllable (7). Due to this optimism of the young drivers and the defensive stance that the “Faces of Distracted Driving” ads take against the target population this campaign is likely to fail.

Going back to the Social Learning Theory, the ads fail to create model behavior and in turn fail to teach the young driver good behavior, rather they assume that these accusations will do the trick. Instead of placing the blame for distracted driving accidents on young drivers, the commercials should promote good behavior as the first principle of the theory advises. Observational learning needs to be taught through good images, possibly a young person getting into his car, shutting off the radio and placing the cell phone in the glove compartment and getting to his destination safely. Promoting the modeled behavior would have a better outcome because it teaches the teen the proper way of driving and shows the importance of being undistracted because it gets one to their desired destination safely. An ad like that would also portray a result that is beneficial to the driver.

Undermining that modeling good behavior can be more beneficial than blaming and warning the target audience

The second principle of Social Learning Theory states that individuals adopt a modeled behavior when it produces results that they deem beneficial (5). The ads that the Department of Transportation promotes serve as a warning to the target audience, the campaign through its ads fails to promote a beneficial result and rather shows the negative outcomes of distracted driving. By showing bad outcomes in the ads the Department of Transportation is hoping to increase compliance. Yet this may fire back and cause reactance where one would choose to do the behavior that is being portrayed in a negative way (8). According to Pizarro texting while driving may not be considered a risky behavior by many because people tend to have positive illusions in which the thought that they are safer and more skilled drivers than the rest kicks in and reactions such as optimistic bias arise - the thought that nothing bad is going to happen to them (8).

Social learning theory encourages the portrayal of a positive result with good behavior or a movement against a bad behavior such as driving while distracted, which is a great way to promote a positive outcome without blaming and warning the audience. The ads of this campaign fail to promote positive result and therefore may not be so popular with the target population. Instead of showing a bad result the ads should be promoting ones safety and reaching of their destination through careful and focused driving, this is especially important for the young driver because of their need for control and freedom. The desired campaign would work on the weaknesses of the target population and promote optimistic bias rather than increase psychological reactance. This is done though positive feedback in ads such as telling the driver that he is at his best when focused. Zooming on facts that promote wellbeing is essential for this type of campaign.

The ads promote bad role models, may confuse the target audience

Assuming that promotion means showing a bad behavior over and over, after watching several ads with the same content just different stories, one is likely to try to emulate the bad behavior by being convinced that he can do it safely and without causing any harm to self or anyone else. The lack of a good role model, a positive behavior and positive result in these ads does nothing to support the last principle of the Social Learning Theory which places importance on a model and how admired they are by the target audience. As previously stated an individual is likely to consider adopting a behavior when an admirable figure models it as long as there is relevant worth to the individual (5). All the ads promoted by have a villain in them whether that person harmed his own self through driving distracted or caused harm to someone else, the audience never sees a behavior that is worth adopting, yet after watching several of the ads one may be convinced that they would never act so carelessly to the point where harm is caused, making himself falsely seem like the good role model that the ads lack.

Many commercials these days feature celebrities that promote a certain product or behavior. When an admirable person is promoting the behavior one automatically assumes that doing this behavior would make him more like his role model. Public health campaigns need to use this tool to their advantage. Showing an admirable celebrity as a role model, driving with their focus on the road, while enjoying the control and steadiness of driving under no distraction and under these conditions getting to a destination is a way to create a good behavior and a great way to use an admirable role model. The ultimate result is to have the target audience imitate the celebrity that happens to be promoting the desired behavior of focused driving. Portraying an ad in this way makes it easier to watch, there is no blame placed on anyone and no bad behavior is even shown as if it is not even an option. Thus this type of ad would follow the third principle of the Social Learning Theory emphasizes that an individual is likely to consider adopting a behavior when an admirable figure models it as long as there is relevant worth to the individual (5).


Following the review of the campaign it is obvious that the Social Learning Theory was not implemented correctly. This campaign does not promote modeled behavior, does not show evidence of good results, and does not employ good role models, thus it ignores the main principles of the Social Learning Theory. The campaign convinces us that some people are careless and have caused accidents and deaths, yet one is not likely to be convinced that he is at a high risk for the behavior due to low perceived susceptibility, optimistic bias meaning the perception that we are better than the average driver in skill, and well it is just not going to happen to us (8). The dramatic portrayal of this campaign does nothing to promote good behavior and positive result which is a basic principle of the Social Learning Theory and one that can be used to successfully implement public health campaigns (5). The use of bad role models does not make a good impact, especially in today's society where everyone is trying to emulate the behavior of celebrities and authority figures which is another principle of the Social learning theory that is completely ignored. The message relied in the main ad for lacks information and does not lure ones' interest into seeing the other ads and looking more into the subject. The campaign places the blame on young drivers without correctly educating them, in the brochure created for the campaign a section called “Educate Yourself” exists, one may not feel the need to educate himself if his perception of his driving skills is great. The Secretary of Transportation LaHood, constantly mentions “young drivers inexperience behind the wheel” which may seem like a discriminating statement to many young drivers, this may lead to rebellion against the constantly repeated statement and LaHoods' perception of the issue at hand (2). The statement “young drivers are inexperienced behind the wheel” may result in a view that the system for educating new drivers if insufficient and blaming the young driver may not be the best thing to do. The campaign has only been active in the last five months and has only been available online which means that much of the target audience will never be reached as it is not televised and in order to find it one has to be interested in the topic in the first place. Based on the early survey by consumer reports the effects of the campaign have thus far not been drastic (4), the campaign seems faulty and incapable of producing good behavior which is what the purpose of following the principle of the Social Learning Theory is.


1. LaHood R. Remarks for the Second National Distracted Driving Summit. Washington, DC. U.S Department of Transportation, 2010.

2. U.S Department of Transportation. Faces of Distracted Driving. Washington DC.: US Department of Transportation.

3. Fitzgerald J. 63% Under 30 Admit Driving While on Phone. Yonkers, NY. The Associated Press, 2011.

4. U.S Department of Transportation. U.S Department of Transportation and Consumer Reports Launch Partnership to Fight Distracted Driving. Washington, DC: U.S Department of Transportation, 2011.

5. Bandura A. Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press, 1977

6. Office of National Drug Control Policy. Above the Infuence Ads. Washington, DC: Office of National Drug Control Policy.

7. Weinstein N. Why it Won't Happen to Me: Perceptions of Risk Factors and Susceptibility. Journal of the Division of Health Psychology1984;3(5):431-57.

8. Pizarro D. Risky Behavior, Self-Control and Reverse Psychology. MN Public Radio 2010.

9. Seemann E., Carroll S., Woodard A., Mueller M. The Type of Threat Matters: Differences in Similar Magnitude Threats Elicit Differing Magnitudes of Psychological Reactance. North American Journal of Psychology. P.583, December 2008.

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