Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

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.

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