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How to deal with your racist uncle

I see people constantly shaming other peoples’ identities on social media about racial issues (i.e. if you voted for Trump you’re racist) and I think: that ain’t going to help. So I wrote this, an explanation of why shaming doesn’t reduce prejudice, where prejudice comes from, the effect of media on reinforcing stereotypes, and how a curated media diet can induce feelings of empathy and compassion and, thus, reduce prejudice.

How to deal with your racist uncle:

Considering Group Identity and the Effect of Media when Crafting Persuasive Messages to Reduce Prejudice.

A common response to instances of perceived prejudice are messages that induce shame, for instance, by describing an entire social group as racist. In terms of Theory of Reasoned Action, shaming messages could reduce prejudiced behavior by acting as subjective norms that, reliant on an individual’s personal motivation to comply with those norms, thwart behavioral intention (O’Keefe, 2015). Shaming will not produce real attitudinal change, however, but merely inhibit behavior that could lead to censure. If shame can be avoided, the reprehensible behavior continues. For instance, in a study that used changes on levels of self-esteem caused by racial identification as a proxy to measure instances of aversive racism, Mastro et al. (2008) found that exposing white students to Latino characters in fiction resulted in higher levels of self-esteem for the students only when the narratives presented the Latino characters under an ambiguous condition that neither confirmed nor rejected common stereotypes of Latinos as lacking intelligence—that is, when shame could be avoided. When the narratives presented the Latino characters under a stereotypical condition (i.e., lacking intelligence), the white students did not report higher levels of self-esteem; on the contrary, they showed higher levels of identification with the Latino character. Mastro et al. (2008) argue that this suggests that, on instances when biases can be taken as an indication of racial prejudice, individuals overcompensate by showing more favorable evaluations of the outgroup, and that biases become relevant as behavioral guides only when they could be justified as not related to race. In another study, Choi, Crandall, and La (2014) found that non-Black subjects who evaluated favorably a high-quality ad showing a black model were subsequently more critical of a low-quality ad also showing a black model than those subjects who did not see the high-quality ad showing a black model first. This suggests that those given the opportunity to evaluate favorably a person of the outgroup granted themselves “permission” to be prejudiced next. Similarly, in what anthropologists call the “myth of racial democracy” nationals of Latin American countries tend to justify prejudice against dark-skinned individuals as an aesthetic preference since, because of our multiracial nature, we “cannot” be racist and thus be subject to shame (Uhlmann et al., 2002).

Thus, while overt instances of racial prejudice have declined (Blanton & Jaccard, 2008), racial antipathy persists, either as discriminatory responses that individuals justify as coming from causes other than race and thus allow them to “safely” sustain a non-biased image (Mastro, Behm-Morawitz & Kopacz, 2008), or as implicit biases, the unconscious negative feelings toward an outgroup considered by Aversive Racism Theory.

A study that assessed the effect that race representation in video games has on prejudice (Burgess, Dill, Stermer, Burgess, & Brown, 2011) suggests how prevalent these implicit biases still are, even among people who do not show overtly racist tendencies. After watching short video game clips that presented either a black or a white character, then an image that the participants had to identify as either violent or not, the participants in the study identified violent images faster when the clip preceding the images showed a black character than when the clip presented a white character, suggesting an unconscious association of black people with violence.

The problem with shaming messages is not so much their emotional charge or the lack of strong evidence to support the claims they may contain. Since behavior is ultimately controlled by emotions (Amodio, Devine, & Hamon-Jones, 2007; Bench & Lench, 2013; Westen, 2008), emotionally charged rhetoric often proves to be more persuasive than rational arguments, especially in cases where there is little motivation to elaborate (Petty, Cacioppo, & Goldman, 1981). The problem is that shame promotes avoidance of potential punishments rather than approach to potential rewards (Schmader & Lickel, 2006). Unlike guilt, which promotes reflection of one’s transgressions and, therefore, dissonance reduction through reparatory behavior, shame produces fear and “the desire to escape social scrutiny” (Amodio et al., p. 529). Baek and Yoon (2017) findings support this hypothesis. In a 2×2 study that compared compliance with messages that warned about potential loses compared to messages that promoted potential gains after priming the participants with feelings of either guilt or shame, they found that inducing shame increased compliance with messages that warned about potential loses, while inducing guilt increased compliance with messages that promoted potential gains. Amodio et al. (2007) found that inducing guilt, but not shame, elicited the desire to read prejudice-reduction articles.

Because shame involves a negative evaluation of the self, while guilt implies a negative valuation of one’s transgressions (Baek & Yoon, 2017), receivers often perceive shaming messages as an attack on their identity. Hence, instead of an invitation to change, the dissonance that shame produces becomes an invitation to differ to avoid lowering one’s self-esteem. This would be especially the case for individuals with strong group identity, since as the Social Identity Model of De-Individuation predicts, “when social identity becomes salient…conformity to internalized groups will be strong” (Trepte, 2006, p. 266). For instance, a study that assessed the effect of group identification on prejudice and emotion (Johns, Schmader, & Lickel, 2005) found that individuals highly identified as American felt a strong desire to distance themselves from their ingroup after witnessing very negative instances of prejudice (e.g., physical assault or death), yet, compared to individuals with low American identification, the desire to distance themselves from the ingroup was much lower after witnessing mild instances of anti-Arab prejudice (e.g., racial slurs). These findings suggest that for a shaming message to induce compliance, the wrongdoing must be recognized as such to the point that only avoidance would reduce dissonance. Otherwise, individuals will opt to reduce dissonance by justifying or dismissing the prejudiced behavior. In this case, the function of a prejudiced individual’s attitude, which may have been one of knowledge, coming from a partial view of the world that distinguishes between “us” and “them,” and which could have been ameliorated by rendering existing stereotypes less effective as behavioral guides (Mastro & Tukachinsky, 2011), becomes one of ego-defense as in “whites are under attack,” a belief which may prove much more difficult to overcome.

Here, my proposal to reduce prejudice is to craft persuasive messages in a manner that instead of creating dissonance by inducing feelings of shame, creates dissonance by inducing positive affect for the outgroup (e.g., compassion or sympathy). For this, the message must include a proposition that, as of Social Judgment Theory proposes, not only will fall within the recipient’s latitude of acceptance, the range of propositions a receiver assesses as reasonable and not threatening to his concept of self (O’Keefe, 2015), but also, as Theory of Reasoned Action proposes, will cause a change in attitude by adding beliefs that will change the perception of the outgroup rather than simply affecting subjective norms that affect behavioral intention. This requires an understanding of the causes of prejudice and the function it serves.

Racism, understood as conscious or unconscious prejudice toward members of a different racial group, may have an innate component in our tendency for ingroup favoritism, a trait that, empirical evidence on conspecific preference suggests, humans share with many other primates (Kelly et al., 2009). Pinker (2011) proposes that ingroup favoritism “must be unlearned, not learned” and mentions the findings of developmental psychologists who found that “preschoolers profess racist attitudes that would appall their liberal parents” (p. 523). Kelly et al. (2009) propose that from an evolutionary perspective, the ability to distinguish the ingroup from the outgroup may serve as a way to reduce potential risks and increase the likelihood of reproduction. Notwithstanding this, if race is a social rather than a biological construct (Dill-Shackleford et al., 2016), racial prejudice must also hinge on our perception of what constitutes the outgroup rather than solely natural causes.

Stating that race is a social construct may sound like a politically correct statement, especially when racial differences seem evident to the naked eye, yet the distinction is important not only because from an antiessentialist point of view, boundaries that traditionally define race membership are inaccurate and arbitrary, since “race groupings do not correspond to patterns of human biological variation” (Morning, 2007, p. 445), but because race as a social construct implies that behavior toward the outgroup can change if our perception of what constitutes the outgroup also changes. For instance, in an experiment that presented a group of white children with the opportunity to interact with either a white or a black person, Kinzler and Spelke (2011) found that children under two-and-half-years-old showed no preference for either individual while among children older than five, eleven out of twelve did, for the white person. These findings suggest that while racial preference comes early in life and as a consequence of our tendency to favor the ingroup, as Pinker (2011) proposes, it is, nevertheless, an acquired stance, reliant on recognition of shared attributes to define the outgroup. Kelly et al.’s (2009) research with Han Chinese babies also suggests the universality of ingroup preference and that the ability to recognize and differentiate individuals within our ethnic group develops early in life, yet that this preference is contingent on continuous direct interaction. In Kelly et al.’s (2009) study, three-month-old Chinese babies spent about the same time looking at Chinese and other-race novelty faces presented in photographs, but infants three to six months older spent significantly longer time observing Chinese faces than observing other-race faces.

Race categorization, just as every other type of categorization, may derive from our natural tendency to find patterns in our surroundings, reduce the world into small categories, and rely on generalizations as a strategy to maximize rewards and minimize risks (Sheerer, 2008). Racial categorization accentuates salient traits, such as skin color (Trepte, 2006), and homogenize perceived characteristics, such as warmth or competence, to facilitate understanding (Brown 2000; Cuddy, Fiske & Glick’s, 2007). Take two persons of European ancestry, one of Finish and one of Italian descent. Their shared whiteness becomes a salient trait when compared to a dark-skinned person of Sub-Saharan African descent. Categorized under the same group and in the absence of other cues, we may expect them to behave similarly. However, their skin tone stops being a point of resemblance when we compare them only to each other, and thus a reason to believe that they will behave similarly as well since now skin tone becomes a trait that further distinguishes them. Are they still members of the same rice? Take Hispanics. For practical purposes we are often considered as one ethnic group, yet what race are we? When Hispanics compare ourselves to members of our own group, phenotypic differences such as skin color become salient, but when we compare ourselves to an outgroup, we tend to identify as multiracial and with a superordinate Hispanic identity that is based more on cultural than physical traits (Uhlmann, Dasgupta, Elgueta, Greenwald, & Swanson, 2002).

Stereotypes that homogenize traits within the outgroup may be but a consequence of our attempts to reduce the world into categories to facilitate decision making (Mastro & Tukachinsky, 2011; Saleem, Yang & Ramasubramanian, 2016). Ingroup homogeneity, on the other hand, may serve as a way to protect one’s identity, since it is often seen in groups with a minority status and more “frequently seen on identity relevant attributes” (Brown, 2000, p. 751).

As it relies on memory and interpretation, perception is fallible (Eysenck & Keane, 2010). Hence, stereotypes can be wrong. Brown (2000) proposes, however, that it is not useful to think of stereotypes as distortions one must fight because one cannot fight the way the mind works. Brown (2000) suggests that stereotypes should be regarded as guides for action, which can be faulty but are often reliable and that we follow primarily because they demand little processing power and to save time (Eysenck & Keane, 2010; Mastro & Tukachinsky, 2011).

Social Identity Theory explains prejudice in terms of group members’ tendency for ingroup favoritism (Brown, 2000) and as a consequence of defining the self in relation to our membership to a group, which we do so that we can acquire the value of that group’s identity (Trepte, 2006). The better our group compares to others, the higher our self-concept. Hence, Social Identity Theory predicts that we will constantly compare to members of an outgroup to either improve our self-esteem or reconsider the advantages of membership to our current group (Trepte, 2006).

Citing empirical research that illustrates examples of xenophobia as the result of perceived conflict with an outgroup, Brown (2000) highlights ingroup identification as the best predictor of intergroup behavior, especially hostile behaviors. Per Social Identity Theory, ingroup favoritism predisposes us not only to believe that our group is better than other groups—be that our ethnic group, gender, political party, or any group to which we claim membership—but also to mistreat the outgroup, even in the absence of objective causes to such favoritism, as a way to enhance our self-esteem (Brown, 2000; Trepte, 2006). Zimbardo’s (n.d.) Stanford Prison Experiment, in which he arbitrarily divided participants into two groups to play the roles of prisoners and guards, showed how strong this innate desire to favor the ingroup can be and how much it obeys to preconceived schemas of behavior. Zimbardo’s (n.d.) experiment had to be stopped because the “guards” ended putting the lives of the “prisoners” in peril.

Notwithstanding this, Brown (2000) also proposes that the self-esteem enhancement hypothesis from Social Identity Theory as an explanation for prejudice does not apply to all instances of group categorization, pointing to empirical evidence that shows a weak correlation between self-esteem and racial bias. Similarly, System Justification Theory poses that under certain circumstances “people who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject, or change it” (Jost, Pelham, Sheldon, & Sullivan, 2003, p. 32). Jost et al. (2003) findings support this: in a study that included 788 respondents, 81 percent of them white and 19 percent black, not only they found a negative relationship between socio-economic status and conformity to economic inequality, but also that this negative relationship was stronger for black respondents.

The Stereotype Content Model (Cuddy et al., 2007) resolves the self-esteem enhancement paradox by making behavior toward the outgroup dependent on social desirability factors, specifically cognitive and affective considerations derived from the perceived competence and warmth of the outgroup. Per this model, we actively attempt to hurt groups we perceive as cold and try to benefit those we perceive as warm, and we associate with groups we perceive as competent while we avoid those we perceive as less competent. The Stereotype Content Model also predicts that emotions will mediate behavior more strongly than stereotypes and thus, for groups we consider hostile, we will react with anger if we consider them less competent than ourselves, and with fear when we consider them more competent. Based on the Stereotype Content Model, Cuddy et al. (2007) created a graphic model, the BIAS map, that attempted to predict behavior based on the dimensions of active facilitation/harm and passive facilitation/harm, and ran a series of studies that supported the hypotheses of a positive correlation between held stereotypes and behavior, and that emotions have a greater effect than stereotypes on behavior.

Racial prejudice, therefore, may derive from a strong identification with one’s racial group, an inherent desire to favor the ingroup, and biases that result from recognizing a member of the outgroup “as friend or foe and as capable of helping or harming one’s own group” (Cuddy et al., 2007, p. 645). Racial prejudice’s function would be then to either increase one’s self-esteem by enhancing the value of membership to one’s group or to serve as a behavioral guide to protect us from apparent threats and increase the benefits of intergroup interaction. Consequently, racism could be thwarted by either rendering existing stereotypes that lead to prejudice ineffective as behavioral guides or by redefining the self in terms of a larger group that includes members of the outgroup (Brown 2000). That is, by changing a prejudiced individual’s attitude or his attitude function by changing his beliefs. For that, we must then understand where from these beliefs come.

Because of the negative connotations of racism, accepting membership to an overtly racist group signifies lowering one’s concept of the elf, negating one of the benefits of group identity. Hence, most Americans will not only avoid behavior that ostensibly reveals prejudiced attitudes but will also avoid association with overtly prejudiced groups. For instance, a survey from Public Policy Polling made after the Charlottesville attack (Jensen, 2017) shows that 90 percent of white registered voters have an unfavorable view of White Supremacist groups. Members of the alt-right would be the exception, of course, for they ostensibly boast about intergroup biases, but this may be because, for them, the perceived advantages of group protection surpass the disadvantages of shame (Forscher & Kteily, 2017). Nevertheless, and as said before, racial prejudice persists, either because individuals only avoid discriminatory behavior when it could be ascribed to racial motives (Mastro et al., 2008), or because prejudice remains as an unconscious bias (Dill-Shackleford et al., 2016; Cuddy et al., 2007).

If most Americans hold a genuine desire for equality, where from do these unconscious biases come from? In the Public Policy Polling survey aforementioned (Jensen, 2017), the similarities between Trump and Clinton voters’ responses to questions that would reveal overt prejudice and the marked differences in their responses to questions related to ingroup identity suggest the important role that an individual’s claimed membership plays on defining attitudes. Both Trump and Clinton voters expressed to have an unfavorable view of white supremacist groups, 84 and 93 percent respectively, yet 45 percent of Trump voters believe that white people face the most discrimination of all races while only 5 percent of Clinton voters do (Jensen, 2017). Similarly, 61 percent of Trump voters are favorable to the figure of Robert E. Lee, and 47 percent oppose to relocate Confederate monuments, while only 17 of Clinton voters are favorable to the figure of Robert E. Lee and only 10 percent oppose to relocate Confederate monuments (Jensen, 2017). That Trump and Clinton voters concentrate in different areas of the country (, 2016) hints that political sympathy may be linked to geographical location. So too may be racial biases.

For those living in the diverse environment of a multicultural metropolis, such as the city of Los Angeles, appreciating the benefits of diversity may come as a given. Because they have the opportunity to establish various meaningful relationships with members of other racial groups, as either friends, colleagues or simply as fellow city dwellers, they can become “color blind,” claiming membership to superordinate groups defined by characteristics other than race without having to reject their subgroup identity. They may still use mental schemas to categorize new people they encounter, but the continuous interaction allows them to base affective responses more on individual rather than group attributes (Sanders, 2010). However, not everyone lives in a city as diverse as Los Angeles, and even here, the illusion of diversity is lost when one traverses its many neighborhoods. Many remain highly segregated, a consequence of the decades of restrictive covenants enforcing race separation (Sanchez, 2007).

The Racial Dot Map, published electronically by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service (2013), shows how non-diverse American cities still are. Each dot on the map represents an American resident categorized by ethnicity. At the national level, the eastern half of the map is mostly blue, representing the white population, with tinges of green in the southern states and the largest urban areas, representing the black population. The western half of the map is mostly empty, yet blue dots are still the majority. Hispanics, represented by orange dots, concentrate mostly in California and Texas.

At 61.3 percent, non-Hispanic whites are still the majority of the US population (Quickfacts, 2016). Thus, it is not surprising how living in a small town such as Leitchfield Kentucky, where the population is 94.4 percent white, offers little opportunity to interact with people from other races. The revealing part comes when one zooms the Racial Dot Map at the city level in places such as Cleveland, Ohio, where the white population is only 37.3 percent of the total (DADS, 2010), yet lives clearly separated from other groups, hindering contact.

Many cities in America remain highly segregated, with splotches of green, red, and orange surrounded by a sea of blue (University of Virginia, 2013). As a consequence, opportunities to establish meaningful relationships with members of the outgroup are rare, and so are the opportunities to form impressions based on personal attributes rather than categorization that obeys to held schemas (Sanders, 2010).

Add to this the fact that we spend practically most of our free time consuming media (Dill, 2009). We end up forming our perceptions of race from content designed to engage our attention rather than to present an objective view of the world.

The power of how strongly media can mold our assumptions about the world is evident in experiments such as one by Shevy (2008) who compared the mental associations among participants primed with cognitive schemas of country or hip-hop music. Having just heard a few seconds of instrumental-only music, the participants in Shevy’s (2008) study associated country music with conservative, older, white people living in rural areas and hip-hop music with liberal, young, black people living in urban areas. If, as Shevy’s (2008) results suggest, music can communicate such “a large amount of information almost instantaneously and often without conscious effort from audiences… [and] with minimal burden to working memory” (p. 495) other types of media can too. And indeed they do: Unflattering depictions of minorities and women in media and overrepresentation of straight white males (Smith, Choueiti, Pieper, Case & Marsden, 2016) lead to a false sense of normalcy and a conceptualization of race and ethnicity tied to beliefs that we may not be able to verify empirically but still accept not because we are unable to distinguish fantasy from reality but simply because they make sense (Dill, 2009; Saleem et al., 2016).

As humans, we possess the ability to dismiss information that we can readily verify as untrue by comparing it to reality and concepts held within our semantic memory: cats do not talk. However, we may still process as true information that we can only verify vicariously because it does not contradict other semantic concepts within our memory (Bandura, 2001), the “true-if-it-fits” as a learning strategy Strange (2002) refers to, by which we incorporate fictitious assertions from narratives as facts, even when we are aware of its fictional nature. Strange (2002) ran an experiment that exposed participants first to a historical narrative, then to a fictitious narrative that began with the statement that all assertions within the text that did not match the historical narrative were the fruit of the author’s imagination. Strange (2002) then asked the participants to classify a list of statements based on the readings as true or fictitious. Readers not only misattributed half of the assertions to the historical narrative but also rated as probably true a majority of the assertions that came from the fictitious narrative.

The more transported we are by the stories we consume, the more receptive we become to the persuasive content embedded within. During a state of narrative transportation, our mind becomes so busy interpreting the events of a story into a particular narrative that our capacity to counterargue diminishes (Green & Brock, 2002; Laer et al., 2014; Slater, 1999; Slater & Rouner, 2002; Strange, 2002). Not only we end up processing assertions that may be false as true, but we generalize from particular situations portrayed in media to whole social groups (Mastro, 2015) because when interpreting information, our brain distinguishes between perceived facts and events but stores them separately as either semantic or episodic memories (Baars & Gage, 2010, p.38). Moreover, as time passes by, we may forget the source of the information, but the credence we give to it may actually increase in a phenomenon that researchers call “the sleeper effect” (Dill, 2009). Thus, from scenes such as the one where Bette Davis invites the house slaves to “raise a ruckus” in Jezebel (Wyler, 1938), or from the familiarity with which Mammy argues with Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (Selznick, 1939), we may wrongly conclude that slaves did not have it that bad, even when we are consciously aware that the scenes are fictitious.

The effect is a reduced sense of agency for those portrayed negatively in media and an enhanced one for the dominant majority resulting in biases that aggravate racial tension and prolong economic and social inequality (Mastro, 2015), even in the absence of legal norms of oppression, and even when discrimination is only perceived rather than made manifest. London and Rosenthal (2013) mention that for African-American students high in rejection sensitivity “success in college may be threatened by perceptions of bias, increased feelings of alienation, and avoidance of support seeking from those in the predominantly white academic institutions that are deemed threatening” (p. 10). Furthermore, racism may lead to poor health. Dill-Shackleford et al. (2016) mention that “invasive police encounters have been associated with increased symptoms of anxiety, posttraumatic stress, reduced disease resistance, depression, hypertension, obesity and chronic illnesses among African Americans” (p. 4). Giscombé and Lobel (2005) propose that increased levels of cortisol during pregnancy due to stress can cause very low birth weight and may be the cause for higher indices of mortality among black infants in America. Additionally, negative stereotypes may turn in a self-fulfilled prophecy when, predisposed to act on held stereotypes and blind to their own privilege as the dominant group, prejudiced individuals have a negative encounter with the outgroup (Saleem et al., 2016).


How then should we craft a persuasive message? A recent article on the Atlantic (O’Brien, 2017) can help us understand the function of prejudiced attitudes. The article tells the story of Andrew Anglin and his failed attempts to define his identity through membership to various groups. Anglin went from vegan to leftist, then to conspiracy theorist and anti-zionist, to hating Western culture and becoming a fan of the lost Muslim tribes of the Philippines, to becoming the publisher of The Daily Stormer, a white supremacist commentary site involved in internet trolling (O’Brien, 2017). Anglin’s mind may be too troubled to be helped, since, as research suggests, internet trolls present abnormally high levels of psychopathy and sadism, and lack the sufficient affective empathy to “internalise the emotional experience of their victims” (Sest & March, 2017, p.71), but his story may serve as an example of the extremes to which some persons would go to satisfy the need to belong. In terms of Katz’s functional approaches to attitude, Anglin’s shifting attitude may be serving a value-expressive function, granting him satisfaction from reflecting the values of the many groups to which he claimed membership (O’Keefe, 2015), groups that, as the Atlantic article suggests, changed as he confronted rejection from one after the other and kept looking for alternative options.

Say that a prejudiced individual possesses the ability to develop sufficient affective empathy for others but refuses to put down the Confederate flag that adorns the front of his porch. He will reject any message that calls the flag a symbol of treason and oppression because, to him, the Confederate flag does not represent that. To him, the flag may not represent the Southern history he claims it does either, because, chances are, he may not even know that history. That does not mean that the flag cannot represent his particular vision of Southern heritage: the city in which he grew up, his childhood memories, his family, and his close friends. In other words, the group to which he belongs. Hence, as with Anglin, his attitude may probably serve a value-expressive function too. The flag may inspire feelings of racial pride as well, but since the concept of race as a group is subjective, his attitude may come as an attempt to enhance his own self-esteem and defend the ingroup from perceived oppression. Some will mock this perception, how can the oppressors feel oppressed? nevertheless, as the Public Policy Polling survey reveals, it exists: 41 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Trump voters believe that whites, among all races, face the most discrimination, versus 8 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of Hilary Clinton voters (Jensen, 2017). That the belief seems linked to party sympathy suggests that the presumption of discrimination comes not from being rejected in housing or job applications, but perhaps from an educational system that for decades promoted the myths of northern aggression and slaves as happy servants (Duby, 2005), from narratives that promote an image of the South as “trapped by poverty and disease, illiteracy, political corruption and deep want of ambition” (Cox, 2011, p. 1) or as “a tobacco-spittin’, Bible-thumpin’, gun-totin’ (and worse) backwater” (Leopold, 2012) and perhaps too from the memes we love to share that equate a (non-liberal) white identity with ignorance and hypocrisy. That is, from an imposed sense of humiliation and inferiority that combined with the inability to abandon the social group—and thus to avoid shame—lead to hostility (Sen, 2007).

Recognizing the cause and the function of prejudice does not look to justify it, but to indicate what road to follow to induce change: not a discussion about the meaning of the Confederate symbols that may lead to further disengagement, but one that makes salient the relationship with those for whom these symbols inspire feelings of hopelessness, resentment, and disenchantment, and thus, will lead him to recognize the uselessness of a symbol to express his values if these values are to include everyone he cares for. That is, a message that induces guilt, perhaps, but also empathy, approach, and compassion. Unless the recipients of a persuasive message are motivated enough to scrutinize the merits of its arguments, most attempts to convince them of the offensive nature of the Confederate flag with historical facts will fail, anyway. As The Onion (2017) artfully satirizes, no one will suddenly feel “Betrayed By President After Reading 800 Pages Of Queer Feminist Theory.” On the other hand, a message that engages the receiver through a peripheral route (Petty, Wheeler, & Tormala, 2012), matching feelings with feelings (Dill-Shackleford et al., 2016), using positive affect to shape behavior that would otherwise obey to stereotypes, as the Stereotype Content Model recommends (Cuddy et al., 2007) and that the receiver does not recognize as a threat to his identity (O’Keefe, 2015) may change his attitude.

Dill-Shackleford et al. (2016) mention several specific examples in which dialogue born from direct and continuous interaction led to prejudice reduction. An inspiring example comes too from the story of Daryl Davis, a black man who for the past 30 years has befriended over 200 members of the Ku Klux Klan, inspiring them to give up their robes (Brown, 2017). In his words, “as you build about that relationship, you’re forming a friendship. That’s what would happen. I didn’t convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves” (Brown 2017).

The task can be daunting. Depending on the receiver’s level of ego-involvement with the matter (the size of the flag could serve as a proxy) reliable attitude change may require a great length of time and patience (O’Keefe, 2015). Nevertheless, proposing a different media diet, a curated one, that allows prejudiced individuals to establish parasocial relationships with the outgroup through media characters can help too.

When a message takes the form of a narrative, it allows the receiver to develop cognitive and emotional empathy with the characters (Green & Brock, 2002; Slater & Rouner, 2002). Dill-Shackleford, Vinney, and Hopper-Losenicky (2016) mention that news presented as narratives can result in “greater empathy, compassion, positive thoughts, and behavioral intentions towards the people described in the stories” (p. 6). Since narratives allow to observe characters in vulnerable situations and follow a script intended to provoke a specific perception, they often allow for a clearer understanding of a character’s undertake than casual real-life interaction (Sanders, 2010). Moreover, the persuasive power of narrative transportation is such that it can weaken entrenched positions. In an experiment that measured the effect of narrative transportation in reducing counterarguing, Igartua and Berrios (2012) found that, after watching the film Camino, which conveys negative beliefs about the Opus Dei, a group of Spanish students presented a small yet significant change of attitudes toward the religious group and religion, being more likely to agree with statements such as “religion is an obstacle to living a full life” (p. 525) than those in the treatment group, who watched a different movie. The persuasive effect of transportation was greater for those students in the control group who identified as being “on the left” yet still significant for those who identified as being “on the right” (Igartua & Berrios, 2012). Thus, a nicely wrapped copy of Hidden Figures (Melfi, 2016) or recommending a show like Chewing Gum (Coel, 2015) could lead a prejudiced individual to rethink his attitude and achieve what confrontation could not.

Research suggests how the positive use of exemplars and prototypes in media can reduce prejudice (Mastro, 2015; Ramasubramanian, 2015). For instance, in a study that assessed the effect that exposure to gay characters on TV had on the endorsement of gay equality, Bond and Compton (2015) found not only a positive relationship between both but also that, even in the absence of interpersonal relationships with gay persons in real life, those that had developed parasocial relationships with gay characters on TV presented as strong an association with the endorsement of gay equality as those who did have meaningful interactions with gay persons. The effect may be stronger when the portrayals adhere to some preexisting cognitions. Mastro and Tukachinsky (2011) ran a study that assigned 74 white participants to one of either three conditions: groups one and two read fictitious news stories, either about a sitcom similar to Everybody Loves Raymond with an all-Latino cast, or about a sitcom similar to Friends also with an all-Latino cast, while the third group did not read a story. Mastro and Tukachinsky (2011) found that participants who read the news story about the sitcom similar to Everybody Loves Raymond, which aligned to a common stereotypes of Latinos as being close to their families, showed an improved assessment of Latinos than those who read the news story about the other sitcom or those in the control group.

Research also suggests that a higher sensation of presence can help reduce prejudice by increasing empathy for the other. Peck, Seinfeld, Aglioti, and Slater’s (2013) measured the implicit racial biases in a group of white Spanish students before and after having a virtual reality experience using either a light, dark or purple skin avatar. The students under the dark-skin avatar condition presented higher differences between the pre and post tests than the others participants, suggesting that the virtual reality experience helped reduce their implicit biases.

Additionally, the use of prototypes in narratives can allow receivers to embrace a superordinate identity shared with the characters with which they identify while retaining a subgroup identity. For instance, a study that tested the effect of different models of extended contact on reducing British children’s prejudice toward refugees (Cameron, Rutland, Brown & Douch, 2006) found that making salient in a story both a superordinate identity—attending the same school as the participants—and membership to different subgroups—as British or refugees—significantly improved outgroup attitude, and more so than decategorization or common identity interventions.

In summary, I propose that to bring real attitudinal change we should stop equating group membership to prejudice because these propositions may backfire. Instead, I propose crafting messages aiming to strengthen relationships with members of the outgroup through increased exposure and the use of narratives, and in a manner that does not conflict with an individual’s concept of group identity. This will allow for the development of positive affect that with time (and patience) may render existing behavioral schemas ineffective and lead to identification with a larger ingroup. As the story of Daryl Davis suggests, change is possible, but it requires a willingness to change one’s entrenched attitude first.


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The War on Love

I got this crazy idea about how to include men in the fight for women’s reproductive rights, and so I wrote a paper about it, below.

On October 6, 2017, the Trump administration rolled back the mandatory provision of the cost-free birth control coverage included in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) allowing all employers, not only the religious organizations initially exempted by the Obama administration, to negate birth control coverage to women based on their particular religious beliefs (Ehley, 2017). Supporters of women’s reproductive rights are understandably outraged. They have been outraged for a very long time at what the Democratic party labeled as the War on Women, the series of Republican policies aimed to curtail women’s reproductive rights (Zengerle, 2012). Their outrage was not sufficient to prevent the GOP from winning the presidency and a majority in both chambers of the Congress last year, however. Can it be sufficient now to win this new battle against women’s rights?

While the fight to grant women full reproductive rights and access to affordable birth control has many male supporters, the movement is far from being gender balanced. Since males represent not only half of the US voters, but about 70 percent of all elected officials (Catalyst. Quick Take, 2017), unless male support for the movement increases, the fight is doomed to be a long and difficult one. My recommendation is to create emotionally charged messages aimed directly at males to help them understand how the women’s reproductive rights movement benefits them. Specifically, I propose that the Democratic party should rebrand the War on Women as the War on Love to imply that the issue is also relevant to men and to make pregnancy-free consensual sex the primary benefit of birth control.

Currently, the #WarOnWomen Twitter feed is full of posts calling women to unite and resist, and videos like this one, from Sophia Bush (2017) lecture viewers on why women need prescribed contraceptives, especially for circumstances other than sex. Watching Bush’s video (2017) from a male perspective, one can easily understand why the rhetoric needs to change. While Bush’s arguments are valid, her tone is angry and condescending; she prioritizes reasons particular to women, and overall, rather than inviting men to appreciate the advantages that birth control bring to their lives—which she does, but gesturing her hands as if she was talking to simpleton—her video invites men to distance from the matter even further. It is as if Bush’s objective had been to antagonize and ridicule men rather than to educate them on the matter. Social Judgement Theory predicts that whenever the recipient of a message assesses the position advocated in a message as contrary to his own, he will reject the message, regardless of the value of the arguments it may contain (O’Keefe, 2015). Not surprisingly, one of the first comments to Bush’s video reads: “Fuck off with your condescending tone. If insurance providers want to cover birth control, fine. But the government should not have to support it, and neither should the tax payer [sic]. Fuck off” (Bush, 2017).


The abundance of messages like Bush’s on social media, and the way many men respond to them, leads one to believe that many men do not support the women’s reproductive rights movement not only because they fail to see how they benefit from birth control (per a recent survey by PerryUndem [2017] only 37 percent of male US voters believe that they have benefitted directly from women’s affordable access to birth control) but also because they perceive their identity as men attacked by the movement’s rhetoric. As the Social Identity Model of de-Individualization predicts “when a social identity becomes salient… conformity to an internalized group norm will be strong” (Trepte, 2006, p. 266). Men who feel attacked prefer to take sides with their gender than to learn about the benefits that birth control brings to women.

By making birth control primarily about sex, instead of women, one could give men the opportunity to keep their identity as men “free of harm” while allowing them to also self-categorize among those who benefit from women’s regular use of contraceptives—because women who take contraceptives would be more likely to want to have sex with them. Changing the rhetoric will also help men identify the GOP, and not women, as the true adversary since it is the Republicans’ restrictive policies and not women’s position on the matter what threatens the quality and the quantity of men’s future sexual encounters. In terms of Social Judgment Theory, what I suggest then is to create messages that would allow men to assess the position advocated by the women’s reproductive rights movement as fully compatible with their own as men.

Renaming the War on Women as the War on Love would create new network associations that, as Westen (2008) recommends, would make the women’s reproductive rights movement more attractive for the unengaged. The term War on Love would also imply that Republican’s restrictive policies are an aberration and would link the GOP’s position to prudish, old-fashioned attitudes with which most American men, considering the levels of pornography consumed in this country will not sympathize: Per a report released earlier this year by Pornhub (2017), the site had about 9.2 billion visits in 2016 from the United States. Moreover, research suggests that consuming pornography leads to “an increase in positive attitudes toward premarital sex” (Wright, 2014, p. 93).

Of course, making birth control primarily about sex will infuriate those who claim that increased access to contraceptives promotes promiscuity, but trying to take the sexual aspect out of birth control is frankly naïve and acquiesces to a retrograde mentality. Hormonal birth control’s primary function is to prevent pregnancies. Their use for treating menstruation-related disorders and preventing ovarian cancer is secondary (ACOG, 2009), not as relevant to men, and, therefore, less likely to engage them on an emotional level. The women’s reproductive rights movement does not need more arguments to validate their claims, in any case; the existing ones are sufficient to satisfy an invested audience. What the movement needs is to enlarge the size of that invested audience, and that can only occur when more men engage at an emotional level.

The Elaboration Likelihood Model predicts (Petty, Cacioppo, & Goldman, 1981) that attitude change can only occur when there is sufficient motivation to elaborate on the merit of the arguments presented.

For men that find women’s rights of little relevance, the motivation will have to come then from a peripheral route, from messages that remind them that women who do not take contraceptives are less likely to want to have sex; that condoms can be unpleasant, expensive, and should be unnecessary for a committed couple; and that remind them of the negative consequences of unwanted pregnancies. From there, the conversation can evolve to show how women’s emancipation has improved everyone’s quality of life by reducing violence and poverty (Pinker, Location 242).


How can the Democratic party and supporters of women’s rights deliver these messages? By incorporating them in their rhetoric, of course, but also through social media with messages designed to go “viral” by making them brief, highly relevant to straight male audiences, easy to understand, and easy to spread (Jenkins & Ford, 2013) as would be the case with humorous memes and videos. Humor is important because sex and humor often go hand by hand and humorous content is more likely to gain approval (Cialdini, 2001) and be spread because it allows those who share it to easily gain social capital through other’s interaction (Ellison, Lampe, Steinfeld, & Vitak, 2011). Messages directed to young men with overtly emotional content such as “The GOP’s War on Love is cock-blocking me!” could be quite attention callers to how Republican policies undermines men’s rights. Since narratives that successfully induce a state of transportation can change attitudes and behavior better than rhetoric (Green & Brock, 2002), narratives focused on the male experience could more successfully engage men through identification (Slater & Rouner, 2002), and could help them understand how males benefit from women’s affordable access to birth control through modeling (Bandura, 2004). Democrats and supporters of women’s reproductive rights could tell sentimental stories with males as the protagonists having to decide whether to pay for food or an emergency contraceptive for their wives or showing how a father helped his college-age daughter and his boyfriend with the difficult decision of having an abortion, etcetera.

In summary, what I recommend is to create emotionally charged messages explicitly directed at motivating men to elaborate on the benefits of guaranteeing women safe and affordable access to birth control and that identify the GOP’s restrictive policies as contrary to their particular well-being. The point is not to change the narrative to men, but to help women win the support they need to win this battle.



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Maybe Neo-Nazis are just dead bored.

I watched this video today, and I think there’s something important to learn from it.

The poor idiot claims he’s doing it for fun. I’m inclined to believe him—which is not a justification; I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for him but trying to understand the reason behind his behavior. Later he says that he’s been in jail and that he enjoys offending people. I’m speculating here, but if he told the truth and he was once in jail at such young age, probably he’s poor and uneducated. In other words: powerless. And if he gets his kicks from being offensive it is because that may be the only way he feels in control. He finds meaning on causing a reaction, even a negative reaction.

Where did he learn to behave like that? There’s a part of violence that is innate, of course, but we live in a society where violence has become increasingly costly. Violent individuals risk punishment, condemnation, and ostracism—not to mention the wrath from Twitter. This guy barely escaped a beating. Why then does he behave like a jackass? My guess is, as he swiftly confesses, because he’s bored. Yes, he may be an idiot too, but being an idiot doesn’t make him engage in reckless behavior, being an idiot simply prevents him from foreseeing the consequences of engaging in reckless behavior. Boredom is what forces him to find his kicks in violence. Boredom signals the brain to look for a different goal because the current one is not rewarding enough or even toxic. Any goal! Even destructive behavior like consuming drugs, skipping school or attending a Neo-Nazi rally.

Combine boredom with the way we acquire most of our knowledge: by consuming mass media. Is media doing a good job educating us? The problem will only get worse with automation when millions find themselves with nothing to do but consume more media.

When I was eight years old, I was called to see the school psychologist. He asked me to make a drawing. Guessing I shouldn’t draw a My Little Pony and expose myself as a sissy I draw the manliest thing I could think of: the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard. I put particular attention on the Confederate Flag on the roof. I didn’t mention that I found the Duke Boys sexy, I just let the man wearing glasses think I was as manly as any other boy my age, and fascinated by cars and adventure. That’s what the General Lee meant to me: manliness. I rated manliness positively, so you could say I had a positive attitude toward the Confederate Flag too. It didn’t mean oppression and slavery to me — I was eight, I had no idea!

My attitude had a function: liking the General Lee made me appear manly in front of others, which was necessary for my survival. Back then, I would have rejected anyone’s arguments trying to convince me that the General Lee was a bad influence, but maybe I would have been opened to hear that liking My Little Pony was okay for a boy.

We should ask ourselves: What function does a Neo-Nazi attitude serve? Telling them they’re dead wrong isn’t enough. They probably know they’re wrong, but they stick to their wrong ideas for a reason. Why?

And then, where are they getting those ideas from? Could it be from media that tends to underrepresented minorities and glorify aggression? I’m not talking only about Fox News. Take this year’s Atomic Blonde, a beautifully shot, superbly directed all praise for violence. The film has a twist at the end trying to convince us that Charlize Theron’s character is not only incredibly beautiful and resilient but incredibly smart and cunning too. Well, if she were that smart she wouldn’t have risked her own life just to kill all those people. Yet we are too engrossed in the narrative to question her motives. Narratives reduce counter-arguing, that’s why they’re so persuasive. We get too busy interpreting the events in a narrative that there’s little cognitive power left behind to judge its meaning.

Take “irresponsible” Prissy, from Gone With the Wind, to go back to a classic example. In one scene, Prissy gets slapped for lying to Scarlett O’Hara about knowing how to deliver babies. Because we are transported by the story and are seeing it through the eyes of Scarlett, who’s alone and dead worried about Melanie, we agree with the slapping. However, as a commenter says on YouTube, Prissy has no reason to “give a damn about either of those two white bitches.” Why should she? Prissy is only a teenager and a domestic slave. She’s a fictional character of course, but slaves like her were probably beaten often, starved, separated from their family, and received no compensation for their work. Why should she feel sympathy for her oppressors? Nevertheless, because it is Scarlett’s and not Prissy’s story the one we follow, and because we’re too busy worrying what will happen next—will Melanie survive?—we don’t stop to ponder over Prissy’s motives.

The point is, we are bored, we are powerless, and we acquire most of our knowledge from narratives that may be distorting reality but at the same time are so engaging that they limit our capability for critical thinking. Punching nazis may temporarily improve our mood but won’t solve the problem. The obvious answer is education, but education tends to be incredibly boring too. What we need is our education system to learn from the entertainment industry on how to become more engaging so that destructive behavior doesn’t become a way to escape boredom. And we need entertainers to become more educated too, so they can create better content.


Turn it into a game. Applying Principles of Gamification to Create Better Stories

Storytellers want their stories to be addictive so that the readers keep turning pages and viewers keep asking for more. How does one achieve that? What does engagement entail? My proposal here is to turn stories into a game for the readers—or listeners, or viewers, anyone that consumes a story—to play.

No, I’m not proposing to write interactive stories in which readers decide with a click what is going to happen next, but for storytellers to use gamification principles when crafting a story to increase engagement. Basically, to reconcile the transportation-imagery model (Green & Brock, 2002; Laer, De Ruyter, Visconti, Wetzels, 2014) with self-determination theory (Ryan,& Deci, 2000) and Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow (Green & Brock, 2002). Don’t worry; I’ll try to lay my arguments in plain English.

Let us begin by defining terms. What is engagement? That which keeps you interested and willing to continue performing an activity, such as reading a book or watching a movie until interrupted by boredom. In other words, something is engaging when it is not boring. Lame definition, I know, but this is our first aha! moment: the first step to increase engagement is to avoid boredom.

We could blame boredom on the readers’ ignorance or lack of discipline, but the truth is that even the most compelling stories can become boring if told the wrong way. Likewise, the simplest adventures can be a rollercoaster of fun if spiced up. Is that what you should do, then, add more salt and pepper to your story? Yes, but, as the cliché says, one must also learn when to kill his darlings—those that are boring, that is.

Boredom is an emotion, and as every emotion, its function is to direct behavior (Bench & Lench, 2013). Boredom is related to disgust (Toohey, 2011), and as disgust, it convinces you to stop, plain and simple. Boredom signals the brain that the current goal is no longer attractive, even toxic (Willis, 2014), and that a different goal must be pursued (Bench & Lench, 2013). Therefore the feelings of discomfort one suffers when bored and still forced to continue. Not only that, boredom cuts the communication between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of your brain, impeding the formation of long-term memories (Willis, 2014).

Yes, boredom can prevent you from acquiring valuable knowledge. It is an evolutionary advantage to increase the chances of survival: Just like disgust prevents us from getting sick by not eating what we find repulsive, boredom prevents us from devoting our undivided attention to a single, unrewarding activity for too long. The world is a scary place, and if we wonder for too long why the sky is blue or how many angels can dance on a pin head, we may get eaten, killed, or left behind. The risk may not be as high in this modern world, but your brain doesn’t care. No matter how much time you have on your hands, your subconscious still decides whether a current task deserves your whole attention or not. That is, perhaps, why you keep checking your social media accounts every ten minutes, because you’re not sufficiently engaged at work.

So far this may sound like redundant advice: to be interesting one must not be boring, but the temptation to write long, insipid, unrewarding back stories or fill up pages with exposition exists. If it is boring, cut it, regardless of how beautiful the prose. Your readers’ brains will reject it anyway.

So how not to be boring? If boredom is an indication to stop and pursue a different goal, you need the opposite, to motivate your readers to continue by leading them into a state of flow, one that demands intense focus but is also meaningful, challenging, and rewarding by itself (Green & Brock, 2002) as when you read an amazing story or play an interesting game, and you simply don’t get bored. Applied to narratives, we say that an engaged reader has been transported to the world of the story to the point that they ignore their physical surroundings and instead “see the action of the story unfolding before them” (Green & Brock, 202, p. 317).

When fully transported, the decision to continue is automatic. If you get bored, the decision to proceed or not becomes conscious and will depend on an external reward rather than intrinsic enjoyment derived from the activity, as in “I better finish reading this BORING article if I want to pass the finals,” or “I better stop here, this article is BORING, and I have much better things to do.” That is the tenet of self-determination theory, which explains motivation. Concerning consuming stories, we can say that readers are intrinsically motivated to read a story when the story is rewarding by itself, and extrinsically motivated when reading depends on an external reward, like obtaining a good grade.

What this means is that to craft an interesting story, you must reward your readers because rewards keep them engaged.

Does that mean stories should be a sugary road to happiness? All the contrary. Rewards bring you joy, of course, but joy, like all emotions, fades with time and has a diminishing marginal utility (Bench & Lench, 2013). One pony is fantastic, two ponies better, why not, but the sixth pony is just meh! By pony number fourteen you are probably so sick of those tiny horses, you can’t care less if all die. Transportation is off, and you return to the real world. For stories to be rewarding they need to be painful too; otherwise, the rewards become meaningless. Conflict brings some of that pain. Pain is what makes rewards delicious. Too much pain, however, and the activity becomes harrowing. How much is too much? Conflict arouses your readers’ interest but only when there is hope this conflict will get resolved, and in the measure of the emotions it arouses. As directives of behavior emotions serve also as indicators of progress toward a goal (Bench & Lench, 2013), so what truly keeps readers engaged are the little steps toward a distant yet attainable goal. Here we get closer to what makes a story engaging: goal setting.

A reader’s goal is to be entertained as she relives how characters suffer and rejoice toward achieving their goals. To be engaged then, or transported—we should prefer this term since we are talking about being engaged in a story—means to emotionally identify with the characters’ predicament, empathize with their plight, and wish for them to achieve their goals, regardless of what these are. Goal setting is not the only determinant of transportation but an essential one because without goals there cannot be an emotional investment in the characters and we get bored!

Therefore the success of the hero’s journey, a classic map to create engaging stories. You have a hero, one with a clear goal and a journey that is but a rollercoaster of emotions as he rejects the quest first, then accepts it, then succeeds, then fails, then gets help from a supernatural power, then fails again, then succeeds. The problem I see with the Hero’s Journey is that it becomes a recipe that storytellers follow to achieve success rather than an example. Works with children, who are easy to please, but as you mature and have watched or read your fair share of stories, you gain the ability to anticipate any new development. When the rewards start coming at a predictable pace, the story becomes less engaging (Eyal, 2012).

How does this relate to gamification? Gamification refers to the application of game elements to non-gaming activities to increase motivation (Conaway & Garay, 2014; Crowley, Breslin, Corcoran, & Young, 2012; Landers & Callan, 2011). Understanding what causes a state of flow, and Self-Determination Theory explains how games keep you motivated.

Let us use a game we all know to explain it: Candy Crush Saga. Solving puzzles is basically a waste of your time, and as we said before boredom protects us from wasting time. Why then is the game so addictive? Because we derive satisfaction from solving puzzles, it makes us feel smart. What Candy Crush Saga does is to allow the player to reach a state of flow, one that demands her full attention and is rewarding by itself (Morris, Croker, Zimmerman, Gill, & Romig, 2013). Then, the game keeps the player motivated by satisfying her needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which per Self-Determination Theory are key to motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Candy Crush Saga satisfies your need for autonomy by allowing you to play at your own pace and devote only as much time—or money, if one decides to buy the boosters—as you want. You can play the game anywhere, anytime, as long as you have a device with an internet connection.

Candy Crush Saga satisfies your need to feel competent, with puzzles that are easy to solve at the beginning but get increasingly challenging as you progress. Instead of boring us, the increasing challenge keeps us going, and we only quit when the game becomes too easy or too difficult—or reality calls. Additionally, the game continually rewards you for your good decisions with catchy sounds, power ups, explosions of color, and words like “divine” and “tasty.” By the time you complete level 252 with over two million points you feel nothing less than the Queen or the King of the world, especially because completing a level is yes, product of your own effort but also occurs relatively at random, which keep you even more hooked: uncertainty increases our willingness to continue, because our dopamine levels increase with anticipation (Rose, 2012; Eyal, 2012). In other words, we are happier when we are about to attain what we want than when we attain it. Lastly, if you fail, no big deal, you can try again, and then again, and again, until you complete the level. Candy Crush Saga won’t judge you. It celebrates you the same whether it took you ten minutes or a year to complete a level.

It doesn’t stop there: The game also makes you feel part of a community, satisfying your need for relatedness by allowing to brag about your success on social media, see your friends’ progress, help them or ask for their help, and gives meaning to your apparently purposeless efforts by interjecting the story of how Tiffi lends a hand to the residents of Candy Kingdom. These may be only fictional characters, but they sure are grateful.

To summarize, the elements of gamification are: 1. progress path, through the use of challenges; 2. constant feedback, on what you do right and what you do wrong, and instant gratification to keep the user motivated and make forward movement obvious; 3. social connection, with both real and fictional characters, providing competition and support, and 4. interface and user experience, which refers to the aesthetics of the game (Conaway and Garay,2014).

How can you apply this to increase transportation?

Let’s recapitulate. To increase transportation, a reader must willingly join the characters’ on an emotionally bumpy quest to achieve their goals. Bumpy, because if it isn’t challenging enough, the journey becomes boring. To remain engaged, the reader must constantly be rewarded, but these rewards must come after solving the challenges along the trip. If the trip is too easy, the reader may get bored; if it is too difficult, the reader will get frustrated, and bored and frustrated readers quit. Because seeing the characters’ attain their goals is the ultimate reward—in addition to those smaller rewards collected along the way—these goals must be set as early as possible. The reader must know what the purpose of immersing into a story is. Otherwise, boredom will signal the reader’s brains to occupy herself with something else.

In essence, transportation results from leading readers into a state of flow, but not any state of flow, but one that leads to the creation of mental imagery and developing empathy for others. Solving a simple puzzle involves no characters. Narrative transportation occurs only when the task at hand involves interpreting a story, a sequence of events with identifiable characters. Interpreting is the key word. One must differentiate then between a story, as one that is told, and a narrative, as one that is interpreted by the reader (Laer, De Ruyter, Visconti, & Wetzels, 2014). The difference is important because interpreting is what makes consuming a story an active and progressively challenging task that can lead to a state of flow. Therefore, all the writing advice clichés: Show; don’t tell. Less is more. Make the reader read between the lines, and kill your darlings. In other words, provide just enough information so that the reader is forced to solve a puzzle. Exposition should set the rules not drive the story. Too many rules and nobody will want to play. Too little rules and players will get confused. Start easy and acknowledge the reader’s abilities and familiarity with the subject, the characters or the genre. Do not waste time explaining how a submarine operates, unless the reader needs the information to solve a future puzzle. If she does, bring the information closer to that puzzle; if she doesn’t, delete it. That not only makes a story engaging but also satisfies the readers’ need for autonomy, for they become the ones building the story with you. Give them control over the little details; let them decide the make and color of the heroes’ automobiles; the clothes they wear, etc. It is not a matter of losing control but of staying in control by constantly teasing, by leading the path with crumbs, create anticipation, and not losing their attention. An increased sense of presence should result not only from the creation of mental imagery suggested by the story but also by speculative thoughts.

For instance, in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Besson, 2017), the origins of the city are suggested with a series of images of the International Space Station accompanied by a well known song, Space Oddity. The Bowie song puts you in a good mood and because we all know it (and love it) and because the International Space Station is also a concept we are all familiar with, as viewers we easily reach a state of transportation and do not question what comes next: the City of a Thousand Planets, Alpha, growing from all sorts of interplanetary species joining the station. The details of how the different technologies and politics were reconciled are irrelevant. We are too busy interpreting and enjoying the story. Had Besson chosen to explain the origin of Alpha with exposition, say by listing the circumstances under which each civilization joined the station, the result may not have been as transporting. What he did was to exploit the knowledge that most viewers already possessed: a catchy song that suggests the magic of space exploration and the existence of a real international enterprise, and then lead the viewers to connect the dots.

Is the experience rewarding? Absolutely. Not only is aesthetically beautiful, but it inspires a sense of hope in the future of humanity. Then it becomes valuable knowledge for what is coming next, the most exotic world you could ever imagine, compressed in a relatively small space, the size of a “city.” By the time we return to Alpha, we do not question its existence, or how it became such a chaotic place, but it remains an intriguing place, we want to know ans see more, and thus we continue engaged.

The Alpha sequence does not introduce us to the main characters or their goals; nonetheless, it sets a clear goal in the reader’s mind: to learn more about this world. It prepares us for wanting more.

Cinema as a medium has the advantage of being more immersive than print narratives because a film can provide in one frame much more detailed information than text could in one line and without disrupting the pace of the narrative (Biocca, 2002). Immersion, however, does not guarantee continuous engagement. All the contrary, ambiguity does, because ambiguity leads to the creation of mental imagery and speculative thoughts. Take the opening scene in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

‘My dear Mr. Bennet,’ said his lady to him one day, ‘have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?’

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

‘But it is,’ returned she; ‘for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.’

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

‘Do you not want to know who has taken it?’ cried his wife impatiently.

‘YOU want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.” (Austen, 2009, Kindle Location 21659)

Austen takes advantage of our familiarity with similar characters and circumstances to let us deduce that Mrs. Bennet talks a lot, but her husband doesn’t. From the text we also infer that the new resident of Netherfield Park is rich and single, that the Bennets have daughters of an appropriate age to be married, and that Mrs. Bennet wants to marry one of them with him. Nothing of this is stated, though, merely suggested. The reader becomes acquainted with the characters, and that without being told what they look like, how they’re dressed, where exactly the action takes place, or any other information irrelevant to the story. I imagine the Bennets in a small drawing room, one similar to the many drawing rooms I’ve seen in British movies, Mr. Bennet busy with a book, Mrs. Bennet pretending to be examining the curtains. Austen presents us with a challenge, that of interpreting the story, but she gives us the absolute liberty to recreate the scene in whichever manner we want. In a game, we have the autonomy to move and explore with liberty as long as we follow certain rules. In Austen’s novels, we have the autonomy to imagine what the Bennets look like, where they are, as we discover what they want. Our reward? Elegant yet easy to follow prose, which plays the role of hyper realistic graphics, and the comedic situation. Impossible not to smile at Mrs. Bennet’s attempt to call her husband’s attention! By the time we meet the Bennet daughters, we have already sided with their mother’s intentions whether we approve of them or not. Alas, when Lizzy and Mr. Darcy first meet, they dislike each other intensely… And how fortunate that is! It would have been a waste of our time if the story ended without any obstacles. Finally, not every reader will be enthused about the limited options for the Bennet daughters, but as the story progresses, it becomes impossible not to relate and dream about living too in that world, England’s countryside at the turn of the nineteen century, despite the lack of comfort, the threat of war, the poor hygiene, and other circumstances from which the narrative distracts us.

Laer et al. (2014) list identifiable characters, imaginable plot, and verisimilitude as antecedents dependent on the storyteller, and familiarity, attention, transportability, and demographics such as gender and age, as antecedents dependent on the story receiver that influence transportation. My proposal is not to change these ingredients, but the way they are cooked: as a series of puzzles following a progress path, providing feedback, social connection, and a pleasurable user experience. A storyteller must not limit to introduce characters and their goals but invite readers to recreate these characters and infer their goals based on the rules that the storyteller sets upon consideration of the readers’ abilities, that is by taking advantage of the readers’ experience and their willingness to confront a challenge, because this will satisfy the readers’ need for autonomy and competence. The storyteller must also reward readers with beautiful images, witty lines, and by allowing progress to be evident to keep the readers’ attention, and be careful to provide these rewards only when they are deserved, after some good tormenting, and not as often or in a pattern that makes them predictable, to satisfy the readers’ need for competence. And a storyteller must invite his readers to bond with his characters and feel part of their world, and their circumstances. Who wouldn’t change places with Harry Potter, orphaned as a baby, raised without love, surrounded by enemies, and in constant peril, for a chance of attending courses at Hogwarts and Christmas at the Weasley’s? A story needs to satisfy our need for relatedness to be complete.


Austen, Jane (2009). The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Annotated with Biography and Critical Essays) (Kindle Locations 21662-21666). Douglas Editions. Kindle Edition.

Bench, S. W., & Lench, H. C. (2013). On the function of boredom. Behavioral Sciences, 3(3), 459-472. doi:10.3390/bs3030459

Besson, L. (Director). (2017). Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets [Film]. France: Europa Corp.

Conaway, R., & Garay, M. (2014). Gamification and service marketing. SpringerPlus, 3(1), 653. doi:10.1186/2193-1801-3-653

Crowley, D., Breslin, J., Corcoran, P., & Young, K. (2012). Gamification of Citizen Sensing through Mobile Social Reporting. Paper presented at the Games Innovation Conference (IGIC), 2012 IEEE International.

Eyal, N. (2012). Hooks: An Intro on How to Manufacture Desire. Retrieved March 26, 2016, from

Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2002). In the mind’s eye: transportation-imagery model of narrative persuasion, in M. C. Green, J. J. Strange & T. C. Brock (Eds.), Narrative impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations (pp. 315-342). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Laer, T. V., De Ruyter, K. , Visconti, L. M., & Wetzels, M. (2014). The extended transportation-imagery model: A meta-analysis of the antecedents and consequences of consumers’ narrative transportation. Journal of Consumer Research, 40(5), 797-817. doi:10.1086/673383

Landers, R., & Callan, R. (2011). Casual Social Games as Serious Games: The Psychology of Gamification in Undergraduate Education and Employee Training. In M. Ma (Ed.), Serious Games and Edutainment Applications (pp. 399-421). London: Springer-Verlag.

Morris, B., Croker, S., Zimmerman, C., Gill, D., & Romig, C. (2013). Gaming science: The “Gamification” of scientific thinking. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1-16. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00607

Rose, F. (2012). The art of immersion: how the digital generation is remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the way we tell stories (Kindle ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. In Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67 (2000) doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020, available online at

Willis, J. (2014). Neuroscience Reveals That Boredom Hurts. Phi Delta Kappan, 95 (8), 28-32. Doi: 10.1177/003172171409500807.

Kale, oats, and cornmeal pancakes

Post a picture of your husband and pancakes, forty seven likes. Post a reminder that you wrote a book and need reviews, zero likes. What’s the point of having hundreds of friends on social media if none will rush to attend your every desire? It is almost as if people thought their own lives are more important than mine. How can they be so callous and heartless? An author needs praise! Constant praise! Anyways, since the photo proved to be popular, here it is again, and, why not, an excerpt of my newest novel Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love, where I mentioned the recipe.

Read it in the voice of thirty-seven-year-old white homosexual from Leitchfield, Kentucky.


28. Johohoe!

It’s Sunday morning, and I’m in a terrible state, hardly in the mood for my traditional kale, oats, and cornmeal pancakes. Jignesh looks rather skittish too. His face is as pale as Meryl Streep’s in The French Lieutenant’s Woman when she first sees Jeremy Irons at The Cobb in Lyme Regis’s harbor.

“Do you still feel like going to the Opera this evening?” He asks without lifting his eyes from his plate.

I put my fork down. He must be kidding me. I’m wearing my new silk robe from Ralph Lauren—since it is a special occasion, I saw no point in buying only clothes for the evening—I didn’t eat anything but steamed broccoli for the last two weeks so that I would be the skinniest man at the Dorothy Chandler—I’m having only half a pancake today and totally planning to barf it—and I have lived for the last three months with the oppressive fear on my chest of not knowing whether the man I share a roof and sometimes a bed with is going to murder me. And after what I saw on Friday morning…

“I’m really looking forward to it,” I say, giving a sad tone to my words, like that of a heartbroken Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility after she lost Willoughby, while trying not to scratch the table from underneath and ruin my $50 manicure from Kinara.

I cannot show myself mad, lest Jignesh gets mad too and kills me, the butter knife inches away from his hand and all. The disappointment on my face must be evident, though, for he doesn’t insist. He briefly looks at me then continues drinking his coffee in silence.

It’s been a rather uneasy two days. A rather uneasy three months, since I discovered the first body… Friday, I closed yet another week without having a single sale, and Tunisha had to let me go.

I did like Julianne Moore in Safe and started sobbing quietly. Poor Tunisha, she’s an excellent boss and awfully inspiring, but she doesn’t know what to do when white people start crying. She got all mortified like that one time when that irresponsible meth addict—what’s her face? some white-trash name like Kimberly—started crying too because she wouldn’t approve an advance on her commissions. Kimberly had terrible skin, but her hair color was just gorgeous. And it was her natural color, I imagine, you wouldn’t think that a drug addict driving a 1987 Crown Victoria full of ten years of fast food wrappers would spend her hard-earned commissions in hair coloring, would you? Not when her teeth and skin were what needed attention. Anyway, Tunisha is such a great a supervisor; she’s always super considerate. She has a brilliant future ahead within the company. The last thing I wanted was to make her feel uncomfortable. After a minute, I brushed away my tears, took a deep breath, said “thank you for everything” and that I would just go empty my desk and leave.

When I reached the door, though, all the repressed emotions came out at once. “I thought he was the man I would spend the rest of my life with,” I think I said at one point. “But he kills people!” Thank God I was bawling by then and so Tunisha couldn’t quite understand me. She called Sherise to bring me a glass of water. When I calmed down, I promised Tunisha I would do better if she gave me another chance. I even knelt down and attempted to kiss her feet. And that rug is so dusty…

Apparently Jignesh had problems at work too. What precisely, he wouldn’t tell me, but the meal we had on Friday evening was the saddest meal we’ve had since he moved in. I couldn’t talk and he just wouldn’t.

He spent the whole day yesterday at his office. Some emergency he had to deal with, he said. One can only hope he wasn’t killing more people.

I decided to visit my friend Lucille in hopes that she could—well, adopt me?

I hadn’t stepped out of the car when she came running as happy as a dog on its first day at the beach: “We’re pregnant!”

I could not ruin her day of happiness, could I? Lucille and Marco have been trying to have a baby for months—what for? It’s beyond my grasp. She has such a nice figure… Gosh, today’s pancakes are so good, I’m glad I added coconut oil to the batter instead of butter. Should I have another half? Anyways, I didn’t tell Lucille that I had lost my job. I simply let her talk and talk baby while I internally basked in my private tragedy. At last, she asked: “So how are things going between you a Jignesh?”

“Oh, marvelous!” I replied.

What else could I have said? For the first time since I met Lucille, her tone didn’t sound like a reprimand. I didn’t want her to feel disappointed.

“And tomorrow is the big day, yay!” She clapped.

“Oh, yes,” I laughed, as if I had forgotten all about it. “Der Fliegende Holländer.”

I’m positively looking forward to tonight’s performance, I can’t deny it. I know the lyrics by heart already: Johohoe! Johohohoe! Johohohoe! Hoe! Hoe! Hoe! Hoe! That and the satisfaction I know I’ll get when, once more, I check in on Facebook at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, donning my super expensive razor jacket from Rag & Bone, and then I see all those likes flowing in, especially from all those people I left behind in Kentucky who never thought I would make it as far as Cincinnati—that’s what keeps me alive.

“I never truly loved your father,” I imagine a septuagenarian self on a rocking chair telling our grown-up children. “But that was the best night of my life.”


Brainwashing with LIES!

Yay, people are reading my paper, A Cross Theoretical Model of Persuasion!

Its code title was BRAINWASHING WITH LIES!!! Because it is a guide on how to increase the persuasiveness of a message when dealing with stubborn people that JUST DON’T GET IT. Sometimes a fictional story is the only plausible solution.

You can download it here:

Here’s the link to the video



How to increase engagement using the secrets of successful vloggers

Have you heard about Bethany Mota? Bethany is part of a generation of successful video bloggers (or vloggers) who have made a successful career by, apparently, just being themselves and playing silly in front of a webcam.

Bethany was 13 years old when she created her first YouTube video in 2009, a makeup tutorial for products she had just bought from MAC and Sephora. She made her video out of boredom, trying to reduce the stress of being bullied online by a classmate, using herself as a model and her bedroom as the location. The video and the ones that followed earned her a small community of followers. Soon Bethany expanded to outfit ideas, hair tutorials, and decoration advice. Today, she has over 10 million followers on YouTube — that is one and a half million more than Lady Gaga — 10 million on Instagram — Vogue Magazine has a little under 16 — and 4 million on Twitter — Madonna has only 1.5 million.

Do these numbers make you jealous? Don’t be ashamed if they do; they are big enough to make the best brands VERY jealous. Prada’s YouTube channel has only 66 thousand followers. Chanel has only 805 thousand. It makes one wonder: how can I replicate Bethany’s success? Was it luck? Talent? What is her secret?

As much as I would love to give you a recipe with easy-to-follow steps and accurate measures for replicating Bethany’s success on social media, such thing does not exist. Thankfully, psychology and media experts like Henry Jenkins and Robert Cialdini have studied similar phenomena before, and from Petty & Cacioppo’s Elaboration Likelihood Model we can learn how to strategize possible routes to engagement and persuasion. Here, I use Bethany’s success as an example to explain the experts’ recommendations to increase engagement.

To consume your content, your public has to be motivated

Easier said than done, so bear with me on this one. As I mentioned in a previous blog, motivation depends on satisfying the needs of autonomy, capability, and relatedness. In other words, to become engaged with a message such as a blog post, readers need to do so willingly, they need to be able to understand, and they need to relate to the contents of the message. Satisfying the needs of autonomy and capability when creating content to share on social media is almost a given. No one forces Bethany’s followers to watch her videos. They do so out of genuine interest. Bethany’s viewers are also plenty capable of understanding her videos: the videos are in English, they portray situations which are easy to relate to and understand, and, thanks to the affordances of mobile technology, her viewers can watch them pretty much anywhere, anytime, using a mobile device. Also, because of the affordances of social media, her viewers can find the videos without much difficulty because their close network of friends spread them each time one of them likes, upvotes, shares or comments on a video. The tricky part is then fulfilling the public’s need for relatedness. Who watches Bethany’s videos? I do not. I cannot relate. Do you? Unless you are a teenage girl or have one at home, you probably don’t either. Her audience is young girls mostly, specifically young girls that relate to what she talks about (makeup, hair, fashion) and find her advice valuable because they are interested in the same subjects. Should you run to Sephora and start creating makeup tutorials then? Nope. The lesson to be learned here is not to attempt to lure everyone but merely a few. Create content for a particular audience. Bethany sticks to subjects that are of interest to teenagers living a middle-class, sheltered lifestyle, and covers brands that she knows her followers can afford, like Forever 21 and Aéropostale.

Before you start creating content to spread on social media, figure out who your audience is. Ask yourself these questions: Who buys my product? How do they use it? What are their needs? How can I help them fulfill these needs?  If what you are trying to do is broaden your existing audience, then figure out who specifically you want to attract. The smaller your audience, the easier it will be to create content they can relate to. See it this way: Bethany fails to engage 99.87 percent of the population on this planet, now hovering close to 7.5 billion. The 0.13 percent she draws, however, can guarantee her an estimated $40,000 a month business.

The windy road is often the fastest

The central tenet of Elaboration Likelihood Model is that there are two routes to persuasion:

A central route that relies on the diligent consideration of rational arguments; as when I say that eating broccoli is good because of its anti-cancer properties, and you decide to start eating it because you can verify the validity of my statement and do not want cancer, and

A peripheral route that relies on heuristics and other mental shortcuts, as when I say: Broccoli is fun! It looks like a little tree! Celebrities love it! You wanna be healthy, huh, so why don’t you try it?

Taking the central route leads to longer lasting change and less counter-arguing, yet rational arguments are often BORING. Most times, it is easier to lead your audience through a peripheral route, and once engaged, give them the cold hard facts: Broccoli is high in fiber.


Increase engagement by appealing to heuristics

The first thing one notices when watching one of Bethany’s videos, like this one for Valentine’s Day is that she is quite attractive. Beautiful hair, flawless skin, big eyes. Then, that she’s also quite expressive, cheery, bouncy, and even a little childish. Bethany is quite likeable! And because she is good-looking, confident, and the video looks professionally made, we can safely guess that she knows a thing or two about making things look pretty. Finally, we notice the number of people that have watched the video. Whoa! Nine million views and counting. We have not watched much of her video, but after a few seconds, we already know that Bethany is pleasant to watch, she seems to be an expert on the subject of beauty, and over nine million viewers have endorsed her message. One can only conclude that, if beauty advice is a topic that interests us, her message is worth watching. Note that we reach this conclusion before a careful deliberation on the merits of her video, but by using heuristics, mental shortcuts based on experience and driven by emotions that we use to save time every time we need to make a decision. Any decision. As humans, we prefer to guess rather than to elaborate, because elaborating takes time. The lesson to be learned from Bethany is that for your message to successfully reach your target audience, you need to convince them first that there’s value in spending time going through your entire message. The sooner, the better, because there are zillions of other things, including cat videos, potentially more interesting than your content going around on the Internet. The Internet is a cruel, nasty place, where nobody has time for the central route. Unless your viewers are super motivated to engage in your content, appealing to heuristics, the peripheral route, is a more effective way to persuade them that your content is worth their time, at least until they have enough information to decide whether the information is relevant or not.

Good, but you don’t have time for a course on consumer psychology, do you? Cialdini mentions six basic principles of persuasion based on our use of heuristics for decision-making. Above I mentioned the three most important:

1. Liking, either the speaker or the way the message is delivered: using fancy colors, music, humor, etc. You do not have to be as gorgeous as Bethany to be liked. Being funny and relatable helps.

2. Authority, recognizing that the speaker must be an expert on the matter at hand,

3. Consensus, public validation of the message.

The other three are:

4. Reciprocity, our desire to repay people like Bethany for her valuable and funny advice with our attention, first, and maybe then with a “Like,” or by purchasing their product. Think about it, how many times did a restaurant earn your business with a free sample?

5. Consistency, our desire to stick to what we commit in public. Credo Mobile marketing strategy relies on reminding the public that they are as committed to social progress and environmental causes as their customers are. You cannot use another carrier if you truly care about the environment, can you?

6. Scarcity, as in “this offer will not last!” Scarcity appeals to our fear of losing an opportunity. Sure, by now we all know that that 30 percent discount will happen again next month — but what if it does not? Taking advantage of the now is an evolutionary advantage acquired during a time when winters were harsh and summers were relentless.


Tell a Story

What is stronger than Superman? A story about Superman! In the Running Late for School video, Bethany starts by telling us a story. The birds chirping let us know it’s morning time, we see her tossing and turning, then when her alarm clock goes off, she pushes it off the bed table. Oh, no, she’s going to be late! Then comes the core of her message: Running Late for school? Easy & quick hairstyles under 5 minutes. If we weren’t interested in the subject before, now we are, because by following her narrative and understanding her goal—making it on time to school and still look ravishing—we got emotionally involved. We want to know whether she will make it on time and how. Yep, Bethany’s is a simple story that won’t entice everyone, but remember the only people you need to lure are your target audience. Not every message can easily be turned into a story and stories are not always the most efficient way to deliver a message because they are not as economical as simple rhetoric — it takes Bethany a full 36 seconds of introductory narrative before she starts talking; that’s longer than most commercials. However, when motivation is low, stories are your best bet to increase engagement.

How can you create an engaging story? The recipe is simple:

Identifiable characters. Bethany uses herself. It doesn’t matter who you use, as long as you make it clear that the story is about that character.

Familiar situations that your viewer can relate to. In Bethany’s video, we easily infer it is morning time inside a teenage girl’s bedroom.

Conflict. A dismissed alarm clock. Uh-oh, she’s going to be late.

Clear goals. Making it on time to school while still looking good, as stated in the video title

Resolution. Following Bethany’s advice for Easy & quick hairstyles under 5 minutes.

Note that Bethany’s story is not about how her product saved the planet from zombies, but about how using her product, beauty advice, can save an ordinary girl from an embarrassing situation. Your story should not be about what your product does then but about how it helps people succeed or avoid failure. At ePaisa, we constantly use stories to show how our product can change merchants’ lives, like this one about a man that learned that not embracing technology can be costly.

Want to learn more about creating persuasive messages? I created this video to help communicators on choosing the shortest route to persuasion based on their audience’s motivation to engage. It’s a bit long, so watch it at your own risk 😉

— Originally written for

How to avoid a social media catastrophe like the one from United

Krampus with Pagonis

Oy, oy, oy. You already know what happened with United. If you don’t, here’s a mighty complete recount of how social media made United the biggest news on the internet.

Now, we’re not here to pass judgment or to speculate on how that particular incident could have been prevented. We’re here to tell you what to do in case you or one of your employees ever make a similar mistake to avoid a social media catastrophe. Because you are on the Internet, aren’t you? If not you should — with ePaisa’s loyalty and marketing tools it’s easy.

You aren’t as big as United, so you may wonder, why should I care? Let’s start by explaining why you should care.

The actual size of your Extended Network

Even if you only have a few friends and followers, you are connected to everyone across Social Media. How come? Because those friends and followers you have also have friends and followers. And the friends and followers of your friends and followers have friends and followers too. Think of it as a railroad network. Some persons have lots of connections, like the stations at Mumbai or Delhi. Some persons have few connections, like the Tenkasi station in Tamil, or the Amritsar station, in the Punjab. Still, one can travel between Tenkasi and Amritsar by changing trains a few times. People on social media act like station hubs, connecting other people, even across platforms, every time they interact with someone else’s post. Just imagine the number of hearts you’d get if @priyankachopra with her 17.1 million followers re-tweeted one of your tweets. And because social media travels through the rail tracks of the Internet, a tweet from Tenkasi may take only seconds to travel all the way to Amritsar, instead of the two and a half days it would take to travel by train.

Going Viral

You’ve heard of videos going “viral.” Content does not go viral at random; people must spread it by interacting with it, either by sharing, liking or commenting on it. When you and a friend go down a path, and you are overcome by the scent of beautiful jasmine flowers and comment on it aloud, your friend may be the only person that hears your comment. When you post a picture of those flowers, your close network may get to learn about them too. Depending on the size of your close network (and your popularity), you may get a comment or two, but what if you post a picture of one monstrous jasmine flower devouring your friend? That may cause some more reactions, huh? For content to go viral, two things are necessary: the content should be easy to share—and pretty much everything posted on the Internet is—and the content should be relevant. Sex, food, and fear engage everyone. Then it’s all a matter of what the public cares about.

No one likes cheaters

Now, what if you post a picture of your friend doing something really, really bad, and just for fun, like burning an entire field of jasmine shrubs. Full of baby kittens. People may react to that too, right?

To increase our chances of survival, we live in societies. And to increase the chances of society to survive, we follow rules. When we follow the rules, only our close kin cares enough to give us praise. When we break a rule, strangers may step in to let us know that wasn’t cool. The bigger the sin, the more that will rise to chastise the sinner. Morality is part of what we are. As Steven Pinker puts it humans feel that “not only is it allowable to inflict pain on a person who has broken a moral rule; it is wrong not to.” And when we’re bored or feel bitter about something, taking it out on someone else feels good, doesn’t it? Tweeting about #UnitedAirlines is the modern equivalent to attending a public hanging. And because of the affordances of social media, you don’t need to put on your pants to burn the witch.

Combine our innate desire to punish the wicked with how easy it is to share content nowadays (it takes a click), and the size of our entire extended network (friends of friends of friends of friends), and you have a recipe for disaster. Remember the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion? Do something that incites the wrath of the Internet, and you will go viral, but for the wrong reasons. As of March 2017, Facebook has 1.86 billion users. As of February 2017, Twitter has 319 million active accounts. How many of them do you think didn’t hear about Cecil’s death?

So, what to do when everything goes wrong?

For a start, don’t do anything rotten. If you do, this our take:

Empower your employees.

When protocol conflicts with the fair and decent thing to do, your employees should feel confident you will trust their judgment by abandoning protocol. Train them, motivate them, and make sure they’re ready to make good decisions. The moment you hire your first employee, you lose 100 percent control on your company.

Own your mistake.

Remember that you’re dealing with the All Judgmental Internet, a monster of a million heads that hear no reasons. You did something wrong, so be ready to apologize once, apologize twice, apologize thrice and do not try to justify it by saying you were merely following standard procedures. If your procedures led you to do something morally wrong, or at least appraised by the public at large as morally wrong, then your procedures were wrong. Recognize it.

Do not blame it on someone else.

Especially not the victim. Within one day, the United CEO was blaming the victim. That is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline! Do not blame it on villainous employees, either, even if it was ultimately their fault. From the viewer’s eyes, it is your company who is at fault. Ultimately, what employees do on company time is your company’s responsibility. On the public’s eye, if your employees do something wrong it is because you did not supervise them or train them correctly. Settle things internally, but as the leader, you must publicly own blame.

Remind the public that you are more than a faceless brand.

As a company, you are a community. You are more than a “heartless” CEO and a bunch of “greedy shareholders.” You are the company’s employees. You are the company’s vendors. Show those faces! Remind the public that your mistake hurts your team too. In other words, appeal to people’s sense of compassion by reminding them that by attacking your brand they are attacking real people. Do not try to become a martyr, just show some real faces with whom the public can empathize. Remember the Domino’s Pizza scandal when a couple of troubled employees pretended to taint customers’ orders with unsanitary tricks? Domino’s CEO jumped to defend the brand and accuse the employees as disgusting. That helped, but it took months to restore the public’s trust in the brand. Had Domino’s shown how those two troublemakers hurt the owner and employees of the franchise affected, maybe the public would have shown more sympathy to the brand.

Think coldly but be empathic.

If you are too upset to deal with the public, then don’t. Have someone less emotionally affected draft all communications, but make sure that this person empathizes with who the public recognizes as the victim.

Offer a solution.

If you cannot offer a solution right away, state that you are working on one. Don’t take too long! It’s better to overcompensate a disgruntled client than to lose all future ones. United Airlines stock took a big hit in the aftermath of the scandal. The price of its shares will probably go up again, but could your business take a similar hit?

— Originally written for – enabling commerce

Oy vey, I finished my Master’s in Media Psychology


Here’s the link to the video

Here’s a link the PDF A cross-Theoretical Model of Persuasion – Carlos Allende Final Capstone for those of you interested on reading the whole paper or checking references.

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