Sunday, January 16, 2011

Using Soap Operas to Change Behavior

One of the things I learned about several years ago in a talk by Albert Bandura at a meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association was a practical application of one of my favorite theories of learning. Some of you know about Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. Without going into the details, the basic idea is that we can learn about the consequences of behavior by watching other people and seeing what happens to them when they behave in certain ways. For example, if you see someone slip on a patch of ice, you don’t have to slip yourself to be cautious in that place.

This idea, along with several other theories related to communication, was used by Miguel Sabido, a producer of Mexican TV programs, to develop the idea of using soap operas to change behavior in many people in a country. He focused on the exploding population of Mexico. One of the programs he produced featured a character had only two children and worked at a family planning center. Her sister had so many children and so little money that the family had to move in with the grandmother. The differences in the lives of these two families, of course, were quite dramatic. During the time he was producing this and other programs with similar social themes, the population increase in Mexico dropped 34% and Mexico received a UN award for its progress in controlling its population growth. He produced another soap opera in which an old man responds to publicity about a learn to read program for adults. In the program the man faces some obstacles, like people telling him he is too old to learn how to read, and his own feeling that no one would want to work with him, and he succeeds. Before this program, about 100,000 people each year enrolled in Mexico’s adult literacy program. During the year it was broadcast, the number was over 900,000, and the year after the broadcast it was 500,000. The point is, soap operas with a positive social message can lead to big, measurable changes in the behavior of the people in a whole country.

I could go on about this for quite a while longer, but if you are interested in hearing Bandura tell the stories of how soap operas have changed behavior all over the world, listen to his lecture about it at the Everett M. Rogers Award Colloquium, 2007, on Youtube. This link ( is not live, but you can cut and paste it into your browser if you are interested. Actually the first 10 minutes or so are him getting the award. His lecture is what you want to hear.

Population Media Center is one of the groups that is now active in trying to help countries who wish to use this method to work on social problems. I contacted them and asked about how I could help bring this idea to Burkina Faso and they told me about a soap opera focusing on child trafficking in Mali and Burkina Faso that was produced in Mali about 8 years ago. It was intended to be broadcast in Burkina Faso but apparently many of the stations that were supposed to be participating did not actually broadcast the program regularly. One of the groups I am working with here is a small community radio station and I asked them if they would be interested in broadcasting this program if I could get Population Media to get permission for it to be rebroadcast. They are a part of a small group of community radio stations that are working on ways to collaborate. I should point out that this soap opera is in the local language of Mali and western Burkina Faso and the story is actually set in Burkina Faso, so it is perfect for broadcasting in the western part of the country. As I think I have mentioned before, there are 14 different local languages spoken in Burkina Faso. Although this program is in Bambura, Jula speakers here should be able to understand the program.

I recently had a meeting with several of the people from these radio stations. The meeting was similar to what I have been told to expect here. Of the six people who were expected to be there, only two actually came. After some phone calls it turned out that the other four were either sick or taking care of sick children. Two of them called other people who eventually came to the meeting. The meeting was supposed to start at 9:00 but finally got underway about 9:45. After introductions I made a PowerPoint presentation (in French) and explained the project. Then at 10:30 one of the people who had been called to fill in appeared and at 10:45 the other arrived and I went through the whole dog and pony show again. The bottom line is that the four that were there agreed to present the program and my professional homologue took the other two sets of 29 CDs for the other two groups and said she would explain it all to them.

This project is intended to be a pilot, or perhaps demonstration, project to show Burkinab√® that people will listen to such a program. This particular show does not have a theme that is so easy to capture in measurable behavior as those I described above, but we are going to do some monitoring to see that the program is actually broadcast and to sample some opinions about the problem of child trafficking and children’s rights to see if we can show a difference in the broadcast area and areas where the program is not broadcast. I hope that eventually I will find people in the Burkina Faso media who are interested in tackling some of the identified problems of the country, such as the need to increase the number of girls continuing with school or the advantages of delaying having children until girls have completed their education. If you read about the method you will learn that an outsider like me does not go into a country telling the people there what problem they need to work on, but rather we can facilitate the people of the country talking about the problems and the kinds of solutions that would work in their country. All goals addressed in Population Media projects must be consistent with the UN human rights statement and with commitments and rules of the country. In other words, this is not an idea imposed by outsiders, but developed by the people of the country to help them improve their lives. That is exactly the philosophy of the Peace Corps, so this seems like a good partnership if it works out. You can also read about the method on the Poplulation Media Center’s web site. I know there is supposed to be some what to make these links active, but I can't do it. Any suggestions??

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