Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

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Tragedy versus statistics

October 17th, 2011


When I’m trying to solve problems, I tend to get analytical and cerebral. I often view emotions as part of the problem and try to excise them from the solution.

It’s not a smart approach, though. Emotions have enormous power over us, and it makes more sense to harness them than to avoid them.

Samantha, 1993-2011I’m particularly conscious of this right now. Regular readers will have noticed that I disappeared last week, missing two scheduled posts. My eldest cat, Samantha, died last Monday and I was more or less mired in sadness all week. It was definitely a reminder of the power of emotions. So, let’s talk about them.

You’ve probably observed that in general, people respond more strongly to a single individual in need than to thousands of people in need. As a quotation frequently misattributed to Joseph Stalin says, “One death is a tragedy, millions of deaths is a statistic.”

Psychology research bears this out. A recent study paid participants to complete a questionnaire then asked them to donate some of their pay to the Save the Children foundation. Half the participants were given factual information about starvation in Africa, while the other half saw a picture of a little girl and read a brief description of her. (Both sets of information came from the Save the Children website.)

The results were as you might expect (if you’re a cynic like me, anyway): the participants who read about the little girl gave nearly twice as much as those who only read facts.

FMSC Distribution Partner - Hope 4 Kids - Ugandan ChildIt gets worse. The same researchers asked a new group of people to go through the same process, but this time there were three groups: one who read about the little girl, one who read factual information, and one who read both. Again, those who read about the little girl gave about twice as much as those who read the statistics – but those who read about the child and the statistics gave no more than those who only read statistics.

It seems as though reading statistics about those who need help actively prevents us from giving that help. What gives?

It turns out that the most likely culprit is a process called “psychic numbing”. When we hear of someone in need and we’re capable of helping, most of us are eager to do so. But as the number of people in need rises, our inclination to help drops.

This appears to happen partly because we’re more sensitive to the proportion of people we can help than to the number. We’d rather save two out of three people (67%) than three out of ten (30%), even though the second option involves saving an extra person. The warm feeling we get from helping is easily overwhelmed by the unpleasant feelings we get when we think of all the people we can’t help.

The psychic numbing effect starts with any number above one: a study described in the above paper found that people asked to donate to save two children gave less than people asked to donate to save either child alone.

So, does this mean we should find a cute child to represent every cause from alopecia to zebra mussels? Not necessarily. But thinking about psychic numbing can help you keep your message at a level that works. Remind people of the good they can do, not of what they can’t. Associate the help they offer with an identifiable, tangible accomplishment. People will campaign to save their local pond fauna before they’ll speak out about the Great Lakes, and you’ll get more volunteers to clean up Main Street than to clean up an entire city.

We all feel good when our help makes a difference, and it’s one way that our irrational, emotional “human-ness” spurs us to do good. If we can give our donors and volunteers that feeling, everybody wins.

Change is hard – make not changing harder

October 6th, 2011


No ChoiceA week ago, I wrote about making it easier for people to make positive changes. Today’s post is about the other side of that idea: making it harder for people to make negative choices.

Sometimes making it easy isn’t enough. We’re stubborn, neurotic creatures, we humans, and we have a million reasons not to do the things that we know or believe are right. But we can nudge ourselves into better behaviours by changing our environment… and if you can’t make it easier to do it right, make it harder to do it wrong.

An example I like is “Trayless Tuesdays”. Some university and college dining halls are making meal trays unavailable on one or more days a week: students must carry their meal choices in their hands and/or go through the food line more than once. In addition to conserving dishwashing water, the approach results in less wasted food and potentially helps students make healthier food choices. It’s not always popular with students, of course, but it appears to have had positive effects.

Out off orderHere’s another approach. Ellinor Olander and Frank Eves recently did a study to determine whether fewer available elevators in a 12-story building led more people to use the stairs. They compared stair use on days when four elevators were running with use when only three were running. Sure enough, it turned out that significantly more workers used the stairs when fewer elevators were available, especially during busy times of day. Not a surprise, but something to think about.

You’ve almost certainly run across – or used – this technique before:

  • Stores that charge for plastic bags to encourage the use of cloth ones
  • Cars that won’t shift out of park unless the brake pedal is pressed
  • Software that keeps us from surfing the web until our work is finished
  • Legislation that prevents us from buying appealing but dangerous chemicals
  • Bartenders who collect our car keys before serving us a drink

Stopping other people from doing things we don’t like is a favourite human hobby, but it doesn’t always spring to mind when we’re trying to institute change. Can you make unwanted behaviours more difficult – for yourself or for others? A few examples:

  • Store tempting food at a neighbour’s house while you’re dieting.
  • Set up a rotating schedule if the women in your organization keep getting stuck with “female-identified” tasks like making coffee.
  • Set your lights and computer to automatically turn off at 10 PM if you want to get to bed earlier.
  • Keep the recycled paper beside the office printer – and the new paper at the other end of the building.

Personally, I’m thinking of storing my novels and puzzle books in the basement to keep myself from avoiding work. Knock loudly next time any of you stop by during work hours – I can’t always hear the doorbell from down there.

I’d do it if you’d just tell me how!

October 3rd, 2011


ChangeThose of us fighting sexism are sometimes envious of those of us fighting, say, the use of toxic chemicals. When you want to reduce the use of chemicals, you have clear goals, such as “get legislation enacted that will prevent their manufacture”. This is difficult, but not complicated – we know the processes involved in changing laws – and most of the activists involved would agree that it’s a positive move.

When you want to reduce sexism, your goal is “make people think differently.” Go ahead and take a first step on that one. Slogans are all very well, but how can we tell whether they’re working? And good luck getting a group of activists to agree on the best way to approach it.

My last post was about ways to make change easier. This one’s about making change clearer so that the people you’re talking to can see how to take action.

There’s a great example in a book called Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. The authors, Chip and Dan Heath, describe a pair of researchers who wanted to find ways to persuade people to “eat a healthier diet.” This isn’t a change that has an obvious first step. There are so many ways to “eat healthier” and it’s nearly impossible to tell which are most important.

So, the researchers picked a single behaviour that would make a difference: switching from high-fat milk to skim or 1% milk. They launched a campaign in two communities focussing on how much saturated fat is in a glass of whole milk – as much as in five strips of bacon! And they measured milk purchasing in local stores.

The results supported their approach. Before the campaign, low-fat milk had 18% of the market; afterward, it had 41%. Six months later, it was holding at 35%.

perfectly clearThis campaign had a positive effect – unlike many “eat healthier!” campaigns – because it was clear and specific. It wasn’t too difficult to do, and it was possible to measure whether it was working.

So, if your goal is something non-specific like “eliminate racism” or “change attitudes” or even “give better service” or “attract more volunteers”, try following these guidelines:

  1. Pick a single behaviour you want to modify. Even if there are a dozen changes you want to make, focus on them one at a time. Look for an action that you think will be relatively easy to accomplish but is likely to make a difference to your cause within a fairly short time. Example: To attract more volunteers, you decide to put up posters.
  2. Decide what constitutes success. You need to be able to tell when you’re done. You can describe the final goal in words, or you can measure the actions or their results. Example: You decide to put up posters until you get 10 new volunteers.
  3. Be specific about the action you want. Example: You ask your team to put a poster on every local campus bulletin board, activity announcement board and store wanted/for sale board.

This doesn’t guarantee success, but it does make it possible to take concrete steps toward your goals and see whether they’re working. And if they’re not, you can try a new approach, or possibly sulk. I recommend the new approach, since sulking is non-specific, and it’s hard to tell when you’re done.

Easy does it (and it often does)

September 29th, 2011


Do the right thingI think most people are essentially good. Despite some of their wrongheaded opinions and their distressing tendency to refuse to bow to my every whim (and what is with that? Pure stubbornness, I swear), I think almost everyone prefers to do the right thing.

Of course, sometimes “the right thing” is a matter of debate, but there are many things that most of us agree on and would like to do right by… and yet we still don’t always live up to those principles.

Things like exercising – we know we ought to, but we don’t. Or sticking to a budget. Seeing the dentist regularly. Recycling. Giving everyone an equal chance. Not littering. Keeping our tempers. Being on time. Voting. Giving blood.

Part of the reason we don’t do things we feel we ought to do is that they’re difficult. They take time and energy and effort, and we have a limited supply of those, as I’ve explained before.

The solution, of course, is making them easy.

Stop rolling your eyes. I know that’s obvious. What isn’t necessarily obvious is how many ways there are to do this – to “tweak the environment,” as Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein put it in their fascinating book Nudge. Shape the circumstances to make the right behaviours a little easier and the wrong ones a little harder.

Research has shown that it works. Wesley Schultz and his colleagues observed nearly 10,000 individuals in a variety of settings to discover the factors that lead people to litter. They found that littering was most common in areas with no trash receptacles – no surprise there. But they also discovered that in areas with trash receptacles, every additional receptacle decreased the littering rate a little more. A related study found that receptacle location mattered too: the easier it was to dispose of trash properly, the more people did it.

Space playgroundAnother study found that painting lines on school playgrounds – both games-related markings and bright decorations – increased the time students spent in physical activity. An older study found that university students were much more likely to get a tetanus shot if they were given a map showing the location of the health centre and its hours of operation.

If you’re trying to change behaviours, you’ve probably already done a lot of this. Your sign-up booth is in a visible place; your donation form is simple and easy to fill out. But think about how many other opportunities might be out there.

Can you increase the occurrence of your desired behaviour by…

  • making it easier to get to? (Would more people vote or give blood if they could do so at the mall?)
  • associating it with a similar behaviour? (Would dental appointment reminders have more impact in a health clinic waiting room?)
  • making it fun to do? (Would young people be more likely to use trash receptacles with basketball nets over them?)
  • reducing its cost? (Would providing free clotheslines lead fewer people to use clothes dryers?)
  • reducing the time or effort required? (Would neighbourhood committees get more volunteers if the meetings were online?)
  • making it emotionally easier? (Would more people join a program if it were actively offered to them rather than just available? Answer: yes.)
  • removing distractions? (Would you be more likely to exercise if you didn’t stop to check your email first?)

Make it easier for people to do the right thing, and they often will.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to figure out how to make it surpassingly simple for people to obey my every whim. I should be running the world by Christmas.

Prohibition didn’t work for alcohol either

September 26th, 2011


Most of the time, when I think of prohibitive signs, I think of funny ones like those shown here. I make up signs like “No warthogs without a leash” and “Secondary personalities must be integrated before operating heavy machinery” and I crack myself up.

But you know, these signs have a purpose in the real world. If you’re trying to maintain an area or change local behaviours, these signs are part of the solution.

…except when they aren’t. Sometimes prohibitive signs backfire, as a new study just discovered.

Kees Keizer, Siegwart Lindenberg and Linda Steg did a series of experiments in a large shopping area in the Netherlands. They picked an alley where people commonly parked bicycles and attached “Happy holidays” flyers from a fictional sportswear shop to each bicycle handlebar. The flyers were large enough that they had to be removed to use the handlebar easily, and there were no trash cans in the alley. What would the cyclists do with the flyers?

As you might expect, it depended on the circumstances. When there were no prohibitive signs around, about half the cyclists littered (dropped the flyer in the alley). When there was a large sign with a “no littering” symbol on the wall, it cut the littering by about 10%.

However, those were the results when the alley was clean and free of litter and graffiti at the outset. If the researchers placed several pieces of litter in the alley first, many more people were likely to litter. (I’ve written about this before: previous research has shown that people are much more likely to litter in a dirty environment than in a clean one.)

No Litter.So far, so obvious. The interesting part is what happened when the researchers put their “no littering” sign in an alley that already contained litter. Not only did it fail to reduce littering (as it had in the clean alley), it made it worse: about 10% more people dropped their flyers.

The research team tried the same experiment with a clean alley versus one covered in graffiti and found the same thing: even without actual litter, the presence of graffiti increased littering, and the presence of both graffiti and a “no graffiti” sign increased it even more.

What’s going on? The researchers theorized that putting up the sign attracts the viewers’ attention to the “social norm” of keeping public areas clean. If they see that other people aren’t respecting that norm, they’ll be more likely to dismiss it themselves. Other studies by the same researchers support this theory.

So, although it’s the messiest areas that seem to need the “keep it clean” signs most, they won’t do any good there, and they might do harm. Clean up, then put up the sign.

Otherwise your sign might as well say, “Go ahead – everyone else does”, which would only keep away the contrary-minded, the obsessively disobedient, and cats. But I repeat myself.

I’m expert or I’m sure, but not both

September 22nd, 2011


Black & White and Red all OverI’m not a psychologist. I don’t even play one on TV.

But I’ve become more and more convinced of the role social psychology can play in making the changes we want to make in the world.

In the above two paragraphs, I just applied one half of the findings of a fascinating study published last year: when an argument is put forward by someone who is not expert in the field, it’s more persuasive when its source expresses certainty about his or her opinion.

This isn’t surprising. In general, we’re more strongly persuaded by a confident speaker, just because we assume that confidence is associated with knowledge and a better ability to make judgements. So what?

The fascinating part comes in the other half of the study’s findings: an expert source is more persuasive when he or she expresses uncertainty.

It seems unlikely. Why would we trust people more when they’re not sure about their own opinions?

It all comes down to incongruity. Uma Karmarkar and Zakary Tormala asked their study participants to read a restaurant review then provide their opinions of the restaurant. Some participants read a very confident review with lines like “Having eaten there for dinner, I can confidently give [the restaurant] a rating of 4 stars,” while others read a more tentative review with lines like “Having eaten there only once, I don’t have complete confidence in my opinion, but I suppose I would give [the restaurant] a rating of 4 stars.”

The reviews could also be written by one of two supposed reviewers: a nationally known food critic who was very familiar with this type of restaurant, or a local computer administrator who normally ate fast food. The reviews were mixed up so that each participant could get either review written by either reviewer.

Results clearly showed that the non-expert reviewer was more persuasive (the readers liked the restaurant more) when he was sure of his opinion, while the expert reviewer was more persuasive when he expressed uncertainty.

Unsure Undecided VagueOther experiments done by these researchers showed that this happens because we’re surprised by the incongruency between a non-expert source and certainty or vice versa. Being startled makes us more interested so that we read more carefully. If (and only if) the arguments being presented are good ones, reading more carefully is more likely to persuade us to the point of view being expressed.

So, keep this in mind next time you present opinions intended to persuade. A surprising degree of confidence – in either direction – might make your readers more interested and thus more likely to read and be persuaded by your arguments.

In fact, I’m absolutely sure of it.

Because we’ve always been quick to change!

September 19th, 2011


I’ve always been one of the first to adopt new practices. When something innovative comes down the pike, I’m right there, whether it’s contemporary fashion or cutting-edge technology. I prefer to be a trendsetter. I—

—cannot sustain this fib to my loyal readers.

I have clothing older than my cats (and my youngest cat is 15). My iPod is a marvel of the new click-wheel technology and I don’t own a smartphone, an ebook reader or a Bluetooth device. I’ve had the same hairstyle since 1985.* I’d have to say I’m pretty comfortable with my personal status quo.

Reinforcing the status quoBut you know, I’m not alone. A recent study found that we humans are so fond of keeping things the way they are that just labelling something as the status quo makes it more attractive.

Avital Moshinsky and Maya Bar-Hillel came up with 10 potential government policies, each with two alternatives. For example, one option was to “allow prostitution, if it is done without public disturbance, in a private location, and with nobody but the prostitute gaining monetarily from it” while its alternative was “forbid prostitution by law”. Other policy questions ranged from whether affirmative action should be used in university admissions to whether it should be legal to feed stray cats.

Moshinsky and Bar-Hillel then created a questionnaire for each policy. Each questionnaire began, “According to the prevailing policy today…” and described one alternative. This was followed by, “A suggestion has been put forth to change it…” and a description of the other. For each kind of policy, half the questionnaires claimed that one alternative was currently the status quo and half claimed that the other alternative was.

The researchers then asked several hundred individuals to fill out one of the questionnaires and give their opinions about which policy was better.

Given what I said above, you can predict the results. Nearly every possible policy was judged to be more appealing when it was presented as the status quo. For example, 83% of the study participants supported affirmative action when it was described as the prevailing policy – but only 63% did so when it was presented as a possible change to the current system. Making it illegal to feed stray cats was supported by 41% of participants when it was the status quo, but by only 19% when it was described as a new option.

Since most of my readers are trying to, well, change the world, this doesn’t look particularly useful at first glance. However, it’s possible to point out how a proposed change would reflect a group or organization’s character, as in the headline above.

If you want your company to start recycling, highlight any previous record of green behaviour. If you’re trying to extend rights to a disenfranchised group, point out how many other groups already have those rights. The message isn’t “Let’s start this new thing,” it’s “let’s not stop being the people we already are”.

Because you know I’m not going to stop being the woman with ancient technology and elderly cats… but it doesn’t mean I can’t change my mind.

P.S. And a happy Talk Like a Pirate Day to those of me hearties who celebrate it!

* Okay, my hair was purple for ten years somewhere in there, but the style was the same.

All talk, some action

September 16th, 2011


I’m sorry this post is late but my cat ate my printout (classic but overtaken by technology) I was sandblasting my oven (no, everyone knows I don’t cook) it’s National Apathy Day (too easy to check) I fell off a merry-go-round and my head’s still spinning (gosh, what a knee-slapper. No) I was recruited for Torchwood Canada (suuuuuure) I had to reset the sundial for Daylight Savings Time (damn, did that last week) I was plotting to take over the world (like I couldn’t do that in my spare time) I didn’t want to burden my readers in case they had fallen behind (the cynics will never buy it) I’ve been busy (lame. True, but lame).

Our house, is a very, very fine house....But if you made it through that paragraph, I do have an interesting new study for you.

I’ve written before about the effects of peer pressure – we’re all more comfortable doing what the people around us are doing. Carol Werner and Christina Stanley are interested in reducing the use of toxic* home and yard care products and they observed that these products are often used for social status purposes: to create a home and yard that will be admired (won’t be criticized) by others.

Group discussions sometimes persuade people more effectively than individual talks do, especially when they focus on group attitudes. Werner and Stanley theorized that having people get together with friends, neighbours or colleagues to discuss the issue of toxic products would be more likely to change their attitudes and behaviours than talking to individuals about the issue one-on-one.

They tested this by doing presentations to a variety of organizations that held regular meetings with invited guest speakers – community centres, student groups, church groups, social and service clubs, any organization made up of people who knew each other. The presentations included information handouts and group discussions guided by the presenter, who encouraged participants to talk about their positive experiences with non-toxic alternatives to the products being discussed.

A few months after each presentation, the researchers sent a questionnaire to someone who had attended the presentation, along with a second questionnaire to give a friend who had missed the meeting. Then they compared the attitudes and behaviours of those who had attended and those who had missed the presentations.

Discussion Group HAs expected, the attendees had more favourable attitudes about using non-toxic alternatives in their houses and yards. They were also more likely to believe that their peers agreed with the messages being endorsed, which supports the idea that group discussions work because participants learn that their peers agree with them about new behaviours.

This isn’t something that applies to every message you want to change the world with, but it’s a useful technique to keep in mind. Focus on bringing out positive experiences and opinions of what you’re promoting, provide lots of information about how to make change happen, and ask group members to respond to challenges brought up by other members.

And, of course, don’t make excuses, because they don’t work. But you knew that.

* Toxic, in this case, means chemical cleaners and pesticides, not emotionally codependent. Unless you have a passive-aggressive relationship with your bleach.

Why we don’t catch 39 winks

September 12th, 2011


Pi againWe’re surrounded by numbers. Most of them serve a practical purpose: I didn’t pick my street address because it sounded nice (although it does roll off the tongue) – the number represents where I live in relation to the other numbered buildings nearby. The model number on my computer isn’t a selling point, it’s a means of product identification.

Sometimes, of course, numbers are selling points. 7-Eleven was named to reflect the stores’ extended hours. 9Lives will keep your cats dodging their mortality for longer. Heinz 57 boasted of the number of products the company sold.

But what about V8? Or Chanel No. 5? Would it matter if they were V12 and Chanel No. 3?  Alberto VO31? 19 Up?

It might.

A recent study by Dan King and Chris Janiszewski looked at people’s feelings about numbers, especially as they appeared in product names – and they found that we have noticeable likes and dislikes for specific numbers.

00 to 99They first asked their study participants to rate how much they liked various numbers between one and a hundred when they were presented in random order. Some numbers were popular: 87% of the participants liked “100”, 76% liked “21” and 75% liked “25”. Other favourites included 2, 10, 20, 22 and 88.

On the other hand, in last place was “53”, which was only liked by 17% of the study participants. Other unpopular choices included 37, 41, 51, 57, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73 and 79.

See a pattern there? It isn’t just that popular numbers cluster at both ends of the range, with unlikeable numbers lumped into the middle. What King and Janiszewski observed was that we tend to like the numbers we’re most familiar with, and those tend to be the numbers that result when we do common multiplication problems.

For example: 2 times 6 (or 3 times 4) gets you 12, which scores an approval rating of 65%. But the only way to get to 51 (which only 21% of study participants liked) is by multiplying 17 and 3 and poor 73 (which scored even lower at 19%) is prime.

So what? I hear you thinking. If it’s not going to help me choose lottery numbers, what is the point?

The point, impatient reader, is that it affects how we feel about brand and company names. In one experiment, King and Janiszewski showed that participants liked an imaginary product called “Resorcinol 25” better than one called “Resorcinol 29”, and liked “Zinc 24” better than “Zinc 31”.

Prime NumbersIn another experiment, they discovered a way to make a numbered brand name even more appealing to consumers: include the numbers that multiply to give the brand number in the advertisement. So, for example, they found that a car branded as the “S12” was liked better than one branded as the “S29” – but it was even more popular when the car’s license plate showed a large “6” and “2”.

Similarly, an ad for “4 small pizzas, up to 6 toppings” for $24 resulted in more sales than one advertising “4 small pizzas, unlimited toppings” for $24 – even though the second offer was a better deal!

So, whether you’re naming a brand, highlighting statistics or requesting donations, the numbers you use are important. Choose them carefully and remember your multiplication tables. Nine-four, good buddy!

Don’t tell ME who to like

September 8th, 2011


Racism. Stop It! Multiculturalism campaign by the Canadian Department of Citizenship and ImmigrationChange your opinion! Because I said so!

Not the most appealing message, is it? And I think you’ll agree that its chances of having an effect are pretty slim.

And yet this is the approach used by a number of anti-prejudice campaigns. Stop racism. Eliminate sexism. No more discrimination. It might sound good to those of us already on board, but new research shows that it might be coming across as controlling to those it’s actually aimed at – and making prejudice even worse.

A group of Canadian researchers recently tested this possibility. They created two brochures for a supposed initiative to reduce prejudice and asked university students to read one and then fill out questionnaires about racism and their own attitudes.

A third of the students were given a brochure that emphasized the societal value of not being prejudiced, with phrases like “The Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act  prohibits discrimination in employment” and “companies face legal liability for workplace prejudice” and “Research studies reveal that people with prejudiced attitudes are at risk of being excluded or ostracized”.

A third of them were given a brochure that emphasized the personal benefit associated with choosing not to be prejudiced, with phrases like “diversity makes our society great because it brings a wealth of knowledge and experience together” and “You are free to choose to value nonprejudice” and “In today’s increasingly diverse and multicultural society, such a personal choice is likely to help you feel connected to yourself and your social world”.

The remaining third of the students only read a definition of prejudice before filling out the questionnaires.

PrejudiceThe results were striking. The students who read the personal-benefit brochure showed significantly less prejudice in their questionnaire answers than the students who hadn’t read a brochure. Those who’d read the societal-value brochure, however, showed more prejudice than those who hadn’t read anything. A second experiment asking participants to agree or disagree with statements about racism found the same results.

The researchers theorize that this occurred because urging people to comply with external standards creates a feeling of rebellion:

“When we eliminate people’s freedom to choose egalitarian goals or to value diversity on their own terms, we may be inciting hostility toward the perceived source of the pressure (i.e., the stigmatized group), or a desire to rebel against prejudice reduction itself… When people see the value in nonprejudice, they are more likely to internalize it and sustain it.”

So, if you’re trying to reduce prejudice against any group, don’t use pressure tactics or “you should” language. Don’t remind people of the rules against prejudice or discrimination. Don’t talk about social norms or disapproval.

Instead, find the benefit in lack of prejudice and focus on that. Talk about choice.

Because, really, we should all change because it accomplishes something good – not because someone tells us to.

So, get out there and change your approach. Because I told you to. Because it will work better.