Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

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.

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