Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

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.

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