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Monkey See, Monkey Persuaded

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It has been called one of the greatest commercials ever made — the 1971 Chief Iron Eyes Cody anti-litter advertisement created by the Marsteller ad agency for Keep America Beautiful. As the camera pans across a littered landscape, Chief Iron Eyes Cody sheds a famous tear, a tear filled with sadness by humanity's cruel treatment of nature — indeed, people are littering even as he watches and weeps. In another version, Iron Eyes canoes through a river of pollution, peering across the water to a factory-cluttered shore, people are still littering, and he's still crying.

Better known as the "Crying Indian" ad, it, and the larger litter prevention campaign it was part of, was reportedly Chief Iron Eyes Codysuccessful in recruiting an anti-litter workforce across the United States. According to the campaign's creators (and that's important to note), by the end of the 22-year campaign (and 12 years after the Crying Indian ad) local teams of volunteers had helped to reduce litter by as much as 88% in 38 states.

That's all worth talking about (we won't discuss the fact that Chief Iron Eyes wasn't really a Native American, he was actually Italian-American; and yes, the tear is fake) — but what's even more interesting is the research that the Crying Indian sparked. I was reminded about this while reading an article entitled "Supermarket Trolleys Make Us Behave Badly" in the Times Online. The article summarizes recent research suggesting that disordered, ugly environments inspire disorderly, ugly behavior.

The study picks up on the work of psychologist Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, and progenitor of what's often referred to as 'The Cialdini Effect' — in short, the behavior you witness others getting away with will influence you to join in. If you see a parking lot full of shopping carts, you're more likely to leave yours there too, according to Cialdini's influential theory.

Why this made me think of the Crying Indian is that there's a lesser known side to the story of this famous commercial. While it's typically credited as part of a successful anti-litter campaign, there's also the possibility that it actually encouraged littering. Counterintuitive as it may sound, the littered landscape that made Chief Iron Eyes cry may have also influenced people to litter.

In a 1990 study, (published in Current Directions in Psychological Science) Cialdini tested whether the Crying Indian ad contained a conflicting internal dynamic that would compel an opposite effect to the one intended. Here's the problem: the ad depicted an already littered environment and then showed people tossing more litter into the mess. Cialdini wondered whether this might communicate the message that as other people are littering in what is clearly already a polluted environment, it's probably ok to do the same. Quoting from the study:

We had three main predictions. First, we expected that participants would be more likely to litter into an already littered environment than into a clean one. Second, we expected that participants who saw the confederate drop trash into a fully littered environment would be most likely to litter there themselves, because they would have had their attention drawn to evidence of a pro-littering descriptive norm-that is, to the fact that people typically litter in that setting.

Conversely, we anticipated that participants who saw the confederate drop trash into a clean environment would be least likely to litter there, because they would have had their attention drawn to evidence of an anti-littering descriptive norm-that is, to the fact that (except for the confederate) people typically do not litter in that setting. This last expectation distinguished our normative account from explanations based on simple modeling processes in that we were predicting decreased littering after participants witnessed a model litter.

The results were as predicted: (1) people littered more in an already littered environment versus a clean one, (2) people littered more when they saw someone else litter in an already littered environment, and (3) people littered less when they saw someone litter in a clean environment.

If Cialdini is correct (and subsequent research has backed him up) it's reasonable to believe that the Crying Indian ad unintentionally depicted a favorable environment in which to litter.

The question is, which norm depicted in the ad holds stronger sway over peoples' behavior: the injunctive norm (perception of behavior that is or is not acceptable — i.e. littering is wrong and makes Chief Cody cry) or the descriptive norm (perception of behaviors that most people do — i.e. people are littering in an already well-littered environment)? Research shows that both norms influence behavior, but when in conflict, people tend to choose what Cialdini predicts they will — the path of least resistance.

So let's rewrite the ad: Chief Iron Eyes Cody paddles his canoe to the shore and looks out over a pristine landscape — not even the hint of litter as far as the eye can see. Then, just as he's tempted to smile about this, someone drives by and throws a Big Mac wrapper out of their car window. The once unscathed greenery is now defaced by a rancid splotch of garbage. The camera pans back to Chief Cody's face, and — wait for it — he's crying.

The injunctive and descriptive norms no longer conflict: the message is conveyed that (1) littering is wrong and (2) some irresponsible miscreant just did something wrong by desecrating nature, and making an Italian-American actor who looks like a Native American cry.

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