It all goes back to the bobo doll – five feet tall, inflatable, and weighted at the bottom so no matter how hard you hit it’ll bounce right back. Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura used the Bobo doll to challenge the academic status quo in the 1960s.
"At that time behaviorism ruled the field and it was assumed you learn only by direct experience. So I saw this remarkable disconnect between the way in which people live in everyday life and the kind of theory we had about human learning."
Bandura set about demonstrating that watching a behavior could be as influential as trying out the behavior yourself. He showed children footage of adults either hitting the bobo doll or not hitting the bobo doll. The children were then allowed to play with a variety of toys. Those exposed to the violent behavior tended to display more aggression. It all seems kind of obvious now but it wasn’t back then. By the 1970s Albert Bandura’s research had found its way to Mexico and into the hands of Miguel Sabido. Sabido was a major player at Mexico’s Televisa. He called up Bandura.
"I get a call from him one morning in which he explains that he had extracted about six principles from this program of research."
Sabido told him he’d already begun to implement those principles. A Mexican literacy campaign hadn’t caught fire. People weren’t picking up free reading materials. So Sabido promoted the campaign in a TV soap opera.
"Twenty five thousand people showed up to pick up the primers the next day. It created a hell of a traffic jam in Mexico City."
The Sabido method is part social psychology part good story telling. Audiences see characters evolve and change for better and worse. Plots twist and turn often in real time. One nine-month tele-novela from the 1970s dramatized family planning in Mexico. Sales of contraception jumped along with the enrollment of women in family planning clinics. In recent years a Vermont-based organization called The Population Media Center has taken up the Sabido method making message driven soap operas all around the world. The centers president, Bill Myerson, says audiences know what they’re getting.
"We’re not using these programs to manipulate people into adopting new behaviors. One soap opera dealt with marriage by abduction in Ethiopia – an illegal practice but often a social norm. We showed characters who adopted that norm. We also showed characters who avoided that kind of treatment of women and most importantly we showed characters who evolved in their thinking about this practice. We weren’t telling the audience do this, don’t do that."
Other soaps have covered HIV, child labor, and domestic violence. Albert Bandura himself says there are no quick fixes when it comes to changing entrenched attitudes and behaviors.
"What you need to do is have people model changes in realistic achievable steps."
Those are the kinds of steps that are bread and butter for soap operas.
PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.