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"Please feed me:" The power of putting a human face on social causes

Research shows that putting a human face on a campaign poster, as seen in the graphic above, increases compliance compared to a non-anthropomorphized poster. (Submitted graphic)

Companies often put a personal face on products in an attempt to reach a deeper connection with consumers. Now new research in the upcoming edition of Psychological Science shows the same idea can be applied to social causes. 

Putting a human face on the campaign for a social cause actually increases support for it, according to the study from team of researchers including University of Toronto Scarborough and Rotman School of Management professor Pankaj Aggarwal.

Aggarwal, along with Hae Joo Kim, assistant professor of Marketing at Wilfrid Laurier University and Hee-Kyung Ahn, assistant professor of Marketing at Hanyang University, South Korea, found that anthropomorphizing social causes is effective because it appeals to people’s sense of guilt.

“We are not consciously aware of why seeing a human face on a campaign has an impact, but we definitely feel a deeper connection to it,” says Aggarwal. “When we see an entity feeling pain we would feel guilty if we could have done something to prevent it. We also wouldn’t want that burden on ourselves so we would act accordingly to help that entity.”

People are not motivated to support social causes because it involves a personal sacrifice of time, money and effort. It’s only when they stop to consider the consequences of not participating – and feel guilty as a result – that they begin to comply.

Using energy conservation, recycling and the environment as social causes, the researchers found that by drawing a human face showing emotions on the poster increased support for each cause.

In one experiment the researchers put eyes and a mouth with a caption that read “Please feed me food waste” on a bin for organic waste. The face on the bin looks sad because of an apparent lack of participation in recycling food waste. Participants said they were more likely to place food waste in the bin with a human face compared to the ordinary, non-anthropomorphized bin.

“Not only did we find participants felt guilty about not complying with the social cause, but they also felt guilty about harming another being, in the form of an anthropomorphized light bulb, waste basket or tree,” says Kim.

Government agencies and charities use a variety of expensive and often ineffective financial instruments, such as fines, to encourage participation in social causes, says Aggarwal.

Putting a human face on a social cause, says Aggarwal, may offer an inexpensive yet highly effective means of gaining more support.

The study, “Helping Fellow Beings: Anthropomorphized Social Causes and the Role of Anticipatory Guilt,” is available online and will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science.




© University of Toronto Scarborough