James Madison University

The Cupcake War

By Mackenzie Kelley
Posted: January 6, 2014

PHOTO: JMU studentOn Tuesday November 11, psychology students filled the Commons behind Warren Hall, enticing students with various persuasive tactics to choose one of their cupcakes in exchange for a small donation. Dubbed the “cupcake war,” this event was part of a project for a section of Social Psychology (Psyc 345). Ten teams of eight students each competed against each other to raise the most money for the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. They used the social influence principles studied in class to persuade students to choose their team’s cupcakes.

Psychology Professor Natalie Lawrence initiated the project for her class for the first time during the Fall, 2013 semester. The goal was to challenge her students to apply social influence principles to life-like marketing situations.

“In class, we talk about ‘weapons of social influence’ that people use to get others to like them, buy their products, etc.,” said Lawrence, “One example is social proof. We view behavior as correct to the extent that we see other people engaging in that behavior.”

Some students practiced social proof by using leftover money from their budgets to fill their collection jars with money. The theory of social proof suggests that people will be more likely to put their money into a jar that already has money in it.

“This gave the impression that many people donated money and it was the right thing to do in that situation,” said Lawrence, “This tactic helps bartenders earn more tips and it seems to have worked during the Cupcake War!”

Students also used the principle of reciprocity.  “When someone does something for us, we feel obligated to do something for them,” explains Lawrence. Several teams decided to either give away their cupcakes for free or hand out free cups of hot chocolate in the hopes that the recipients would feel obligated to give a donation to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. 

Students also used the technique of liking. Research suggests that people tend to say "yes" to people they like, and one of the factors that determines liking is similarity. Some teams wore JMU t-shirts and sweatshirts to increase the perceived similarity between them and their potential customers.

“One principle we used is brand recognition,” said Psychology senior Aneta Nikolic on her team’s principles, “We used smiley faces on our cupcakes and signs for people to see and recognize.”

Nikolic’s team was one of the teams who used the leftover money from their budget to put into their collection jar. Her team also used the principle of liking.

Together the students raised $945.02 for the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.

Students also wrote a paper that explained the social influence principles they used. Their grade was based on their papers, but the team that raised the most money received extra credit.

Professor Lawrence was amazed at the results of the first cupcake war. She hopes her students learned from the hands-on experience.

“I hope students learned more about social influence principles,” said Lawrence, “However, I also hope that my students learned that they can apply psychology to combat real-world problems such as hunger.”

The friendly competition among the students was a great success. The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank will be received a donation this year, and the students ended the semester with a fun and educational learning experience.