Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Choose your examples – and t-shirts – wisely

May 19th, 2011

Most of us see so much information in our crowded, interactive environments that it’s difficult to tell how much of it registers. Even materials we read intently can be forgotten in hours. So, is it worthwhile to put our messages out there, hoping they’ll make a difference?

It is. Studies show that even background messages can change the way people think.

A research group led by Nicolas Guéguen asked a lecturer teaching a university statistics course to use different teaching examples and practice exercises for two groups of students. One class saw and worked with data from studies that showed that eating fruits and vegetables had positive effects on health and well-being. The other class used data about other social sciences research, like the effects of practising music on IQ.

A month after the statistics course ended, both groups of students began a course on survey methods and were given an example survey about their food habits and diet. Compared with the other group, the students who had been exposed to statistics about the benefits of fruits and vegetables reported eating more fruits and vegetables themselves and being more concerned about their food intake – even though the dietary information had been peripheral to the statistics course.

Another study looked at the effect of a t-shirt slogan on self-esteem. Female undergraduate students who volunteered for a study on “personality and cognitive responses” were asked to complete an implicit association test that subtly measured their self-esteem. The test was given twice, one week apart, and during the first session, the female experimenter who explained the test wore either a plain white t-shirt or a t-shirt depicting relatively heavy women holding hands, with the statement ‘‘everyBODY is beautiful” beneath the picture. At the second session, she always wore a plain t-shirt.

recycle shirtsWhen the researchers analyzed the results of the self-esteem tests, they found that the t-shirts had no effects on self-esteem on the day they were worn. However, a week later, those women who were heavier than average and who had seen the experimenter wear an “everyBODY is beautiful” shirt the week before scored higher on self-esteem. What’s particularly interesting is that the experimenters never drew attention to their t-shirts, but they still had a noticeable effect.

Of course, subtle negative messages can be just as strong. One study found that simply rating and proofreading statements that represented “benevolent sexism” (such as “Women should be cherished and protected by men”) made women more likely to objectify themselves and focus on their appearance.

So, this doesn’t prove that we can change the world by wearing a lapel button, but it does show that relatively small, subtle or incidental messages can make a difference to the attitudes of those exposed to them. Don’t underestimate the effect you can have. I’m going to revamp my t-shirt wardrobe immediately.

3 comments on 'Choose your examples – and t-shirts – wisely'

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  1. Tata

    19 May 11 at 11:11 am

    People are yummy and smell good. That is all.


  2. Zoe

    23 May 11 at 5:34 pm

    Why would the fact that the women were heavier have made any difference to the study? Were they trying to correlate weight with self esteem, or tshirts with self esteem?


    Carol Thomas Reply:

    The participants’ weight was relevant only because of the t-shirt message: the t-shirt promoted acceptance of women at all sizes and the result was increased self-esteem in heavier women (who had, on average, lower self-esteem because of their weight, according to previous studies). So, they correlated exposure to the t-shirt message with changes in self-esteem.

    I suspect the principle would work with any group whose self-esteem tended to be lower because of a specific characteristic, whether that was lack of education, physical disability, family background or anything else. More studies!


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