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By Katie Neitz

The experts

Angelika von WahlAngelika von Wahl
Professor and head of international affairs


Angela BellAngela Bell
Assistant professor of psychology


Society functions because of a series of successful persuasions: The Earth is round, not flat. Green means go, red means stop. Men vote—and so do women. These are all accepted realities today, thanks to an initial persuasive argument that sparked a social movement. “The boomerang effect” is a term that can be used to describe an effective—or ineffective—attempt at persuasion. It depends on the context. I asked Angelika von Wahl and Angela Bell to share how the boomerang effect applies to their specific fields of study.

Three boomerangsAngela Bell: In social psychology, we talk about the boomerang effect in terms of what happens when persuasion fails. Some give it a nickname, “the Romeo and Juliet effect,” because you are doing the exact opposite of what someone wants you to do.

Angelika von Wahl: So the boomerang effect is negative?

AB: Yes.

AVW: In my world, it’s a good thing.

AB: It’s a good thing? That’s really interesting.

AVW: It goes like this: The assumption in international relations is that the states are the most important actors. They set the rules and engage in the affairs of the world. But the boomerang effect enables other actors to alter the affairs of the world. The boomerang effect starts with a social movement that tries to convince its domestic government to change something. The government might ignore the movement’s demands. So then the social movement either gives up or goes and gets allies. Those allies could be other social movements in another country or an international organization, like the United Nations. They connect with them and work with them to pressure their own government from the outside. When the U.N. is part of the movement and steps in and says, “What’s going on here? Why are you doing this in your country?” the government realizes it needs to change. The cause comes back around with more momentum, like the path of a boomerang. So it’s a good thing—unless you are a person who is very invested in state power; then you may not like the boomerang effect.

AB: In persuasion research, if you are trying to change someone’s attitude, and they recognize it, they don’t respond how you want them to. When people feel manipulated, they want to regain control. That’s why it’s called the Romeo and Juliet effect. When Romeo and Juliet are told they can’t be together, their love intensifies. Another example is with recycling. I lived in Oklahoma in grad school. The first two years I lived there, the town didn’t recycle. Then they tried to introduce it. When people felt forced to do it, they were opposed to it, claiming that their taxes would increase or it was too much effort. But when the local county and university I went to made it more of a suggestion by providing blue and green bins, people started to use them, and recycling was supported on a broader level. So it’s all about perception. You want to feel in control, that the decision was your own.

AVW: So is this a way to explain a lot of teenage behavior?

AB: Yes, actually, it’s funny … a textbook I use mentions a study in which researchers put up a sign in a bathroom that said, “Do not write on this wall under any circumstance.” In another bathroom they put up a sign that said, “Please do not write on this wall.” There was more graffiti on the wall with the very stern warning.

AVW: This is very interesting. In my field, it’s difficult to get a boomerang going. But some marginal groups have been successful at getting their issue out on the political stage. I’ve studied this among intersex people—people who are born with both male and female anatomy. In Germany, they have been successful getting this boomerang going by going to the United Nations and arguing that the practice of surgically “correcting” a newborn was considered bodily harm. Bodily harm is taken very seriously. Germany is also very sensitive due to its negative past with human rights. So when the U.N. said, “Germany, what are you doing?” changes were made.

AB: In my field, there are principles that a minority group can use to change the majority view. One is that you need to make it look like the rights you want don’t just benefit your group. So if you change a law for human rights, it can’t just benefit the minority, it has to be framed that it’s for the greater good, that it also helps the majority.

AVW: Yes, framing plays a big role. I saw this with the group I studied. Once they reframed their issue as a human rights issue, it opened doors. We have a long history of protecting the physical integrity of the body. They were successful once it wasn’t just a radical fringe issue.

AB: So it’s a persuasion technique.

AVW: Yes, an extremely important part of a social movement is the power of persuasion. You are trying to convince other players that your issue exists, that it’s important, and that it should inform a change in policy. You’re gathering information and talking about an issue that is not in the general consciousness. And then you’re trying to convince more powerful actors to listen. You need to collect data and really good information so you are very informed. You can go to Greenpeace’s website and find out a lot. It’s very informative. If you don’t do that, you’re just out there with a sign that says, “Protect the whales, aren’t they great?” And everyone’s like, “Well … what’s so great about them? Why should I help the whales?”

AB: Yes, and which whales are we talking about, and aren’t there already enough whales?

AVW: Right, and people might think, “Well, those whales look like they are doing great, why should I care?’ So the social movement needs data and to be experts on their issue. Information and persuasion are a social movement’s currency.

AB: I talk a lot in my teaching about how human behavior is motivated by how people view themselves. If you want to persuade someone, you have to do it in a way that makes them feel good about themselves. Research shows that people have a tendency to care more about feeling good than they care about being accurate. So with the boomerang effect in your field, those groups have to reframe the message to gain those potential allies to make the other side realize, “Oh, you’re not just banging on my door or handing me this flier to inconvenience me or make me feel bad …”

AVW: Right, it’s making them see that this is about a larger issue, and they can help make a positive difference in the world.

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