Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Considering the environment

August 25th, 2011

When I wrote some months ago about how the characteristics of our surroundings affect us – from the warmth of a cup to the dimness of a room – I thought I’d done a reasonably thorough job of finding most of the studies of that sort.

And I did – then. But it turns out that researchers are fascinated with these effects, and they keep finding more of them. If you want to make sure that your surroundings aren’t sabotaging your effects to get your message across, here are a few new tips to consider.

High Line, 2nd section, Jul 2011 - 10Elevate your audience. No, not with flowery words. A new study found that people who were sitting in a physically higher position within a room (such as on a stage) spent more time helping another person and made more compassionate choices compared to people sitting in a neutral or low position in the same room. The same study found that people who had just stepped off an “up” escalator were more likely to give to charity than people who had stepped off a “down” escalator.

Close Your Eyes. Open Your HeartGet them to close their eyes. This is a trick trial lawyers use to get juries to more vividly visualize the crimes being described, but it seems to work elsewhere as well. A recent study had participants listening to scenarios with their eyes closed (supposedly to judge the sound quality of the headphones they were wearing). Compared to participants who kept their eyes open, those who closed their eyes while listening judged unethical acts as more immoral and shared money more equitably. It appears that picturing a situation more intensely by closing our eyes makes us feel it more – and behave more honestly as a result.

109/365Spritz them with cleaning products. I wrote a while back about the effects of smells on various behaviours, but a newer study has linked a clean smell with morality. People sitting in a room that had been lightly sprayed with a citrus-scented cleaning product were more likely to reciprocate other people’s trust and more interested in volunteering and donating money to charity (compared to people sitting in an unscented room).

Warm them up. This finding is specific to one issue, but it’s interesting: people were more likely to believe in the reality of global warming if they were in a hot room (compared to a “room temperature” room) or outside on a hot day (compared to a colder day). Another experiment in the same study found that people who were thirsty were more likely to believe that severe droughts would threaten the world’s drinking water supply in coming years.

helloooo up there!When you put all these together, it’s obvious that we’d be our very best selves if we were standing in the sunshine atop a tall building with our eyes closed and lemon cleanser dabbed behind our ears. I don’t actually recommend this, if only because combining the concepts of “atop a tall building” and “eyes closed” has a certain potential for disaster.

Still, there are opportunities here, and even if you can’t control what your audience is feeling or smelling or where they’re sitting, you can take their surroundings into account when you address them. For example, if you’re standing on a tall building with your eyes closed, I shouldn’t sneak up behind you and say, “Boo!

Oops. You, um, okay down there?

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