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Here’s a funny thing: can comedy really change our environmental behaviours?

Someone (possibly George Bernard Shaw) once said: “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you”. While comedy can certainly soften a message, can it really change our behaviour?

ABC radio will tonight host a live comedy debate ahead of the next series of its popular War on Waste television series. The topic: whether the show actually works in reducing waste.

Behavioural science, which examines why people do or don’t do things, can unravel the puzzle. Essentially, humour is very good at getting people’s attention and helping them remember information. But it can backfire if we don’t take the behaviour change message seriously.

Read more: Comedy in the classroom? How improv can promote literacy

Can you feel it?

We know that simply telling people facts doesn’t usually motivate change. When it comes to wide-ranging behaviour change campaigns (like anti-speeding, moderate drinking and anti-smoking), a common strategy is to tap into our emotions.

Behaviour change campaigns often “frame” messages in terms of personal loss or gain. This rationale is based on exchange theory, which focuses on the cost–benefit exchange of adopting a behaviour.

This framing can then evoke an emotional response. For example, “loss” framing, which focuses on negative outcomes of a behaviour, can make us feel guilty, shocked, angry, or sad. In theory, when we see such messages we will reflect on our own behaviours and then adjust them to avoid those negative feelings in the future.

Gain-framed messages, which focus on positive outcomes, are more persuasive than loss-framed messages when attempting to change people’s behaviour. But positive emotions, like humour, are less common in social marketing.

Funny ads are easier to recall and can increase awareness, knowledge, and actions. They can also engage a larger audience. For example, “Dumb ways to die”, a campaign by Metro Trains in Melbourne to promote rail safety, went viral in 2012 and has racked up more than 168 million views on YouTube. This campaign showed that, sometimes, a life-and-death issue can be discussed with humour.

Just humour me

According to evolutionary theory, positive emotions encourage the uptake of behaviours (like feeling pride for carrying a reusable water bottle), whereas negative emotions promote withdrawal behaviours (like feeling guilty for forgetting to refuse a plastic straw).

Positive appeals are also more likely to “get people talking” and are better at encouraging voluntary compliance with a behavioural request. Unlike negative appeals, positivity doesn’t trigger a defensive response when trying to change behaviour.

When a positive appeal – like humour – is added to negative messaging, we can capture people’s attention while avoiding unhelpful defensive responses. But, be warned: engagement doesn’t always lead to desired behaviour change.

Too funny to succeed

But comedy can also backfire. America’s Centers for Disease Control tried to pair humour with fear in its “Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic” disaster preparedness campaign. This public service message unfortunately reduced individuals’ likelihood of developing an emergency plan. In this instance, humour trivialised the issue of disaster preparedness and compromised the ability of the message to encourage the desired behaviour.

Making people smile doesn’t always make them change. If a message is meant to be threatening – for example “if you speed, you will die” – humour may not be the best tool. However, a social threat with a humour-based message can be effective. For example, the “Pinkie” safe driving campaign reduced simulated driving speeds by an average of 4km per hour.

The ‘Pinkie’ ad reduced speeding.

Comedy, waste and consumption

Humour can be the hook that gets our attention. Comedy is usually a form of veiled (or not so veiled) criticism. It is used to hold up a mirror to society – to ridicule our vices and shortcomings and shame us into improvement – while our guard is down.

The first series of the ABC’s War on Waste had a huge effect on consumers’ behaviours – for instance, it helped to drive a 400% increase in KeepCup sales.

It tapped into the community’s anxiety that we are producing too much waste, and our growing realisation we have to do something about it. But it was presented in a cheeky, personable and positive way: “Look at this tram full of coffee cups. Can you believe how much waste we produce? We have to change this behaviour. And here’s how.”

When Coles and Woolworths recently stopped providing free plastic shopping bags, some people voiced their resistance to the change. This resistance was met with mockery by comedians including Kitty Flannigan on The Weekly and Wil Anderson on Gruen, and even by the retail workers’ union.

Read more: Cracking jokes: four rules for humour

This “comedy backlash” highlights another important point about humour and persuasion: we don’t want to be the group being mocked. We want to be part of the in-group who are mocking the out-group.

Sometimes, when the truth hurts, laughter is how we deal with it. It’s not the whole story, and there’s a lot more to learn about humour and waste behaviours. But it can be a useful tool in helping us acknowledge what we’re doing wrong so we can do the right thing.

The ABC live radio debate on the War on Waste will be live-streamed between 7pm - 9pm on July 19.

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