How Smokey Bear Is Also a Psychologist

A new study shows the powerful effect of animal mascots—especially when people believe the animals are sad.

Smokey the Bear. (Photo: Flickr)

Sep 28, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

Remember how Smokey Bear explained that only you could prevent forest fires? It turns out he wasn’t just imparting sage advice to America’s youth; he was also tapping into an influential part of psychology—enough to affect our behavior.

Kent Messer, a behavioral economist at the University of Delaware, was interested in studying the effectiveness of what he calls “nudges”—nonfinancial incentives that can sway people to choose better options for the environment.

He decided to see if mascots like Smokey are an effective way to change behaviors when it comes to pollution.

For the experiment, Messer teamed up with environmental organization Rare, which uses mascots in several of its campaigns. He ran a simulation on his undergraduate students, who played a game in which they were the owners of a factory near a stream.

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In a scenario without any policy interventions, the students pushed for more factory production and tended to overpollute the nearby stream, Messer explained.

For other students, an extra player was involved: a mascot—either the University of Delaware’s blue hen, named YoUDee, or Rare’s Meloy Junior, a panther grouper from the Philippines.

During the experiment, the mascots silently watched the participants and either gave high-fives or looked sad at the students’ actions. Messer was surprised to find that the mascots had an impact, especially when they emoted sadness. Cue a crying Smokey Bear.

Meloy Junior, a panther grouper fish, of the Rare organization. (Photo: Facebook)

When YoUDee or Meloy Junior expressed sadness or disappointment, participants significantly lowered the amount of pollution they let into the stream and were eight times more likely to achieve the simulation’s clean water goal compared with participants who didn’t have a mascot by their side.

YoUDee, the Fightin' Blue Hen of the University of Delaware. (Photo: Flickr)

“To be honest, we really didn’t know if it would work,” said Messer. “There are no equivalent studies out there showing that a mascot will make people forgo their own self-interest.”

The researchers are submitting the study for publication.

Messer pointed out that most mascots are involved in promoting pro-social behavior: getting fans to cheer louder or laugh harder at a sports game, for example. But there are also examples of mascots that use disappointment to great effect, such as Smokey Bear or the Crying Indian from the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign.

Behavioral science—understanding why people do certain things or react in particular ways—is starting to be looked at as an important piece of the environmental movement.

In a 2013 study, scientists examined people’s reactions to anthropomorphism—attributing human behaviors to nonhuman objects.

Researchers showed some participants a poster with a picture of a food-waste bin that had sad-looking eyes and a frown, accompanied by a caption that read, “Please feed me food waste.”

The bin was “sad” because not enough people were participating in the food-waste recycling program. Participants who saw the poster with the sad-faced bin said they were more likely to recycle their food waste than did those who saw a poster with an ordinary garbage can.

The researchers concluded that humanizing objects such as garbage cans and lightbulbs was enough to evoke feelings of guilt—a powerful negative emotion—and helped people internalize abstract social causes.