Friday 21 March 2014

Social Cognitive Theory and Entertainment-Education

Entertainment-Education (also known as "edutainment" or E-E) is entertaining media content produced with the explicit intent to teach values, provide important information, and provoke healthy behaviour change. In other words, as the name suggests, E-E is programming that tries to entertain and educate audiences at the same time. Some familiar examples of E-E are Bill Nye the Science Guy and Sesame Street, but examples aren't limited to children's programming. I'm interested in learning how to maximize the influence of E-E and similarly persuasive narrative content.

I've previously written about the extended elaboration likelihood model (E-ELM) of narrative persuasion that understands transportation into a story and identification with characters to reduce counterarguing and thereby increase persuasion. At the time, I was writing about these facts within the context of false belief absorption from fictional narratives. That may have given the impression that transportation is an enemy to do-gooders. But producers of entertainment-education can capitalize on these realities of the human brain to make content that does a better job of teaching values and provoking behaviour change.

The E-ELM isn't the only model used to understand entertainment-education, nor is it the most commonly used. Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) is a theory of observational learning, in which individuals adjust their behaviour according to how reliably the actions of others lead to successes and failures. If I see you cross the street without looking both ways and then get hit by a bus, I'll make sure to look both ways when it's my turn to cross the street. Similarly, if a character on a TV show gets lung cancer as a result of smoking, that will cement the connection in my head between the action and the consequence. When we watch a drama, we vicariously simulate the experiences of the various characters, taking note of which ones safely cross the street and which ones get run over by buses. We want to be more like the ones that get rewarded and less like the ones that get punished.

But not all characters are created equal. We're especially likely to learn vicariously from characters that we identify with. Identification is the cognitive and emotional process of adopting character goals, understanding plot events in relation to those goals, and experiencing the characters' emotions as a result of them succeeding or failing to meet their goals. If a character is boring, alien, or unlikable to me, I won't care all that much that they get hit by a bus. "Oh, he did something stupid and died? I never wanted to be like him anyway." But if your favourite character suffers a bad fate as the result of some tragic flaw or succeeds due to some change of behaviour, then you'll be more likely to start taking notes.

Characters that are both identifiable and self-efficacious make for even better protagonists. Self-efficacy is the feeling that you are capable of achieving something. Could you run for 10 kilometers without stopping? The higher your confidence, the higher your self-efficacy. As you may have noticed, levels of self-efficacy vary quite drastically across people. Several studies have confirmed the importance of self-efficacy in motivating people to accomplish their goals and to, yes, change behaviours, as well. Self-efficacious students have been shown to participate more, get higher marks, be better at solving conceptual problems, be more likely to take on difficult tasks, work harder and longer, and experience fewer negative emotions when facing setbacks. Increased self-efficacy has also been shown to boost willingness to exercise more, quit smoking, and lose weight. Watching a self-efficacious character achieve his or her goals can be a powerful source of inspiration to viewers.

In the 1970s, a Mexican researcher named Miguel Sabido developed a methodology for producing entertainment-education grounded in social cognitive theory. A series of highly successful television dramas were then created based on this methodology. The basic idea, as already discussed, is to ensure that actions have consequences. Having unprotected sex leads to pregnancy. Smoking cigarettes leads to cancer. In these stories, good characters tend to do good things and get good results, while bad characters do mainly bad things and get bad results. Meanwhile, there are transitional characters that gradually reform toward story-consistent values as the show unfolds. Audience members are meant to model their own behaviour after these transitional characters.

More on The Sabido Method and SCT is provided on the Population Media Center's website

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