Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Will you read this post?

September 5th, 2011

Asking QuestionsAnd if you do, will you act on it?

Just by asking you that, I’ve increased the likelihood that you will. And it’s not long-distance hypnotism, I promise.

I’ve written before about how the phrasing of a question alters its effects. As the following research will show, just asking a question can affect the behaviour of the person being asked.

You only need to ask. In an early experiment, researchers asked individuals whether they were going to vote in an upcoming election (and they all said they were). Compared to people not asked, they were much more likely to actually vote. Asking people whether they were likely to buy a new car or computer in coming months led to more of them making such a purchase.

How you ask makes a difference. researchers asked students about their likely consumption of fatty foods in the following week. However, some were asked whether they were likely to eat fatty foods, some were asked whether they were likely not to eat fatty foods, and some were asked whether they were likely to avoid fatty foods. Then they were offered a choice of taste tests: chocolate chip cookies or rice cakes.

Compared to students not asked, the students who were asked about future fatty food consumption were more likely to choose to taste the rice cakes. But those students asked whether they were likely to avoid fatty foods were much more likely to choose the rice cakes.

Ask QuestionsEven a hypothetical question has an effect. One study found that asking a question in the format, “If you learned [a certain fact], would it affect your actions?” had as much effect on people’s behaviours as if the “fact” had been presented as true.

It works for opinions, too. Consumers asked about their satisfaction with their financial services company (most of whom were satisfied) were more likely to buy new services and less likely to leave the company than consumers not asked. The effect of asking the question lasted for more than eight months!

Unfortunately, it works for anything. Students asked whether they were likely to exercise during the next two months were indeed more likely to exercise than students who hadn’t been asked. However, students asked whether they were likely to use illegal drugs during the next two months were also more likely to use drugs than students who hadn’t been asked (regardless of what they said in their answers).

When the researchers analyzed their results, they found that the questions weren’t creating new exercisers or new drug users; they were increasing the number of times that students who already did these behaviours were likely to do them again.

There are several theories about why these reactions happen. One is that it brings the subject of the question to the top of the responder’s mind, making it more likely to come up in the future. Another is our urge to be consistent with something we have previously stated about ourselves (something I’ve written about before).

Ask a question, change the worldThere are dozens more of these studies, but you can see the applications. If you want people to eat more carrots, ask them how likely they are to eat carrots. If you don’t want your teenagers to use drugs, don’t ask them if they’re likely to use drugs, although you might try asking if they’re going to stay away from drugs.

So, are you going to go out there and change the world today?

And aren’t you glad I didn’t ask whether you were likely to wear a clown suit to work? I only use my power for good.

Do ask, do tell

September 1st, 2011

Dignity & Respect: A Training Guide on Homosexual Conduct Policy. ©2001, United States Army.In three weeks, the United States military will officially end the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that has prevented openly gay, lesbian or bisexual people from serving — or at least from disclosing any non-heterosexual orientation or speaking about non-heterosexual relationships while they remained in the armed forces.

(Yes, this blog is still about psychology, not politics. Hold your equines.)

This isn’t news. The repeal was signed into law last December. And anyway, I’m Canadian. Why take notice of this?

Because somebody finally tested the premise behind the policy.

The policy was originally put into place because it was believed that “military service by those who have demonstrated a propensity to engage in homosexual acts creates an unacceptable risk to morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion”. Now a new study has discovered that this might not have been true.

Benjamin Everly, Margaret Shih and Geoffrey Ho asked male university students to work with another study participant on a task. Before doing so, each student filled out an information sheet about himself, then received a similar sheet with information about his partner (a gay man who was actually part of the research team).

The “partner’s” info sheet included some details stereotypically associated with being gay (for example, majoring in interior design). However, half the students were told that their partner had a boyfriend, while the other half were just told that he was in a relationship. Would knowing their partner’s sexual orientation make any difference?

It did. Participants told that their partner was gay did significantly better on a math test than those who didn’t know their partner’s orientation. They also did noticeably better when working together with the partner to shoot targets in a Wii game.

Dignity & Respect: A Training Guide on Homosexual Conduct Policy. ©2001, United States Army.As the researchers wrote, “These results suggest that not knowing the identity of one’s interaction partner may be more harmful to performance than knowing the identity—even a stigmatized identity—of one’s interaction partner.”

The reason isn’t clear. It might be that wondering about a partner’s orientation distracts people from performing their tasks well. Or maybe the partner’s openness made him more likeable, which improved performance.

Obviously, the conclusions are limited. Only male students were involved, and the interactions were for a short period of time. Still, previous beliefs would have predicted that these students would do worse if they knew they were working with a gay man. Instead, they did better.

I’ve mentioned the importance of visibility in reducing prejudice before, but this is the first research I’ve seen that suggests that openness/self-disclosure/visibility/coming out might lead to better performance among the “out” individual’s colleagues.

I won’t tell you, or anyone, to come out for that reason. Nobody should be quite that selfless. But it’s good to know that coming out can have benefits beyond improving the mental health of those of us doing it. Let’s share the wealth.

Nice guys help everyone finish first

August 29th, 2011

Rude & RuderI’m a fan of politeness. It makes people feel good about themselves and improves moods all around. I’m not talking about gallantry or chivalry (don’t get me started on those) – just regular, day-to-day courtesy toward our fellow humans.

And now I have research on my side!

I recently ran across a few studies  by Christine Porath and Amir Erez, who have been studying the effects of rudeness. It turns out that discourtesy doesn’t just make us cranky – it affects our creativity, memory and problem-solving abilities.

Porath and Erez told their study participants to go to a certain office for the experiment. When each participant arrived, he or she saw a room with a half-open door and a person behind a desk. There was a sign on the door noting that the room location for this study had changed – but it was a small, easy-to-miss sign, and all the participants did miss it.

When they asked the person at the desk about the experiment, half of them were told that the room had changed and given directions to the new room. The other half were berated for asking: “Can’t you read? There is a sign on the door that tells you that the experiment will be in room [number]. But you didn’t even bother to look at the door, did you? Instead, you preferred to disturb me and ask for directions when you can clearly see that I’m busy. I’m not a secretary here, I’m a busy professor.”

Once the participants reached the right room, they were asked to do certain tasks, like solving anagrams and coming up with creative uses for a brick. The experimenter also “accidentally” dropped a stack of books while explaining the experiment, to see whether the participant would help pick them up.

rude britanniaThe participants who had been treated rudely in another room solved fewer anagrams than the other participants, and came up with fewer and less creative uses for the brick. In addition, although it wasn’t the experimenter who had been rude to them, they were much less likely to help him pick up books.

(Another experiment showed that even imagining themselves experiencing rudeness like the above had the same effects – and also reduced memory recall.)

So, when people are rude to us, we become less helpful, less creative and worse at solving problems. What if people are rude to someone else?

Porath and Erez did another study to investigate this. They found that participants who watched someone be rude to another participant also solved fewer anagrams, came up with fewer and less creative (and more aggressive!) uses for a brick, and were less likely to be helpful – all because they watched a single incident of rudeness.

It doesn’t do your organization any favours if customers observe rudeness among your staff, either. Another study led by Porath found that customers who saw one employee being rude to another made negative generalizations about the entire company.

I said shut it!So, think of it this way. Every time you suppress a rude response, you’re improving the brains, creativity and helpfulness of the people around you – which is bound to help you deal with whatever annoyed you so much, if only a little. It’s a favour to yourself.

It’s also a favour to me. Because rudeness really steams me and I’d like rude people to quit it right this second… Er. Please.

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?

Pulling a fast one

August 22nd, 2011

Speed upSothisismy100thblogpostandI’mratherproud ofmyselfforgettingthisfarandnotcoppingout andjustpostingpicturesofmycatsorsomething!


If you’ve been exposed to popular culture in the past couple of decades, you’ve probably seen the stereotype of the fast-talking salesman (it’s almost always a man, for some reason) who manages to sell people things they don’t want by talking so fast that the overwhelmed customers give in.

It’s an annoying stereotype – and what’s even more annoying is that the technique works – although not always, as you’ll see.

Some early research compared the persuasiveness of various messages when the same words were spoken slowly (at an average of 102 words per minute) or rapidly (195 words per minute). The researchers found that not only were faster speakers more persuasive, they were perceived to be more intelligent and more objective than slower speakers making the same arguments.

Simple, right? Nope. Further research showed that the relationship between fast talking and persuasiveness was more complicated than that.

Pierre-Luc in a fast talkSteve Smith and David Shaffer compared the effectiveness of arguments given at slow, moderate and fast speeds, but they also varied the appeal of the arguments to their listeners. The study participants were university students, and some heard an argument in favour of lowering the legal drinking age while others heard an argument in favour of maintaining the current legal age of 21. (As you might guess, the students tended to have firm views on this subject.)

What they discovered was that when they were trying to sell an unpopular message (in this case, keeping the drinking age higher), listeners were most persuaded by fast talkers, just like in the earlier experiments. (Intermediate-speed talkers were less persuasive, while slow speakers were the least persuasive.) However, when they were pushing a message the listeners already agreed with, slow speakers were most persuasive.

Slow DownWhat’s going on? It appears that when we hear a fast message, we don’t have time to evaluate it and think up reasons we agree or disagree with it. This benefits the speaker with an unpopular message, since fast talking prevents the audience from coming up with counterarguments. But it’s a disadvantage to the speaker with a popular message, since her audience doesn’t have time to think about all the reasons they agree – which would otherwise cement their opinion even further.

Applying these findings means talking fast when selling an unpopular message, which may work but feels a little slimy, since it basically amounts to persuading people by distracting them from the downside of your argument. I’ll leave it to your consciences whether you want to take that route. However, I do recommend talking more slowly than usual when you’re preaching to the converted: give them time to think about how sensible your arguments are.

And. Since. I. Know. We’re. All. Friends. Here. I’ll. Speak. Very. Slowly. While. Saying. That. This. Actually. Is. My. 100th. Blog. Post. And. Isn’t. That. Awesome? I. Think. So. Too.


Apology to my regular readers: If you’ve ever signed up to be notified of new comments on particular posts, you probably got notifications about spam messages last week. Sorry about that! My blog has apparently been discovered by a spambot and there were several hours between when the spam started and when I set all comments on moderation status.

Also, if you’ve left any comments in the past few days, there’s a possibility they got deleted in the spam flood, so if they were important, please leave them again or contact me directly. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Some (most) like it hot

August 15th, 2011

happy springThere’s a general perception that it’s easier to be happy when the weather is good – and it’s generally true: a 1983 study found that on sunny days, people reported themselves to be happier, more satisfied with their lives, and less interested in making changes than they were on rainy days.

This effect on our moods also influences our behaviour in all kinds of ways:

  • Consumers tend to spend more when they’re happy, and research has shown that the more we’re exposed to sunlight, the more we’re willing to spend.
  • We’re nicer people when we’re in a good mood, and study participants tend to be more willing to help others when the weather is better.
  • Happier people make more optimistic choices – and stock market returns tend to be higher on sunny days.

However, weather affects more than our moods. It can also affect the way we think, and therefore the kinds of decisions we make.

Deep in ThoughtOne striking study looked at the factors affecting admissions to an American university. The researchers analyzed the recommendations made for 682 undergraduate applications with respect to the degree of cloud cover on the day each application was reviewed. They found that on cloudier days, the reviewers gave more weight to the applicants’ scholastic abilities, while on sunny days, they focussed more on non-academic attributes. Differences in cloud cover could increase an applicant’s chance of admission by nearly 12%!

The researchers noted that this reflects the results of other studies, which have shown that we tend to think analytically and focus on details when our mood is low. When we are happier, we value our experiences more, consider a wider range of factors and make more generalizations. So, on cloudy days, the reviewers focussed on academic details closely related to the decision on whether to admit the applicant, while on sunny days, they looked more broadly at other characteristics.

You can’t choose the weather (or if you can, please get in touch because I have definite plans for you), but you can take it into account when interpreting responses to your actions. If your audience appears uninterested on a rainy day, perhaps you need to provide more data and details to allow them to analyze what you’re offering. If they aren’t interested on a sunny day, it might help to use more examples and stories or provide a sense of the “big picture”.

They say that everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it. Now you can do something about it – or at least about its effects – so I don’t want to hear any more grousing from any of you.

At least until the sun goes in.

Note to readers: There won’t be a post this Thursday – I’m enjoying the sunshine on holiday! See you next Monday.

Please don’t hang up – this is not a recording

August 11th, 2011

Combined Sales Teams of Charlotte County, Fla., Making Phone CallsYou probably haven’t ever carried out a telephone survey – at least from the telephoning end. Most of us haven’t, and given how thankless a task it can be, most of us wouldn’t want to.

However, it’s also an invaluable way to gather information, and there’s always a possibility that your group, charity or organization will one day realize that it needs knowledge that it can’t gain any other way. Fortunately, a number of researchers have studied what works and doesn’t in this situation and I’m going to save you time by summarizing some of it for you.

Send a letter first. Researchers who analyzed the results of 29 studies learned that receiving a letter in advance made people more likely to agree to participate in a telephone survey. The most effective letters offered information about the survey in addition to asking the reader to participate.

Ask if this is a good time – and wait for an answer. A recent telephone survey study compared two approaches. Half the time, the caller began the conversation by identifying him- or herself and saying, “I hope I’m not disturbing you, am I?” then waited for an answer before explaining the survey. The rest of the time, the caller said exactly the same thing but didn’t wait for an answer before continuing to speak. People answering the phone were more likely to agree to the survey if they had had a chance to answer the question. (Interestingly, research I discussed in a previous post found that only questions with a “yes” answer had this effect.)

Say that you’re not selling anything (if you aren’t). One study compared a regular survey approach to one in which the callers added, “We are not selling anything” after describing the purpose of the survey. The added phrase increased the percentage of respondents who agreed to participate in the survey.

Go ahead and say “um” and “ah” – but not too often. In public speaking, saying “um” or “er” in a pause – filler words that linguists call disfluencies – is strongly discouraged. However, a study of more than 1,000 recorded phone calls requesting survey participation counted the number of fillers used by various interviewers. They found that when interviewers used too many fillers, fewer respondents agreed to answer the survey questions – but this also happened when interviewers used none at all. The authors theorized that this was because a lack of filler words made the caller sound too scripted.

Don’t interrupt – unless the respondent is refusing you. The same study found that the more the interviewer and respondent talked at the same time, the less likely the respondent was to agree to participate in the survey. However, they also discovered that when the interviewer talked over the respondent’s attempt to refuse, the respondent was more likely to ask the interviewer to call back, rather than continuing to refuse. I don’t actually advocate doing that (because it’s rude), but it’s interesting information.

So, there you go, and good luck to you. Some of the most fascinating information I run across comes from survey results, so don’t discount their usefulness. For example, a recent survey of my regular readers found that three-quarters of them made up 75% of all those I polled. I’m sure I’ll find a use for that figure someday.

Be a noun and watch your verbing

August 8th, 2011

words words wordsWhen I’m speaking, I’m usually focussed on more or less making sense (and sometimes on suppressing my urge to use the more, er, colourful words I know). I don’t give that much thought to my exact phrasing or word choices.

Apparently, I should.

Two recent studies have found that word choice matters more than you think: people behave differently when we alter our words even slightly.

I’ve written before (more than once, actually) about the power of labels in shaping our behaviours. Now a team led by Christopher Bryan has discovered that turning an action into a label – basically turning a verb into a noun – can actually change the way people respond.

I'm so adjective...Two previous studies had shown that, for example, describing Joe as a “chocolate-eater” made people believe that chocolate was a bigger part of Joe’s life than if they were told, “Joe eats chocolate a lot”. Bryan’s team aimed to discover whether this difference applied to voting activity.

Just before an American presidential election, they asked people who weren’t registered to vote either “How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?” or “How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?” Then they asked how interested that person was in registering to vote. Significantly more people claimed to be interested if they had answered the “voter” question rather than the “to vote” question.

But did this translate into real behavioural change? It did. The researchers asked either of the same two questions to a group of registered voters the day before or the morning of the election. Of those asked about being a voter, 96% showed up at the polls – compared to 82% of those asked about voting. In an election elsewhere, the numbers were 90% versus 79%. Just making people think of themselves as “voters” made them more likely to act in accordance with that label. Who we are means more than what we do.

Nouns aren’t the only parts of speech with power. New research by Caitlin Fausey and Teenie Matlock shows that simply changing the form of a verb has an impact.

verb badFausey and Matlock asked their study participants to judge whether an imaginary politician would be re-elected under various circumstances. They described his previous positive and negative actions, but varied the form of the verbs being used. For example, some people were told “Last year, Mark Johnson had an affair” while others were told “Last year, Mark Johnson was having an affair”.

It’s a subtle change, but it made a difference. Their results showed that when this politician “was doing” a negative action, people were more confident that he wouldn’t be re-elected than when he “did” that action.

In fact, when the action was taking bribes, the participants thought that the politician who “was taking hush money” accepted more money than the one who “took hush money”. It seems that the “was doing” form of a verb amplified its effect, perhaps because the audience assumed that the action might continue.

I won’t tell you to keep these results in mind whenever you’re talking, because who has that much attention to spare? (Hint: not me.) But when you’re writing to persuade or preparing a public speech, careful word choices might help your cause. There’s a difference between a “non-smoker” and a “person who quit smoking” and a difference between someone who “was lying to her constituents” and one who “lied to her constituents”.

As always, I’d appreciate input and examples from any of my blog readers.  (See what I did there?)

When you reach farther, it goes further

August 4th, 2011

Reaching outMy readers tend to be do-gooders in the best sense of the word, but sometimes the hardest part is deciding what good to do. So many individuals, charities and organizations need assistance, and each of us is only one person. How to choose, and how to make the most impact?

To my surprise, a study published a couple of weeks ago can actually help with that decision. A team led by Marlone Henderson did a series of experiments that showed that some kinds of generosity inspire more philanthropy from observers than others do.

Henderson’s group told their study participants about some specific charitable actions by others, then asked them to contribute time or money toward a charitable program. They were testing several possibilities:

  1. Would people give more if they were told about generous actions done by people very similar to themselves?
  2. Would they give more if the people they saw helping were similar or different from the people being helped?
  3. Would it make a difference if the participants were asked to help in a different way than the people they were told about (for example, donating money instead of time, or to a different type of organization)?

One result was unexpected: similarity between the people in the example and the study participants didn’t seem to make a difference. For example, students told about the charitable actions of other students at their university didn’t give any more or less than those told about the actions of students on the other side of the world.

What did make a difference was the “social distance” between the helpers and those helped – the degree to which they were unaffiliated or dissimilar. In several experiments, people were more generous with their time and money when they read about people helping those with whom they had nothing in common.

It didn’t matter who was doing the helping. It didn’t matter whether the study participants were asked to help in the same way or a completely different way – or to help a completely different organization. Learning that someone was behaving generously toward distant others made people want to help more themselves.

Rajkishuri, Nirmila, Chadana and KamlaI’m sure you can think of ways to use this observation to help your own charitable or volunteer organization attract more contributions. Bring attention to the distant good done by your donations or volunteers. Point out the differences between your people and their beneficiaries (“an American businesswoman is helping a Nigerian girl learn to read”). Turn more of your resources toward helping those far away – especially as they are often the ones who most desperately need the help.

I’ve mentioned before that we humans tend to be pretty tribal. Sometimes it’s easier to help our neighbours… but maybe it’s time to enlarge our neighbourhood.

Let’s go into space

August 1st, 2011

Personal space, at I Can Has CheezburgerI live alone*, so I seldom have to worry about personal space. I can make almost all my decisions while still having room to turn cartwheels, and until today, it had never occurred to me that this was relevant.

As it turns out, it’s definitely relevant. We make choices – including choices about helping others – in distinctly different ways depending on whether or not we feel crowded.

Research on this began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the concept of “personal space” came to the attention of psychologists. First came the discovery that when an individual’s personal space was invaded, he or she almost always froze and looked away, and often moved to escape. (Imagine. Next they’ll prove that positive emotions are associated with the corners of the mouth moving upward.) Fortunately, it got more interesting after that.

A 1975 study looked at the effects of personal space invasion on helping behaviours. The researchers had an experimenter stand at different distances (between 1 and 10 feet) from an unsuspecting pedestrian waiting at a crosswalk. Once the light changed, the experimenter hurried to cross the road and – apparently by accident – dropped his or her keys in front of the pedestrian. Most pedestrians, even those who had been visibly uncomfortable when the experimenter had stood too near them, were quick to point out or return the dropped keys, which says nice things about us as a species. However, if the experimenter dropped an unimportant item (a pencil), proximity made a difference: experimenters standing at polite distances were much more likely to get their pencils returned than were those standing inappropriately close.

The BirdsThese results suggested to researcher Robert Baron that feeling crowded only inhibits our helpfulness when there isn’t much need for help. So, Baron had experimenters sit very close or quite far from his study participants while asking them to help with a complex project. Half the time, this project was “just for fun” while the rest of the time, it supposedly counted for half the experimenter’s grade in a university course.

The previous results held up. When the experimenter’s need for help appeared high, the participants offered more assistance when he came too close. However, when his need was low, they offered more help when he kept his distance.

Here’s another interesting research result. A study that came out last week looked at crowding and its effect on purchasing choices. It found that people who felt crowded due to circumstances beyond their control tended to buy distinctive products that expressed their individuality. People who felt crowded but thought of it as voluntary were more likely to buy products that matched those other people were choosing.

So, what can we do with this? We often can’t control how crowded our surroundings are, but we can adapt our behaviours based on them.

Close Talker, by Doug SavageIf the person you’re talking to appears to feel crowded, don’t ask for anything trivial; save that for when you have more space. If your audience has chosen to cluster together, offer them popular choices that will let them feel part of a group. If they’re clumped together against their will, give them a chance to demonstrate their individuality.

And if they’re Canadians, give them lots and lots of space. Preferably with trees in it.


* except for a team of obstreperous, cuddle-addicted, neurotic quadrupeds that claim to be members of Felis catus. Personally, I suspect Gulo gulo in disguise.