Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

How not to use social authority

November 4th, 2010

So, there’s a Bad Thing and people are doing way too much of it. You wish they wouldn’t, so you organize a campaign against it. “Look how many people are doing this Bad Thing!” your campaign says. “This is terrible!”

You wait for your audience to get the picture and stop with the Bad Thing already. Any minute now…

And then they start doing the Bad Thing even more. Are people crazy?

Well, maybe. But your campaign might be making it worse.

Whatever our personal version of a Bad Thing is – littering, smoking, overusing credit cards or misplacing apostrophes – we have an understandable urge to reduce it by bringing attention to how common it is. The problem with this is that by saying “Look how many people are doing this Bad Thing!” we’re also saying “Look how many people are doing this!”

As I described in a previous post, people are more likely to do something if they believe everyone else is already doing it. This is a principle called “social authority” (or peer pressure) and it’s a great way to encourage more people to do Good Things. Unfortunately, it tends to backfire when it comes to Bad Things.

2009_05_wk3_DSC03331 Litter 2For example, Robert Cialdini, the researcher who discovered that people will reuse their towels if everyone else is doing it, did some experiments to see whether littering was more common when other people did it. He and his colleagues put flyers under the windshield wipers of all the cars in a parking garage and watched to see what people did with them. Some of the time, the garage was clean and litter-free. Other times, it was already covered in litter.

When the garage was clean, 11% of the drivers dropped their flyers anyway. When it was dirty, 41% did so – more than three times as many.

Cialdini also participated in a later study on household energy conservation. The researchers measured electricity usage in 290 households and calculated the average. They then provided each household with information about its own electricity usage and the average usage in that neighbourhood.

A few weeks later, they measured each household’s usage again. Households that had previously used more electricity than the local average had significantly cut down. However, households told they had previously used less than the average had increased their electricity consumption. Hey, if everybody else is doing it…

So, next time you want people to stop doing that Bad Thing, reverse your strategy. Don’t tell your audience that sexual harassment is still prevalent in the workplace; tell them it’s becoming less common (if it is). Don’t complain to your kids about today’s generation living for video games; point to the kids playing outside. It requires focussing on the positive, which can be hard when the negative is right there in front of you being infuriating, but the evidence suggests it’s worth it.

As always, if you know of any examples of campaigns that have improved or backfired based on these tactics, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

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