How images affect our behaviour

Prompts in the environment make their way beneath your conscious radar and into your mind, affecting your mood and behaviour. Past research has shown that a briefcase, as opposed to a rucksack, on a table, leads people to behave more competitively. A wall poster featuring a pair of staring eyes increases people's use of an honesty box. And a 2009 study found that pictures of companionable dolls increased the likelihood that toddlers would help a stranger pick up sticks they'd dropped. Now Mark Rubin at the University of Newcastle has added to this literature with an adult study showing that pictures of companionship don't just increase the giving of help, they also increase the intention to seek help.

Over a hundred students answered questions online about their general proclivity for seeking help or doing things on their own. Next they were shown a photograph of two people standing side-by-side in the corridor - either a man and woman, or woman and child - and asked to imagine for a minute that they were the woman, in the first case, or a child if they saw the second picture. Crucially, half the participants saw a version in which the two people were holding hands whilst the remaining participants saw a version in which the two people were not holding hands.

This subtle difference had a significant effect on the answers participants gave to the next eight questions they were asked, all of which pertained to whether they would seek help from other people in a lab report they had to complete later in the semester. Participants who'd seen the photo in which the two people were holding hands were far more likely to say that they would seek help than were the participants who'd seen the other picture. The difference according to Cohen's measure of effect size was small to medium, which is impressive given the subtlety of the intervention. Moreover, Rubin found this main effect held regardless of how prone people were to seeking help in general, and it held regardless of how suspicious participants were about the aims of the study. It also didn't make any difference if the hand-holding cue was seen in a romantic or parental context.

Obviously future research is needed to see if this effect applies with a non-student sample, with a non-academic helping context and with actual help-seeking behaviour rather than merely help-seeking intentions. "These findings are consistent with [the] suggestion that affiliation cues activate a broad prosocial orientation," Rubin concluded. "In particular, it appears that this prosocial orientation applies not only to others (i.e. help giving) but also to the self (i.e. help seeking)."
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ResearchBlogging.orgRubin, M. (2011). Social affiliation cues prime help-seeking intentions. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 43 (2), 138-141 DOI: 10.1037/a0022246

Further reading: Mind Wide Open, the psychology of non-conscious influences.

This post was written for the BPS Research Digest.

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