Team Science: Building Better Science Activists with Insights from Disney, Marketing, and Psychological Research

Troy H. Campbell

Let me start with a secret: although I am a scientist, in my life I have denied, ignored, and generally resisted a lot of science.

In high school, I denied science when a doctor diagnosed me with hypoglycemia. I did it because I simply wanted to keep drinking that sugary Starbucks Frappuccino.

In college, I was unmoved by science when I took a class with a Nobel Prize–winning climate change scientist. In this case, I believed the expert’s scientific evidence, but I failed to start behaving more environmentally.

With my hypoglycemia, only when the doctor caringly reassured me that my diet would be tasty and “cool enough” did I start letting myself believe I had a scientifically identified problem.

And regarding the environment, I did change my behavior but not until years later when I met an attractive British geologist. She was environmental and had a great accent, so I became environmental. It was as simple and shameless as that.

When the geologist came over for a first date, she asked me where the recycling bin was. So I turned a cardboard box of notes into a bin with the line, “I just have a cardboard box because as that triangle says ‘reuse before recycle.’”

Being aware or educated did not change me. Even though I knew “that triangle,” even though I had heard about climate change for over ten years, and even though I had taken a ten-week course with a climate expert, I had yet to change. But just ten minutes into a first date with a hot geologist, I was an environmentalist.

We Need This Marketing Stuff

This article does not ask Team Science to forgive or condone people who are like me. Nor does it say that we should stop with more aggressive tactics. Those are important and should remain. This article is simply about getting more people onto Team Science.

In this article, I want to put into laser clarity: Team Science will lose if we don’t deal with the basic human forces that lead to resistance. Thus to win, we need to borrow more techniques from Disney and marketing.

I am Troy Campbell, a designer, former Disney Imagineer, social psychology researcher, and professor of marketing at the University of Oregon. In an ideal world, a marketing professor would not be writing an article in a science magazine. But we don’t live in an ideal world; we live in this very unideal one, so here I am.

So if you need, take a moment to vent and scream, “This is stupid!”; “People should just listen to the facts!”; or “Dammit, Jim. I’m scientist, not a marketer!” Go for it. I’ll wait.

Alright, did you get that out of your system? Good. Let’s begin.

Do It Like Disney

Think of science as having the best facts, just as Disney has the best theme park rides. Both science and Disney might be tempted to stop there and just put up a sign that says, “We are the best. Come over here.” But the secret to Disney’s success is that Disney knows having the best rides is not enough.

Disney and marketers think about the three general forces of the solution, the self, and the social. So in the rest of the article, we will start each section with how Disney channels one of these forces, review a few psychology experiments, and then see how science activism can better play with these powerful forces. 

We will start with the basic stuff and then get to the truly invisible “Oh my god! Disney is affecting my psychology that way!” type of things that will make you think, “If we could get people to connect with science even at one-tenth of the way they do with Disney, we could actually save the world.”

The Solution Force

A basic place to start is the massive amount of effort Disney puts into making its lines as fun as possible. One might think, “Who cares? If Space Mountain is at the end of that line, why bother making the line more enjoyable?” The answer: because Disney knows that even the paths or the “solutions” to the most desirable things, such as the Space Mountain and Indiana Jones rides, need also be desirable or at least not that aversive.

The analog for us scientists is that even the paths or the “solutions” to the most desirable things in the world, such as good personal health and a safe climate, need also be desirable or at least not that aversive. Activists miss this insight often when they think, “Who cares? If a safe climate in the future is at the end of a line of hard work, why bother making that hard work more enjoyable?”

My colleague Aaron Kay and I explored this overlooked problem of solutions (Campbell and Kay 2014). In a phenomenon we call “solution aversion,” we found that people have a tendency to resist or even deny a problem when they do not like the solution to the problem. For example, we found people are more likely to deny an environmental problem exists if they personally dislike the proposed policy solution to the problem.

Though some science folks overlook the solution force, others do intuit it sometimes. My doctor did when he immediately identified and managed the solution aversion in teenage me. He saw I was denying my diagnosis of hypoglycemia because I wanted to keep consuming things such as that cool, sugary Frappuccino. When Kay and I published “solution aversion,” so many people gained clarity from our experiments and theory that they filled Twitter, Reddit, and comment sections with their own examples, rocketing “solution aversion” to the most viewed research press release in Duke University history.

And so while the solution force is slightly hidden, there is some understanding. It is really when we get to the next two forces that we start to see the hidden magic that Disney wields, which by comparison is often completely absent in activism.

The Self Force

Disney knows that to have the most successful theme parks in the world it needs to have the best rides and fun lines, but maybe just as important, it needs to convince you that you are the type of person who wants to get in that line and get on that ride. In short, it needs to appeal to your deep sense of self.

In their “Show Your Disney Side” campaign, Disney hit the self-force hard by showing how you already love Disney in some inner way, and, thus, you need to go to the parks to express that. The effective message reads, “Disney isn’t just awesome; Disney is who you are.”

Here, Disney follows the marketing tactic of simply telling people that they already are the people Disney wants them to be. This works well because, as humans, we tend to choose items that are consistent with our sense of self (Swann 1997), that we feel we already are talented at (Campbell and Ariely 2015), and that seem to have some idiosyncratic fit with us (Kivetz and Simonson 2003).

Disney knows this, so instead of saying, “You should come to Disney,” or “You should be a Disney person,” they simply say something like, “You are a Disney person.” They make ads with familiar references and identity-compatible moments to show you that Disney is part of the true you. So of all the possible choices you could make with how to spend your money, spending it on Disney feels like the authentic, correct choice. If Disney is who you are, why would you spend your money any other way?

Lots of activist movements push the button in the opposite direction. These activist movements more or less say to outsiders, “Hey, assholes, you suck at this, so you need to change your entire sense of self and get good at this thing that has nothing to do with you.” And, for good measure, they usually add in a, “Forget your favorite celebrity role models; they are immoral trash.”

No one likes to play a game they are the worst at, especially a game they get scolded for being bad at. For instance, if you are not good at playing or understanding soccer, you don’t play or watch soccer. Even worse, you might go further and degrade the very value of the sport of soccer. Now substitute the word soccer with science and see how science activism often can undermine itself.

Now, some of this “Hey, asshole! You suck” approach is necessary sometimes. If handled properly, this type of confrontational approach can work, but often it does not, partly because it also threatens the last and possibly most important force.

The Social Force

In my class I often like to say, “The greatest influence on people is other people.” While that might be an exaggeration, it is not far off. The social force is extremely powerful (Cialdini and Goldstein 2004). In understanding the social force, we can practically reduce it down to two questions: “Are my friends doing this?” and “What will the people in charge think of me?”

Turning once more to Disney, we see the “Are my friends doing this?” question answered, from the way the new Disney rides and experiences encourage social interaction, to lots of group photo ops, to an unending number of Avengers-style team metaphors, to the so, so, so many viral social media campaigns of your friends at Disney events showing their “Disney side.” These are complete with Disney filters, Disney products, and the encouragement to post things such as “Which Disney princess are you?” quiz results.

You are constantly reminded, through everything from commercials to your Facebook feed, that your friends are Disney fans. So, even if you dislike most of Disney’s intellectual property, you still want to learn about it and want to like it because it is a way you can connect with your friends’ passions.

Further, with the question of “What will the people in charge think of me?,” Disney tries to create a caring environment, at least for those who can afford the admission tickets. Disney attempts to welcome all by saying that everyone has a “Disney side.”

Disney also constantly throws out that famous Walt Disney quote, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world,” suggesting that you don’t just have a “Disney side”; by going to Disneyland, you are actually maintaining and creating Disneyland through your imagination. Now that is a welcoming message.

So by thinking about how Disney positions itself in terms of “People like you do this,” and “We, the people in charge, like you,” we can think about different attracting and repelling versions of the social forces in activism.

For the attracting forces, it can be as simple as: if my friends or people I want to be friends with are doing this, then I should do it too. Though it sounds stupid, pro-gay filters on all your friends’ Facebook profile pictures, activist hashtags, and celebrity Instagram posts can be powerful forces for change through the “Are my friends doing this?” function. Public campaigns that indicate most people like you follow an environmental conservation norm (e.g., use limited water or energy) or are changing to be more environmental can be largely influential as well.

For repelling forces, the thought process can be: my friends won’t accept me if I get involved with this, so I won’t get involved. This is why, for all the backlash against them, there are some positive things about campaigns such as Gillette’s anti-toxic masculinity campaign, “The Best Men Can Be.” These campaigns have at least the potential to create a social norm. For example, the Gillette ad made it seem like gender equality is an important issue with normal beer-drinking, grilling, shaving men.

Once again, in an ideal world we would not need razor ads to help with social justice, but we live in a very unideal world. And in this unideal world, things such as imperfect ads are needed in the nuanced equation toward a better society.

One other way people might be repelled by activism is by the feeling that Team Hero will not accept them. That is, they fear the judgment of the scientists and activists behind the bullhorn. People may worry that even if they attempt to change their behavior, the activist elites will still be unaccepting of them because of some past behaviors, privileges, or other disqualifying attributes.

Though it may sound unsavory, good inclusion training often follows a “Welcome to Team Hero” logic, in which the idea is that everyone in the room (including many who are feeling very threatened) is described as already, or after the training, on the Team Hero of inclusion. Instead of leaving the room “trained,” they leave the room as “advocates.” Note to those cringing right now: yes, there is an amazing amount of nuance to getting this right, as well as situations in which this tactic is highly untruthful and inappropriate, but in many situations, it is worth considering and is backed by research (Dobbin and Kalev 2016).

Notably, many religions are great at recruiting people in ways other groups are not. Even if they might be mean to outsiders, they will immediately accept outsiders who want to be insiders along the lines of: “Congratulations! You confessed your sins; welcome to Team Christian! Here’s the guidebook. It is called the Bible. Small group meets on Wednesday, and always remember Jesus loves you, and we do too.” That common phraseology of “Jesus loves you, and we do too” is one hell of a “Welcome to Team Hero.”

In practice, to get people on Team Hero, consider the ways people can feel part of a team quickly. Give them: 1) some expertise, such as teaching high-level inclusion habits that even many publically “woke” people don’t have; 2) a “membership card” of sorts, or an “I was there” souvenir, similar to how sporting events give away exclusive T-shirts; or 3) a way to immediately contribute.

At some screenings of the 2012 documentary Chasing Ice, environmental advocates let newcomers have their photo taken with a message the newcomer personally wrote on a stylized poster, such as “Congressman, I am big fan, but please change your vote on the environmental proposition.” The advocates posted that photo-tweet from their own official account. “Welcome to Team Hero” indeed.

Lastly, “start with care.”

If you want anyone to care about your critical message, you need to first demonstrate that you care about them. Our in-progress research shows that when advocates criticize others without expressing care for them, these others think they are seen as morally inferior and that advocates have little concern for them.

In different studies, we found that the majority of people who criticize the police for prejudice, a genre of music for perpetuating problematic stereotypes, or a political party also have strong concerns for the issues the police, songwriters of that genre of music, and those political party members face, respectively. Yet, other participants, including those from these criticized groups, greatly underestimate the amount of concern these criticizers have for their groups. So when you do not start with care, it often leads people to assume a level of hostility about you that is not true.

We found that messages that aim to persuade members of groups to accept criticism are more effective when the messages also convey that the messenger has some concern for the group they are accusing of wrongdoing. Showing concern for those we criticize may go a long way in promoting social change.

A lot of people may respond to this proposal to “start with care” by saying, “We should not have to go out of our way to be caring and nice to people, especially people who are not being caring and nice to us.”

My well-calibrated response is: I agree. It is wrong that we have to do this. And it often puts far too much burden on certain messengers. They, themselves, might be victims of the problem. So we need to carefully choose when we employ this strategy and, especially, who we ask to engage in this strategy. 

However, I have another response for certain privileged advocates, and it goes like this: “So, let me get this straight. You are willing to camp out for three weeks as part of a protest, and you are willing to spend over $3,000 of your own money to do so, but you are unwilling to take three minutes to remind the people you disagree with that you actually care about them in a strategic way that will help solve the problem you have repeatedly said is, quote, ‘the single biggest problem of our time’? Just checking to make sure I understand.”


In an ideal world, we would not have to take extra time to be nice to those who are ignorant, biased, or wrong. Yet in this unideal world, unideal solutions are necessary. These unideal solutions include things such as heavy protests, costly strikes, and putting up the middle finger, and yet sometimes it also includes opening your arms and being caring with your anti-vaccination aunt.
If you are being honest with yourself, if only for selfish reasons, you want a welcoming world like this to exist because, sometimes you, too, are ignorant, biased, and wrong about science. Today, you are less ignorant, biased, and wrong about certain scientific facts because someone who was not yelling at you helped you get there.

Maybe you got there because, first, someone yelled at you and really shook you up. But on that path to truth, someone with whom you wanted to be friends also came along with a “Welcome to Team Hero,” a fix to your solution aversion, or a message that just “started with care.” 


Tips for Effective Activism

Don’t Start with Calculus

Some activists foolishly try to teach the public advanced science before the public even knows the basics and accuse any other activists doing anything else of “dumbing down” the science.

We Need Every Strategy

Sometimes we need to shame people and shut down freeways in angry protest. But sometimes we just need to hug super-polluting-racists and think about their psychology. It’s complicated.

Psychology Must Be a Core Part of Education

Psychology is simply the skill to understand yourself and others. It may be the most important skill a person could ever learn. Yet in our education system, it is at best an elective.

Book Smart vs. Street Effective

Our education system is producing students who can write an A+ science or social justice paper but have no ability to persuade anybody other than their professor that their ideas are worth considering.

Avoid Solution Aversion When Possible

Very few people stick to a diet they hate. Very few people will help a cause that feels miserable to help or learn about, especially if they don’t have a supportive friend with them. 

Rally, Rally, Change

Exposure labs often screen the same environmental documentary three times in the same community. The first screening rallies out the deep choir; the second screening rallies people similar to the choir; the third screening brings out friends of friends of the choir—and that’s where they say they often see the real belief and behavior change.

We Must Empathize with the ‘Enemy’

Empathy is a skill that is necessary when trying to change minds. Empathy or perspective-taking does not mean you are being sympathetic to or condoning the bad actions of those with whom you are empathizing.

Flight from Fact

People resist science in many ways other than straightforward denial of fact. For instance, they may alter their belief structures such that their beliefs (or at least stated beliefs) are less accountable to a specific fact or to any falsifiable information (Friesen et al. 2015). They may say things such as “That just can’t be proven”; “This is more of a moral thing than a fact thing”; or “That doesn’t mean we should do anything about it.” Thus, even if you can convince someone of a fact, it may not alter the ultimate higher-level belief.

Lies Are Signals

If a few people in the bleachers yelled, “They fouled her!” or “He did have the biggest inauguration!” when the truth is obviously otherwise, then you would be damn sure which team they supported. And if you were looking to sit with highly committed members of that team, after that one single lie, you’d know with whom to sit. Lies can send a signal of what team you are on, and because team and tribalism are important, lies have a social function that can sometimes be rewarded.

Antiscience Is a Problematic Label

A survey of self-described science lovers would include a few engineers who deny cimate change and a few environmental advocates who are anti-vax. Calling these people wholistically “antiscience” is not only not a great persuasion strategy, it is also not fully factually correct. Remember, almost anyone on Team Science has isolated pockets of science denial or misperceptions.



  • Campbell, Troy H., and Aaron C. Kay. 2014. Solution aversion: On the relation between ideology and motivated disbelief. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 107(5): 809–824.
  • Campbell, Troy H., and Dan Ariely. 2015. Feeling like an expert: Subjective expertise and consumption enjoyment. Advances in Consumer Research 43: 239–243.
  • Cialdini, Robert B., and Noah J. Goldstein. 2004. Social influence: Compliance and conformity. Annual Review of Psychology 55: 591–621.
  • Dobbin, Frank, and Alexandra Kalev. 2016. Why diversity programs fail. Harvard Business Review July-August. Available online at
  • Friesen, Justin P., Troy H. Campbell, and Aaron C. Kay. 2015. The psychological advantage of unfalsifiability: The appeal of untestable religious and political ideologies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 108(3): 515–529.
  • Kivetz, Ran, and Itamar Simonson. 2003. The idiosyncratic fit heuristic: Effort advantage as a determinant of consumer response to loyalty programs. Journal of Marketing Research 40(4): 454–467.
  • Swann, William B. 1997. The trouble with change: Self-verification and allegiance to the self. Psychological Science 8(3): 177–180. 

Troy H. Campbell

Troy H. Campbell is an academic with a designer’s heart. He is a professor of marketing at the University of Oregon, a social psychologist by training, and an award-winning researcher in social change, identity, and experiential design. His professional credentials include Netflix, Disney, Apple, and United Health, the fandom firm Power Level Pro, and the artistic training firm On Your Feet. He spoke on this topic at CSICon 2018.

Troy can be reached by email: or twitter: @troyhcampbell.