Friday, 28 February 2014

Left-Brained Vs Right-Brained Activism

The other day I spoke on the phone with Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters, an organization that uses "culture jamming" to achieve positive social change. TV appearances made by Lasn can be viewed here and here. Adbusters campaigns to correct what it sees as severe systemic and cultural issues with the Western world.

Culture jamming is loosely defined as something like a grassroots act of passionate political rebellion aimed at exposing the unjustness of the capitalist system. Usually, it uses the mass media to subvert, expose, or otherwise bug major corporations and institutions. The most common form of this is through subverting advertisements. But culture jamming is broader than that. Other campaigns launched by Adbusters include the viral "Occupy Wall Street" and "Buy Nothing Day." Lasn told me that he also considers the activism of Pussy Riot and the recent political uprisings in Ukraine and other countries to be good examples of culture jamming. It seems that using the mass media as your weapon is not a requirement in order for an activist to be considered a culture jammer.

I called to ask about Adbusters's process of monitoring the impact of its media campaigns. As someone that's been looking into the effectiveness of various media uses for improving the world, I wanted to gain information on the relative potential of culture jamming (namely, subvertising) as an act of do-gooding. My suspicion based on reading Lasn's book Culture Jam and looking at the Adbusters website was that they had no real interest in measuring effectiveness and were more concerned with making things happen, catching attention, fuelling dissent, and provoking conversation.

When I began questioning Lasn, he immediately explained that he didn't think measuring effectiveness and optimizing your tactics was a valuable use of time. He claimed that really successful revolutions aren't based on these cold calculations but on passion, anger, and energy. Good activists already have a sense of what's wrong, what nobody will say, and what everyone's thinking - so they'll just say it and shock everyone around them. Maybe, he thinks, doing experiments and surveys can have some value but it's by far not the most important part of the process. He seems to think activist campaigns can possibly be boosted by optimization flourishes but not that marketing can drive a campaign toward success. At any rate, the real successes are not dependent on micro-optimization.

This outlook might seem to be the exact opposite of effective altruism but the two views are actually compatible. I didn't take Lasn to be arguing that research, strategy, and evaluation were inherently stupid or irrelevant. It's just that he sees them as playing only a tiny role in improving the success of your campaign while he sees passion and energy and courage as absolutely critical. As a result, people wanting to use media to improve the world are better off, according to Lasn's view, rebelling against capitalism than trying to optimize "good" messages.

The difference here seems to come down to what Lasn called "right-brained" and "left-brained" activism. Left-brained activists are strategic, scientific, and precise. They meticulously test the effectiveness of various messages and campaigns before applying them. They are marketing micro-optimizers. In contrast, right-brained activists don't bother with such micro-optimization, as they see it to be narrow and beside the point. According to right-brained activists, the most important factors are great ideas, passion, determination, community, and other factors. If you have these things, your campaign will be successful whether it is micro-optimized or not. If it lacks these things, your campaign will fail whether it is micro-optimized or not. That is the stance I understand Lasn to be taking. He favours the right-brained stuff because it's radical, exciting, passionate, and belligerent. The left-brained stuff might be a somewhat useful add-on but it isn't really important.

It's possible that the right-brained activist is completely right up to this point. My issue is when this argument is given as a reason to not measure effectiveness at all. Lasn told me that Adbusters does not do any formal monitoring of how many people are persuaded by their campaigns and subvertisements. They have no interest in this. They're more interested in going full speed ahead with all the . But the decision not to bother with maximizing the effectiveness of your campaigns should not translate into indifference as to whether your campaigns are even working. To Lasn, it's apparent that Adbusters is changing the world based on the media attention some of their campaigns get, the responses and emails they get from people, the subscriptions to Adbusters magazine, and the spread of the Occupy movement to other countries. But do those things actually translate into the world getting better? It isn't obvious to me that the notoriety of an activist campaign is correlated with its effectiveness. Maybe the Occupy movement fuelled a lot of dissent and passion but played no real role in yielding any specific changes.

Further, if we want to compare the effectiveness of culture jamming to other uses of media, we need information on how effective culture jamming really is. We don't have that because the people behind culture jamming aren't interested. They aren't interested in modifying their approach based on experimental evidence or on changing their focus (e.g. to health communication) based on what's been documented to work. If your prior is that a charitable organization is non-outstanding until proven guilty, which mine is, then I think this eliminates culture jamming from consideration.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Does Behaviour Change Communication Work?

I have become interested in the potential of behaviour change communication to reduce suffering. But does behaviour change communication even work? If yes, how much does it work?

Effect sizes differ across topics.

According to Snyder,

The average health campaign affects the intervention community by about 5 percentage points.

Average health campaign, r = .05

International breastfeeding campaigns, r = .18
Seatbelt campaigns, r = .15
Dental care campaigns, r = .13
In-school nutrition campaigns for youth, r = .12
Adult alcohol reduction, r = .11
Fruit and vegetable media campaigns, r = .08
Heart disease prevention, r = .05
Sexual risk taking, r = .04
Mammography screening, r = .04
Adult smoking prevention, r = .04
Tobacco prevention, r =.04

Average family planning campaign, r = .06
  • Effects on knowledge, r = .11
  • Effects on attitudes, r = .07
  • Effects on communicating with spouse, r = .05

Average youth smoking campaign, r = .06
Average youth alcohol and smoking prevention, r = .04-.07
Average youth drug and marijuana campaign, r = .01-.02
  • Effects on knowledge, r = -.01-.01
  • Effects on attitudes, r = .03

DMI claims that it can lower child mortality rates in "most low-income countries" by 16-23%. Given that (1) DMI's campaigns are aimed at populations where health issues are rampant and (2) that they tend to play their messages repeatedly over a long-term time span, I think that number is at least realistic. I don't know of any other behaviour change communication campaign claiming to have such a high impact, however.

DMI offers more data on their effectiveness:
  • A behaviour change radio campaign can save 74,500 under-five lives and 2,500 maternal lives every year.
  • This assumes that we can reach 16 million radio listeners over the age of 15 on a regular basis.
  • We can predict impact by disease (e.g. for under-fives: 26% diarrhea, 23% pneumonia, 23% malaria, 26% neonatal).
  •  We can predict impact by behaviour (e.g. exclusive breastfeeding up from 16% to 29%, saving 6,400 lives per year.)
  • We can predict the cost-effectiveness of our campaigns (a nationwide campaign in DRC would cost $2 per DALY).

DMI provides a lot of facts about their media interventions but they don't publicly demonstrate all the steps leading toward these figures. I would like to see something like: 

"X people have malaria each year. Y% of people with malaria die from it per year. If our malaria interventions are aired with A frequency for B months, we can increase the amount of malaria survivors by C%, saving Z lives. This campaign would cost D dollars and would thus cost $2 per DALY."

It's difficult to take a charity at their word if we aren't provided with the concrete evidence.

If the average health campaign boosts effectiveness by 5%, is that good enough? Is it worth the trouble of a media campaign if it's only going to increase conversions from 13% to 18%? If we're talking about life and death issues, and production costs are reasonable, then it's pretty clear to me that the campaigns are worth it. The 5% conversion boost might not be strong enough to make health communication the optimal health intervention, however, especially if the behaviour change it's targeting is of relatively low importance. If DMI's ~20% child mortality reduction figures are accurate, then their media interventions should clearly be high priority health interventions.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Why I Don't Prioritize GCRs

A lot of effective altruists think working on disasters threatening to seriously curtail the progress of humanity into the far future is orders of magnitude more important than events that merely improve the present. The reasoning behind this is that global catastrophic risks (GCRs) not only threaten to wipe everyone on the planet out, but also eliminate countless generations that would have existed had we not gotten ourselves killed. I think GCRs are a good thing to have people working on but I'm skeptical that they surpass more common sense causes like deworming, vaccinating, and distributing insecticide-treated bed nets.

I think we need to make a distinction between two questions. The first question is: Where do all the utilons live? The question we should be asking is: What can I do to maximize the world's goodness?

The first question is about identifying areas with high potential for impact. The second question is what effective altruism actually is. Knowing where the utilons live doesn't answer the fundamental EA research question. You can locate a mountain of utilons yet have no way to access them. If that's the case, then it's better to work on the things you can actually do something about.

The total amount of suffering on Earth is dominated by the pains of insects, invertebrates, and fish. This is where tons of utilons live. In other words, wild animal suffering reduction is an area with high potential for positive impact. If there was an action we could take that reduced a huge portion of insect suffering, for instance, that would dwarf nearly any other cause. We could call this an area that is home to a lot of utilons. But how do we access them? In order for insect suffering to rival other causes, we need to be talking about mass amounts of insects. There's no obvious thing we could do to reduce the suffering of so many insects though. (Or is there?) And if there was, it likely wouldn't rival interventions we could make in less utilon-populated areas. If that's the case, then the reasonable approach toward insect suffering is to keep it on the backburner while we prioritize other issues.

I think the far future, as a cause, is a lot like insect suffering. Humanity's continued survival might be the most important variable to preserve if we want to maximize and continue to maximize the world's goodness. That's where all the utilons live. But what can we do about it? There is no individual far future-related cause that stands out as especially worthwhile to me. Actually, none of them appear to me to rival the best present-related causes we know of. Most future-related causes endorsed by effective altruists are highly speculative and conjunctive. With this post, I'll make many weak arguments for why I think taking steps to reduce GCRs is not an optimal cause to work on for most people.

First, not only do these causes need to be based on arguments that actually work (e.g. AGI will come & that is dangerous), but they also require that specific important events occur within a narrow timeframe. In order for them to be our top priorities, they need to be imminent enough that we can justify ignoring other affairs for them. For example, if an intelligence explosion isn't going to happen until 400 years from now, then MIRI's work is far less important than it would be if the intelligence explosion happens in 20 years. That crosses the boundary between "effective altruism" and "ordinary science." From an effective altruist perspective, the timeframe is highly relevant for claiming a cause's relative importance.

Further, in order to prioritize between different GCRs, we need to accurately predict the order in which events occur. So if "Nanotechnology will come & that is dangerous" is true, but an intelligence explosion happens first, then nanotechnology will have turned out not to have mattered nearly as much. Or if nuclear war happens, we may pass into an era in which life extension is neither desirable or possible to research. Just as competing methods lessen cause priority, so do competing ways for us to die lessen the threat of each individual cause since we're uncertain about the order in which events will happen. 

Given that the main reason for prioritizing GCRs is that they threaten to wipe out billions of potential future generations, we can and should also apply the above reasoning to events that would have happened had we survived a specific GCR. Maybe AGI kills us all while nanotechnology is on pace to wipe us out 5 years after the AGI apocalypse but just never gets the chance. If we expect there to be multiple global catastrophes lined up for us in a row then (1) our efforts shouldn't be completely centered on the first one and (2) we can't speak as if each individual disaster is wiping away billions of generations. There's no reason to expect billions of generations if you foresee several serious existential risks. (The same argument applies to reducing infant mortality in really poor countries. The kid can very easily go on to die from something else way before "normal dying age" so the number of life years being saved is less than it originally sounds.)

These theories of the far future also usually leave out the details of the societies these technological advancements spring from. There is often no mention of political struggles, cultural values, economic factors, laws and regulations, etc. I find it unlikely that any GCR scenario is largely unaffected by these things. When these major events come closer and closer to their arrival dates, public discussions will likely heat up about them, politicians will get elected based on how they view them, debates will be had, laws will be passed, and so on. Many of the far future theorists leave these details out and write from the perspective of technological determinism, as if inventors give birth to new creations like Black Swan events. I think sociopolitical pressures should be seen as positive things, much more likely to prevent disasters from happening than they are to prevent humanity from dealing with them. When disasters become imminent enough to scare us, they do scare us, and people start handling them.

Another aspect of the future that often gets left out of these discussions is the possibility that included in the next billion generations will be astronomical amounts of suffering, possibly enough to outweigh future flourishing. The utility in the world right now is likely net negative. The thriving of humanity might just maximize this effect - for example, maybe by spreading animal populations to other planets. Even if we do not expect suffering to outweigh flourishing, there will very likely exist huge amounts of both good and bad experiences and we should consider what we roughly expect the ratio to be. We cannot naively talk about the immense worth of the far future without making any mention of the terrible things to be included in that future. Negative utilitarians should be especially interested in this point.

Here's an argument that I feel there's something to but I'm still figuring out. I think maybe believers in the far future's immense net value are making a philosophical mistake when they say the elimination of countless future generations is many orders of magnitude more terrible than the elimination of Earth's current 7 billion people. It's true that our 7 billion people could yield countless future generations, but this is also true of a single person. When a single person is killed, why don't we multiply the negative utility of this death by all the potential future humans it also takes away? That one individual could have had 2 kids, who each could have had 2 kids, and those kids would have had their own kids, and a billion generations later, we would have a monstrous family tree on our hands. If one death isn't a billion deaths then why are 7 billion deaths worth 7 quintillion? 

If one answers that one death is a billion deaths than it seems to me as if she is amplifying the value of every individual human life way beyond what reason allows. For instance, this would make abortion a truly terrible crime. Another counter-argument could be that, in wiping out all humans, as opposed to only some, there's some kind of bonus emergent negative utility because there's no longer any possibility of future generations. The idea that groups of people should be morally valued more than the sum of the morally relevant individuals that comprise them has some problematic implications, however. We probably wouldn't want to say that it is better to save a family of five than five individuals who don't know each other. One could also argue that there is a relevant upper limit on the amount of human lives that could exist in the far future such that the Earth's current population does not significantly affect the world's future population because we will hit that upper limit anyway. That is not at all clear to me. If the response is that keeping alive a tiny probability of a massively positive future is worth more than a confirmed so-so outcome, then I think that's a case of Pascal's Mugging.

Lastly, as Holden Karnofsky pointed out in his recent conversation with MIRI, just "doing good things" has a really great track record, while the strategy of trying to direct humanity as a whole toward an optimal outcome has a comparatively weak track record. The track record is so poor that ethical injunctions might event mitigate against such grand schemes. Probably because people are prone to overlooking the sociopolitical details, they are very bad at predicting how major cultural events will affect the future. Apocalyptic predictions in particular are known for striking out, but that might be unfair. I see the flow-through effects favouring the "safe" side, as well. Just doing good things like being nice to people, donating to great charities, not eating meat, and spreading good ideas is likely to be contagious. People like people that do obviously good things, whereas people are suspicious toward those following some master plan that is supposed to pay off in a few decades or centuries, especially when those people are just regular at ordinary niceness. Valuing "weird" causes makes you less sympathetic, get taken less seriously, gain less funding and other opportunities, and become generally more marginalized.

Despite these weaknesses, it might still be a good idea for you to work mainly on GCR risk reduction since (1) it may be closest to your background, (2) the area is underfunded and underexplored, and (3) having people out there on GCR patrol increases the probability of us receiving GCR updates regularly and well in advance of any disasters. The fact that something isn't the optimal cause for you to possibly be working on doesn't mean that it isn't a good cause.

Effective altruism is about what you can actually do that would be most likely to maximize the world's goodness. "The Far Future" isn't a thing you can do - it's just where all the utilons live. Prioritizing specific GCRs seems to suffer from several problems when one takes an outside view. I see education and openness to compromise as the real best bets for global catastrophic risk reduction. Fortunately, they're easy things to promote on the side, while trying to make today's world healthier and less painful.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Your Blog Posts Should Provide Services

I recently realized that most of my blog posts aren't very valuable. My process for creating a post has typically been something like: [Think of an interesting thought] --> [Share interesting thought] --> [Wait around for people to congratulate me on how interesting my thoughts are].

Sharing interesting thoughts is kind of cool, I guess, but it doesn't accomplish much. Lots of people have interesting thoughts (and even more people think they have interesting thoughts).

What I look for in blogs now is that they provide services with their posts. They should fill a gap in the literature or create a new resource that didn't exist before.

Some examples of posts I feel provide a service:

On my own blog, I would include:

All these posts create a new resource, something that didn't exist before. They either compile information from various sources, make a useful list, summarize something that would be harder and take longer to read, or just do Work. Good blog posts resemble school and job assignments because they are Work. They require you to actually research or get something done that takes time and that nobody else was going to do because they wouldn't want to take all that time or put all that work in.

I don't think 100% of my posts need to provide services but I definitely want to change up the ratio. I want my posts to inspire the reaction, "Wow, I couldn't have written this." People rarely get that reaction from reading an interesting thought.

[Note: This post is arguably contradictory because it is more of an Interesting Thought than it is a Service but I think this is a valuable exception because it introduces new terminology for me to use in future posts. The same idea was behind Seeming to Care and Playing a Long Term Game.]

Non-Profit Media Organization Profiles

In the past two weeks, I have looked at several philanthropic organizations that use media to make the world better. This post is a way of compiling information on these organizations into one place for those who are interested in learning more about this subject. I include short summaries of each organization but I do not want to influence anyone's views of their effectiveness, as I'm uncertain. I encourage readers to do their own research on these organizations and to read what GiveWell and other charity evaluators say about the ones they have looked at. This post is intended primarily as a resource. It is part of a broader goal of mine to leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs for others who want to teach themselves about using media for effective altruist ends.

Development Media International (DMI): 

See my effectiveness case study of DMI here. They produce fiction and non-fiction television and radio programs intended to inform and influence people living in the world's poorest countries. Some of these programs are mainstream entertainment in the countries in which they air. Issues focused on include gender equality, maternal and child care, family planning, HIV/AIDS, malaria, NTDs, and more. DMI believes it can use the mass media to improve the quality of life in developing nations at a rate of $2-10 per DALY. GiveWell, however, wants to see more experimental evidence confirming the ability of mass media programs to influence behaviour. DMI is currently working on a randomized controlled trial in Burkina Faso to further demonstrate their impact, but they believe strong evidence to already exist. They claim to have found a dose-response relationship, where the more exposure one has to DMI programs, the more likely one is to change behaviours.

Population Services International (PSI): 

PSI is an ex-GiveWell recommended charity. They are also currently in the #10 spot on The Life You Can Save's listed of recommended charities. PSI does social marketing in developing countries. This means that they both advertise for things like better hygiene and distribute products like condoms and insecticide-treated bed nets. Informative messages alone aren't effective unless there is also a distribution system in place providing people with the products needed to make the desired change. They focus on reducing rates of HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, child mortality, and unwanted pregnancy.

PSI puts a lot of information on their website. They use multi-round surveys, focus groups, interviews, and other qualitative methods to gain an understanding of their audiences, as well as to better assess the effectiveness of their programs. Some of their surveys, results, and reports are posted online. They also offer some shallow analysis of the many studies looking at the effectiveness of social marketing. PSI also openly displays a catalogue of hundreds of publications (but some of which only reveal abstracts). I personally haven't found any of these publications useful for my own research but their catalogue could possibly be a goldmine for the right researcher.

GiveWell de-recommended PSI on account of there being a shortage of evidence proving PSI's programs to trigger significant behaviour change. Despite all of PSI's transparency, I am also having trouble finding the evidence making social marketing's effectiveness clear. They sent me a document briefly explaining their research methodology and findings but, like the information on their web site, this didn't clarify much for me.

Center for Communication Programs (CCP): 

CCP primarily does strategic communication. They partner with organizations worldwide to promote compromise, political dialogue, and healthy behaviour. 

In trying to alleviate HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, child mortality, and the rest of the usual suspects, CCP (1) spreads persuasive messages, (2) makes information accessible to the people that need it, (3) train public health professionals in strategic communication, and (4) conduct research so that they can improve their own communication methods.

Of all the charities I've looked at, CCP is the one with the most useful publications page. Quotes from some of these made it into my ongoing list of media advocacy optimization tips. Unfortunately, for many of these publications, all you get access to is an abstract - but breezing through a few dozen abstracts can sometimes be better than reading a good article or two.

Included in their great resource center is a PDF copy of a book on how to do strategic communications effectively, along many other guides for beginners. Based on a quick glance, it appears like reading this book would actually be useful to me.

I have no reason to think CCP is an optimal place to donate to, but their web site is a really great resource for those looking to learn the landscape of media interventions in developing nations.

Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA): 

CIMA does not do health communication; they do media development. Doing media development means they aid the development of mass media infrastructure in poor nations. This could involve funding new media outlets (radio stations, television programs), training the professionals that work for media outlets, improving the legal landscape for media production, raising levels of media literacy among audiences, and more. The ultimate goal is for these countries to have sustainable, quality, and free mass media sectors. A free press can serve a nation in many ways: deterring political corruption, countering propaganda, promoting honest discourse, exposing people to a wider array of viewpoints, etc. CIMA is thus very interested in measuring the levels of press freedom around the world. Click here for their meta-evaluation of the press evaluators Reporters Without Borders (RSF), International Research and Exchanges (IREX), and Freedom House. CIMA believes that media development can make aid more effective. I'm not sure how effective media development is compared to entertainment-education and I suspect that nobody else really knows either. Documenting the effects of broadcasts seems easier to measure, so I'd lean toward that being a better area to focus on.

Farm Radio International (FRI): 

FRI partners with organizations worldwide that inform farmers in developing nations with radio broadcasts. In developing nations, there are hundreds of millions of farm families. FRI provides these families with low-cost farming methods and other info. In strengthening farmers, FRI believes it can improve food security in countries where food  is scarce and get farmers to be conscious of the environmental impact of their work. Radio is a good choice of medium because it is by far the most commonly possessed mass communication device in the third world. The effectiveness of radio broadcasts is less certain. FRI has posted some promising looking reports on this issue but I have yet to do more than glance at them. FRI is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which suggests they may have more evidence to back up their effectiveness than they provide for the public.

Search for Common Ground (SFCG): 

SFCG works in conflict resolution. Violent conflict is correlated with poverty, an unhealthy environment, high rates of disease, and low levels of literacy. Further, 11% of global GDP is spent containing violent conflict. Diminishing the threat of violence could thus have several positive effects. But perhaps violence isn't the fundamental problem and there are other things which need to be addressed (like poverty and literacy), in order to significantly reduce violence. SFCG uses various mediums to spread fiction and non-fiction programs to people in over 20 countries. I enjoy the resources on conflict resolution they have on their website but they aren't quite about what I want to learn. I don't see any attempt on their web site to justify that their programs work.

Equal Access

Equal Access uses the media to disseminate information and foster education in the countries that most need it. They produce their own content but, like CIMA, they also try to bolster the media sectors and communities of these countries via other methods. They train reporters, hold meetings and clubs for the public to discuss serious issues, promote media literacy, and throw workshops for leadership training to complement their media content with community engagement. This seems like a promising way to improve a number of issues that derive from ignorance. 

Equal Access measures their effectiveness with four tools: (1) before-and-after surveys, (2) analysis of audience feedback, (3) analysis of stories that document change, and (4) focus groups, participant panels, and interviews. Arguably none of these are satisfactory ways to prove impact, but that is the unfortunate nature of media influence.

Population Media Center (PMC): 

PMC works with national and local broadcasters and media producers to craft entertainment-education for television and radio. Entertainment-education is fictional programming imbued with positive messages and important information that is intended to change attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours in audiences. In airing these programs, PMC hopes to reduce population growth to a level that can be sustained by the world's natural resources and persuade people to behave less harmfully toward the environment.

PMC employs the Sabido method for entertainment-education. The Sabido method is basically just to use the literary device of character development. In Miguel Sabido's "telenovelas," characters would begin with the wrong values and then develop the right values over the course of the show. Protagonists are typically "transitional" characters maneuvering through a world of purely "good" and "evil" people. Apparently, the effects of the first show to use the Sabido method, "Accompany Me," were as follows:

  • Phone calls to the CONAPO requesting family planning information increased from zero to an average of 500 a month. Many people calling mentioned that they were encouraged to do so by the telenovela.
  • More than 2,000 women registered as voluntary workers in the national program of family planning. This was an idea suggested in the telenovela.
  • Contraceptive sales increased 23% in one year, compared to a seven percent increase the preceding year.
  • More than 560,000 women enrolled in family planning clinics, an increase of 33% (compared to a 1% decrease the previous year).
Furthermore, in the years that Sabido-style soap operas aired on Televisa, Mexico's population growth dropped 34% and the soap operas were credited by one USAID employee as the main cause. This is impressive but it likely is an anomaly. Using character development alone is no guarantee of such effectiveness and there's certainly nothing about soap operas that screams world optimization. All of the significant behaviour change success stories I've heard have been hit shows/films/books. Trying to make a hit is likely a very good heuristic for making a highly persuasive program.

PMC strikes me as one of the most important organizations on this list to look into. The information on their web site is genuinely interesting to read and has even given me some new ideas on using entertainment-education to influence.

PCI-Media Impact

Media Impact produces entertainment-education promoting health, empowerment, and environmental issues for the third world. Similar to PMC, Media Impact focuses on dramas because of the ways in which story engagement facilitates persuasion (transportation and identification). Because these stories are intended to teach values and sway cultural norms, character decisions always result in repercussions (have unprotected sex --> get an STI). To art fans, the entertainment-education approach to storytelling might seem pedestrian but whatever. Artistic value has no value outside of the moral goodness of its consequences. Apart from entertainment-education serial dramas, they also produce radio call-in shows, and do community mobilization campaigns.

Media Impact uses a four step methodology:

Phase 1: Coalition Building & Formative Research
Phase 2: Training and Program Design
Phase 3: Mentoring and Production
Phase 4: Broadcast and Community Mobilization

Although the information they provide on their thought process is pretty satisfying, their "Resources" page is blank, and I see no mention at all of monitoring their own effectiveness. Entertainment-education seems to have a decent track record but I would still like to see Media Impact measuring the effectiveness of their programs and making the results public.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Art Sequence

I decided to compile all my posts on artistic value into one place. I may one day add another post or two to this Sequence, but at the moment, I consider it to be completed. At any rate, I have other subjects that I want to turn to now so this is a good place to leave art behind.

I'm currently satisfied with these posts as a summary of my thoughts on artistic value. I believe them to make an argument that has yet to be made in academia or elsewhere despite many centuries of debate on this issue. I also believe said argument to be obviously correct and an elegant solution to a confusing subject.

The Art Sequence

This post would be a good place to leave comments on art in general.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Media Advocacy Optimization Tips

I want to know the specifics of how to design a media message so as to maximize its impact. Despite the somewhat large quantities of writing on health communication, social marketing, entertainment-education, the psychology of fiction, narrative persuasion, advertising, and so on, it is still difficult to find concrete tips that media producers should be aware of. As far as I know, the available information on effective communication has never been packed into the same place anywhere on the internet. This is an ongoing list of concrete tips for optimizing persuasive media messages aimed at changing behaviour. I will update this post whenever I discover a new one. At the moment, it is almost certainly lacking huge amounts of important information. Please leave a comment if you have more resources.


  • Messages tailored to individuals are more effective than generic appeals to the broader population.
  • Gender, race, ethnicity, and other participant characteristics have no effect on the impact of tailored communication messages.
  • Theoretical plus cultural tailoring works better than theoretical tailoring alone.
  • In terms of print media advocacy, pamphlets, newsletters, and magazines appear to work better than letters, manuals, or booklets.
  • Attractive visual design and layout increase engagement. This could include infographics and images.
  • The longest pamphlets are the least effective.
  • Perceived susceptibility significantly reduces persuasion, while perceived self-efficacy facilitates persuasion.
  • People are more likely to take up a loan if only one term and size is offered than if there are multiple options.
  • Men are significantly more likely to take up a loan when a picture of a woman is on the corner of the message.
  • Loss framed appeals are more effective than gain framed appeals.
  • Fear appeals in high-efficacy messages have the strongest rates of behaviour change, while fear appeals in low-efficacy messages have the highest rates of reactance.
  • Fear appeals should target either the individual or the group depending on whether it is disseminated in an individualist or a collectivist culture.
  • Fear appeals work best when combined with messages about how to control the danger and relieve anxiety. 
  • Different genders can require different advice based on the nature of the issue (e.g. regarding condom use).
  • Reading materials targeted at Americans should be kept at a 7th or 8th grade reading level.
  • The use of exemplars in news articles and other appeals is effective, as it increases narrative engagement, which leads to increased persuasion and behavioural intent.
  • In terms of emotional engagement, persuasiveness, grabbing attention, and next-day recall, television is the most effective advertising medium.
  • Offering an additional free prize with your product can reduce interest in your product if the prize is uninteresting.
  • Getting people to imagine themselves performing a behaviour makes them more likely to perform that behaviour.
  • When using fiction as a vehicle for persuasive messages, do not let your messages distract from the narrative or reduce the entertainment value of the program.
  • Campaigns including threats of enforcement of laws and regulations are more effective at influencing behaviour.
  • Campaigns that present new information are more successful than campaigns that repackage already known information.
  • Messages about attitudes, expectancies and behavioural skills were more effective than messages about disease prevention, transmission, or threats.
  • Targeting ethnic minorities and people with lower socioeconomic status results in larger effect sizes.
  • Parasocial interaction and general involvement with characters reduces counterarguing, as well as psychological reactance.
  • Identification with a vulnerable character will reduce perceived invulnerability thus increase the viewer's odds of changing behaviours.
  • Parasocial interaction with a character displaying counternormative behaviour is likely to enhance the persuasive effects of entertainment-education by altering perceived norms.


A number of narrative reviews of the tailored health communication literature have, in fact, examined the issue of impact of tailored messages on health behavior change. Skinner et al. (1999) reviewed 13 health behavior intervention trials testing the efficacy of tailored print messages versus nontailored comparison or control conditions. They concluded that tailored messages are indeed more effective in influencing health behavior change as compared with the other conditions tested, noting that 6 of 8 studies com- paring tailored messages to similar but nontailored messages resulted in significant findings. Rimer and Glassman (1999) reviewed 17 cancer communication intervention trials testing the efficacy of tailored print communications and similarly concluded that evidence suggests behavioral outcomes are more positive than they are null or negative. Kroeze, Werkman, and Brug (2006) reviewed 30 studies on computer-tailored materials for physical activity and dietary behavior change and described the evidence supporting the effectiveness of dietary computer-tailored interventions as “quite strong” (p. 208). They also concluded that too few studies existed in the physical activity domain to draw conclusions. Revere and Dunbar (2001) reviewed 37 health behavior intervention trials, including those utilizing print materials, automated telephone, computers, and mobile communications. They found that 34 of the 37 trials had statistically significant or improved outcomes and thus concluded that tailored interventions are effective. Other reviewers of this literature have similarly concluded or suggested that tailoring appears to “work” (Brug, Campbell, & van Assema, 1999; Kreuter, Farrell, et al., 2000; Strecher, 1999; Velicer, Prochaska, & Redding, 2006).”
In addition, narrative reviews of the tailored message literature have consistently remarked that we need to learn a great deal more about the mechanisms underlying effective tailoring and tailored interventions, or the so called “black box” of tailoring (Abrams et al., 1999; Kroeze et al., 2006; Skinner et al., 1999). Thus, another major aim of the current study was to examine which features of tailored interventions related to larger effect sizes, which was achieved through the examination of a number of potentially important moderating variables. Results indicated that participant characteristics (e.g., gender, race, education level) were generally unrelated to effect size. This result is not surprising, as the over- riding concept of tailoring is one of customization of a message to a particular individual. Thus, whether participants are men or women, African-American or Caucasian, a carefully tailored message should be relevant and potentially effective with the individual for whom it was created. These findings suggest that tailoring is an appropriate health communication strategy for numerous target populations.”

Analysis of the type of print materials that were used in interventions suggested that the most successful print tailored materials have been pamphlets, newsletters, or magazines, rather than letters, manuals, or booklets. Why might this be the case? Although few study authors provided details on the layout of print materials, it may be that pamphlets, newsletters, and magazines were more likely to include pictures and graphics and to have superior layout characteristics that may have helped to garner and perhaps retain the attention of participants. Donohew, Lorch, and Palmgreen (1998) argue that capturing attention is a prerequisite to persuasion with regard to health education messages. If materials are not sufficiently stimulating to attract and keep the attention of an individual, that individual may lose interest, and the content of the message will not have had an opportunity to be persuasive (Donohew et al., 1998). One empirical study of tailored print materials found evidence to support this proposition. Namely, participants who found the materials to be “attractive” were significantly more likely to pay attention to, like, and understand the health information, or what the authors referred to as “preliminary steps to behavior change” (Bull, Holt, Kreuter, Clark, & Scharff, 2001, p. 275). Others have additionally made the case that the layout of health education materials can have an effect on whether individuals pay attention to, read, and ultimately process health information (e.g., Kreuter, Farrell, et al., 2000; National Cancer Institute, 2001). In fact, in their book on tailored health messages, Kreuter, Farrell, et al. (2000) go as far as to state that with regard to tailored materials, “Good visual design can be as important to the success of a tailored communication piece as the message content itself” (p. 105). Visual design and layout includes a number of considerations, and developers of tailored interventions and other health promotion materials should seek guidance when developing such materials (see Kreuter, Farrell, et al., 2000). In addition, it should also be noted that the type of print material with the smallest effective size (i.e., manuals) also tends to be the longest in length. Length of print materials is also an important consideration when it comes to creating tailored messages, as those that are too lengthy may not be read by participants.”
For instance, Kreuter et al. (2005) examined the impact of tailored health magazines on African American women’s mammography and dietary behaviors, comparing theoretical tailoring only, cultural tailoring only, and theoretical plus cultural tailoring. Results indicated that the theoretical plus cultural tailoring condition significantly outperformed the theoretical tailoring only condition on both mammography and dietary behavioral change. Although few additional studies have examined the “value added” of other tailoring strategies over and above theoretical tailoring, the current meta-analysis suggests that carefully tailoring on demographic characteristics (e.g., gender, race, age) and giving feedback on the behavior itself may enhance the effectiveness of theoretical tailoring.“
The only theoretical concept found to be associated with significantly decreased effect sizes was perceived susceptibility. Why was this the case? It may be that in a number of health domains, messages that focus on increasing positive views and feelings toward a health behavior (i.e., attitudes) and those that increase one’s confidence in performing the behavior (i.e., self-efficacy) are more motivating to health behavior change than messages that raise the threat of a disease. In fact, a recent meta-analysis examining the impact of theoretical strategies in persuasive health communications found just that result (Albarracin et al., 2003). Namely, messages that presented attitudinal information and/or modeled behavioral skills (i.e., raised self-efficacy) were found to affect condom use, whereas messages aimed at raising the threat of HIV/AIDS had no such effect. The literature on perceptions of risk and their relation to health behavior remains mixed, with some meta-analyses finding no association (Gerrard, Gibbons, & Bushman, 1996), others finding a modest association (Harrison, Mullen, & Green, 1992), and still others finding a stronger association (Brewer et al., 2007).”
For example, the lender varied the description of the offer, showing the monthly payment either for one typical loan or for a variety of loan terms and sizes. In all cases, it was specified that this was only a sample term and loan size and that other terms and loan sizes were available. This particular manipulation aimed to contrast the economic truism that having more options is always good with the psychological perspective that a greater number of alternatives can increase decisional conflict and overload decision makers. Other randomizations included whether and how the offered interest rate compared with a “market” benchmark, the inclusion of a photo in a corner of the letter that differed on race and gender, the expiration date of the offer, whether the offer included a promotional giveaway, and whether suggested uses for the loan were included in the offer letter. The lender also performed several telephone calls either to remind consumers of the offer or to prime them through suggestion (we explain this further subsequently). Use of administrative data from the lender allowed for the measurement of how actual take-up of the loan corresponds with the interest rate and the various psychological factors.

As economic models predict, the interest rate strongly affects take-up. There appears to be a robust, negatively sloping demand curve in this market. Yet some of the psychological factors also strongly affect demand in ways that are difficult to reconcile with the rational choice model. For example, consumers are more likely to take up a loan if only one term and size are described in the offer letter than if many examples are provided. As another example, male customers’ take-up increases substantially with the inclusion of a woman’s photo in a corner of the offer letter. Although not all of the psychological factors had a significant effect on take-up, many did, and their impact was large. On average, any one “positive” feature increased take-up by almost as much as a one percentage point drop in the monthly interest rate.”

In one field experiment conducted as part of a workplace health-promotion program at a large telephone company, women were encouraged to take mammograms (Banks et al.1995). Women (N = 133) who had obtained fewer than 50% of the mammograms they should have at their age were invited to view a 15-minute videotape on breast cancer and mammography. They were randomly assigned to two conditions: Half viewed a video called “The Benefits of Mammography,” which was a gain-framed presentation that emphasized the potential benefits of getting a mammogram. The other half viewed a video called “The Risks of Neglecting Mammography,” which was a loss-framed presentation that pointed out the potential costs borne by women who neglect to get a mammogram. Women who viewed the gainor loss-framed video did not differ in their liking for the video or in what they learned from it; these responses were measured immediately afterward. However, 12 months later, 66.2% of the women who viewed the loss-framed video had obtained a mammogram, compared with 51.5% of the women who had viewed the gain-framed version. Similar results have been replicated with larger samples, again showing the power of the loss-framed messages to spur behavior. In a recent intervention addressing the take-up of flexible-spending accounts, an increased take-up was observed under a loss compared with a gain frame (Schwartz et al. 2006).

The framing of messages can be altered in other ways as well. For example, framing outcomes in aggregate (yearly income) as opposed to segregated (weekly income) formats can have an impact, as can mere labeling (e.g., 3% mortality versus 97% survival rates). However, decision frames are often chosen inadvertently and as if they mattered little. If the results from other domains generalize to social program take-up, far greater care should be taken in designing the optimally framed message.”

The meta-analysis suggests that strong fear appeals produce high levels of perceived severity and susceptibility, and are more persuasive than low or weak fear appeals. The results also indicate that fear appeals motivate adaptive danger control actions such as message acceptance and maladaptive fear control actions such as defensive avoidance or reactance. It appears that strong fear appeals and high-efficacy messages produce the greatest behavior change, whereas strong fear appeals with low-efficacy messages produce the greatest levels of defensive responses. Future directions and practical implications are provided.

Fear appeals threatening the individual have been shown to be powerful persuasive devices in the cultures where they have been studied. However, most fear appeal research has been conducted with members of individualist cultures. Individualist cultures place self-needs above group concerns, while collectivist cultures place group needs above self-concerns. Little is known about the effectiveness of fear appeals (or other persuasive strategies) in collectivist cultures. Two studies assessed the effectiveness of AIDS-prevention fear appeals threatening the self versus fear appeals threatening the group (i.e., family) on members of individualist and collectivist cultures. The first study focuses on African American and Mexican immigrant junior high school youth. The second study focuses on U.S. and Taiwanese college undergraduates. The results indicated that fear appeals should address cultural orientation (i.e., individualist versus collectivist orientation) to achieve maximum effectiveness. The results also indicate that one cannot assume cultural orientation based on ethnicity.”

The most significant correlates of consistent condom use for men included perceived self-efficacy for correct condom use, discussing condom use with friends, and perceived self-efficacy for using condoms with a long-term partner. Discussing condom use with a sex partner and the perceived self-efficacy to refuse sex if the sex partner refused to use a condom were the most significant predictors for women. One implication of the findings is that for men, effective interventions should emphasize correct condom use know-how and address the issue of negative peer pressure and group norms around condom use. For women, interventions should focus on sexual empowerment."


"To evaluate the readability of such materials in a more robust and transparent manner, the Humane Research Council (HRC) partnered with VegFund and FARM to test a selection of outreach materials that are commonly used by vegan advocates. The average readability scores placed these materials in the range of the 11th grade reading level or higher, which is three to four grade levels higher than the average U.S. adult."


"Narrative engagement evoked by exemplars in news articles can alter behavioral intention, one of the most effective predictors of behavior (Fishbein & Ajzen, 2010). Green (2006) suggested that transportation and identification in response to narratives delivering cancer information can change behavioral beliefs and intentions. Empirical evidence is also robust. Individuals who are more engrossed in a narrative tend to form stronger narrative-consistent beliefs, attitudes, and intentions (e.g., Green & Brock, 2000)."


"The study found that television spots were more effective at generating high emotional engagement and aided next-day recall than online video, online display, radio and newspaper. Results showed that television ads delivered:

  • Three times higher emotional engagement and three times higher aided next-day recall than radio ads.
  • 1.8 times higher emotional engagement and 1.4 times higher aided next-day recall than online video ads.
  • Five times higher aided next-day recall than online display ads.
  • 5.5 times more total emotional engagement and comparable aided next-day recall than newspaper ads."

"Some companies, including the Lender, regularly use promotional giveaways as part of their marketing. What is the effect of these giveaways on demand? In principle, under the economic model, these should have a small positive or no effect on demand, depending on the magnitude of the prize. In contrast, there is some behavioral evidence that these giveaways could backfire and in fact end up reducing demand. Studies have shown that endowing an option with a feature that is intended to be positive but in fact has no value for the decision maker, can reduce the tendency to choose that option, even when it is understood that the added feature comes at no extra cost (Simonson, Carmon, and O’Curry, 1994)."


"For example, imagining a political candidate winning the election can increase the perceived likelihood of the candidate’s victory (Carroll, 1978), and imagining winning the lottery can increase the perceived chance of winning (Gregory et al., 1982). Imagery has also been demonstrated to increase the intentions to perform a behavior (Anderson, 1983; Cialdini, 2001; Gregory et al., 1982). Imagining taking a trip, starting a new job, or donating blood increased an individual’s intentions to engage in these activities (Anderson, 1983)."


"Because transportation is a valued and pleasurable
experience, individuals react negatively to messages
which interrupt a transporting narrative [54]. Therefore, anti-smoking messages should be delivered at a time or in a way that does not affect the entertainment value of a movie (e.g. before the film begins[58])."


"One key moderator of effect sizes was whether or not the campaigns were accompanied by enforcement of laws or regulations, such as police roadside checks for seat belt usage or checks for sale of alcohol to minors, and used messages to that effect. Campaigns that included enforcement had a stronger effect (r = .17, 95% CI [.13, .21]), representing a 17% net change in behavior than campaigns that did not (r = .06, 95% CI [.052, .064]).

A recent meta-analysis covered road safety campaigns promoting seat belts, driving while intoxicated, and speeding. ...The findings are worth including: a reduction in accidents of 12%. The effects were greater for campaigns conducted earlier, of shorter duration, supplemented with personal communication, and including enforcement. Interestingly, the differences between the enforcement campaigns and others were slight. It is possible that the first generation of enforcement campaigns in the 1990s had a much greater impact because of the novelty and that, by later campaigns, the enforcement message was stale and less effective."


"A meta-analysis of online social marketing interventions on topics, such as weight loss, mammogram screening, or smoking cessation, found larger effects for the health interventions employing the following messages strategies: tailoring or feedback on performance, source similarity to the targets, information on the consequences of behaviour, goal setting, action planning, normative information about others' behaviour, arranging for social support, behavioural contracts, self-monitoring of behavioural outcomes, time management, self-talk prompts, rewards for successful behaviour, and those focusing on knowledge, norms, and consequences."


"A meta-analysis of HIV interventions found that messages about attitudes, expectancies, and behavioural skills were more successful than messages about the threat, norms, disease transmission, or disease prevention information: information about the mechanisms of HIV transmission was negatively related to condom use. Among Hispanics, messages emphasizing how to address barriers to condom use, changing peer norms, practicing condom use skills, problem-solving sills such as personal goal setting, and using the culturally appropriate concept of machismo were associated with greater behavioural impact."


"Fear appeals may work, but care should be taken in how resulting anxiety will be dealt with. Laboratory studies suggest that fear appeals have more of an impact on behaviour if they are accompanied by specific messages about how to control the danger and even counseling and testing to relieve anxiety."


"Other analyses suggest that targeting ethnic minorities or people with lower socioeconomic statuses results in effect sizes at least as large as those for the general population."


"PSI with characters within an entertainment-education program may offer another way to reduce reactance. Using peers to deliver persuasive risk messages can be an effective persuasive strategy because peers are seen as less authoritative and controlling, thus arousing less reactance. This argument may apply to parasocial relationships as well in that these characters act as as 'superpeer' to whom viewers look for guidance. Therefore, characters with whom viewers have parasocial relationships should similarly lead to reductions in reactance when presented in the context of entertainment-education messages."

"Perceived similarity with a character who is portrayed as vulnerable to the harmful consequences of a risky behaviour may increase viewers' perceived vulnerability. If this perceived similarity is combined with identification, the effect on perceived vulnerability may be especially strong given the nature of the identification process. While identifying with a character, viewers imagine themselves doing, thinking, or feeling something they ordinarily would not because they are experiencing it vicariously as the character."


"Although the media have been criticized for portraying unrealistic depictions of health-risk behaviours as being normative and the potential influence this may have on young viewers' perceived norms, a program depicting a character who does not engage in risky behaviour, may have the reverse effect. The critical factor is to select a character with whom a viewer experiences PSI. When a viewer parasocially interacts with a character, the character is seen as a part of his or her social network. In this way, entertainment-education programs may be able to change perceived norms by showing characters that resonate as normative referents among viewers in ways that contradict the existing perceived norms about the prevalence of a health-risk behaviour."