Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

It’s all in your tone of choice

July 28th, 2011

ChoicesSo, I want you to do something… let’s say, sponsor my cat in an all-feline charity triathlon*. I give you an option:

[  ] Check here if you’d like to sponsor this cat

And perhaps you do. Or I could give you another option:

[  ] Check here if you don’t want to sponsor this cat

And you’ll be a bit more likely to become a sponsor now, because, as a previous post showed, we all tend toward the default options.

But what if I offer you this?

Choose one:

[  ] I would like to sponsor this cat

[  ] I would not like to sponsor this cat

Or even this?

[   ] I would like to sponsor this cat and assist homeless cats in making new lives for themselves

[  ] I would not like to sponsor this cat even though it would mean assisting homeless cats in making new lives for themselves

It’s harder, isn’t it? Making an active choice is more difficult than accepting or declining a single option – but it turns out that we’re also more committed to our choices when we make them this way.

A study published a few days ago tested the effects of giving people different kinds of choices and came up with some interesting results. In one experiment, study participants were more likely to choose to get a flu shot if they were asked to decide between two options rather than opting in or out of a single option.

Even more went for the flu shot when the choices were accompanied by persuasive text (“I will get a flu shot this fall to reduce my risk of getting the flu and I want to save $50″ versus “I will not get a flu shot this fall even if it means I may increase my risk of getting the flu and I don’t want to save $50”).

Another experiment asked pharmacy customers to choose whether to enrol in an automatic prescription refill program or to continue refilling their own prescriptions. Presenting an active choice doubled the number of customers who enrolled compared to presenting an opt-in choice. In addition, those who made an active choice to enrol were more likely to actually use the program.

If you’re in a position to ask people to make a choice before they can do something else (hand in a form, finish a task), presenting it as an active choice is likely to make people think harder about their options and make more careful choices. If you’re trying to get them to do something that is basically good for them (like flu shots or retirement investment plans) or change their behaviour in a positive way, this should work particularly well.

And (you saw this coming), just get in touch to sponsor one of my cats. They’re in intensive training right this minute.


* Triathlon events include mousing, laser chasing and Xtreme napping.

Change the frame, change the picture

July 25th, 2011

FramesI’m writing this from what I suppose is best described as a retreat. The grounds are beautiful, the people are warm, the mood is welcoming, and almost any non-destructive behaviour is accepted. For many of the regulars, coming here feels like coming home, and I can see why. I love it here.

Unfortunately, I don’t fit. I don’t belong. The premise of the whole experience is a belief system that I don’t share and can’t make myself share.

It’s surprisingly painful. It would have been easier if it weren’t such a wonderful place; I could have just rejected the entire activity. But I value so much of it that being within it but separate from it is… well, it hurts.

I can’t change my belief system, and I don’t want to. But I can change the way I interpret the conflict between my views and everyone else’s. Or at least I can try.

This is a tactic called “reframing” and it’s been used a great deal in psychology, although seldom in the field of persuasion. For example, one study found that reframing a teen’s behaviour (such as by pointing out that certain behaviours are normal among adolescents) was the only approach that significantly improved that teen’s attitude in a family therapy session. Another found that reframing a compliment helped people with low self-esteem to respond positively to it.

We may be able to use reframing to spur larger change, too. Public health workers have argued that the current perceptions of obesity are blocking our ability to deal with it effectively. Instead, they suggest reframing to focus on “health at any size”, a phrase that emphasizes exercise over dieting.

A fascinating new paper addresses the way Americans view public benefits programs. The authors suggest that opponents of these programs frequently see program recipients as undeserving – so it might help to point out that two thirds of all adults receive some type of public assistance at least once during adulthood. Those who favour a focus on the economy might respond to the fact that public benefits stimulate the economy: Medicaid payments support health care staff, who purchase new items, and so on. Reframe identical circumstances with a different focus.

ReframingSome of you might remember a previous post on how metaphors change our perceptions, and this is a similar approach. Reframe a minority presence as cultural diversity. Reframe an environmental initiative as a money-saver. Reframe disability activism as a way to benefit from underused members of society.

Myself, I don’t know whether I can reframe my outsider identity as something more positive, like a connection between two worldviews or someone with a foot in each of two camps. It’s not easy to change perceptions, of oneself or anything else, but I think sometimes it’s worth trying.

Try to see it my way

July 21st, 2011

Earth from the moon iPhone wallpaper“It’s all a matter of perspective.” Ever heard that? The implication is that some things are true only from one point of view, and sometimes that’s the case.

What I find interesting is that seeing the world from someone else’s perspective can also reduce our prejudices about the group that person represents.

Many of our prejudices are automatic and unconscious, which makes them particularly difficult to change. However, a number of studies have found that putting ourselves in another person’s shoes can at least begin to shift them.

For example, a recently published study had volunteers watch a short video showing a black man and a white man doing various everyday activities but being treated differently: the black man was discriminated against because of his race. Some of the viewers (none of whom were black) were asked to visualize what the black man was feeling and experiencing as they watched, while others were asked to remain objective and emotionally detached from the video.

The researchers then asked all the participants to undergo a complex word-matching test that has been shown to demonstrate the presence of unconscious prejudices. Those viewers who thought about the feelings of the man being discriminated against showed significantly less “pro-white bias” than those who had tried to remain objective.

The researchers also found that when their study participants wrote an essay about a day in the life of a young black man – from his perspective – they behaved more positively toward a black interviewer later, smiling more, making more eye contact and using more positive body language.

Another new study took a different approach by asking participants to write about a day in the life of a young man described as someone who dislikes and avoids black people. Participants who did this from his perspective liked him more – and felt more coolly toward black people, although not toward other racial minorities. Please only use this power for good!

It works with other discriminated-against groups, too. A few years ago, Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson put university students into a virtual environment in which they could see themselves in a mirror while having a conversation. However, the mirror didn’t show their real selves: half the participants saw themselves as an average-looking young person and the other half as an average-looking elderly person. Those who briefly “became” an elderly person showed fewer anti-age prejudices on a later word association test.

You can’t necessarily ask the people around you to write essays, watch videos or sit in virtual environments, but there are often conversational opportunities to remind them to take another person’s perspective. I’ve made suggestions like this and watched understanding spread like a smile across someone’s face.

It’s one of the best feelings I know. Do try it.

Running for office, jogging for votes

July 18th, 2011

ExerciseIf one of your personal goals is to get more people to vote, a recent study has a new approach for you: get them thinking about exercise.

Previous studies have found that several factors are associated with political participation. For example, older voters, people with a stronger political interest and those who are more geographically mobile are all more likely to vote. However, Kenji Noguchi, Ian Handley and Dolores Albarracín noticed that even added together, these factors didn’t account for the differences in voter turnout that happen in different places.

advance poll - votingIt occurred to them that political activity might also be related to other kinds of activity… so they started doing studies.

They began by gathering international data on activity levels: things like “pace of life” (based on a country’s average walking speed, postal speed and clock accuracy), scores from the activity and impulsiveness sections of personality questionnaires, use and abuse of stimulants (such as cocaine), and measures of communication activity (such as numbers of newspapers and telephones per citizen). They put together as many of these as were available for 69 countries and came up with an “action-tendency index” for each country.

Then they gathered data on political participation, including voter turnout, petition signing and demonstrations, and compared their numbers to the activity results. Sure enough, the higher a country’s “action-tendency index,” the more politically active its citizens were.

To confirm their results, Noguchi and his colleagues measured similar factors in different parts of the United States and found the same thing: higher activity levels meant more political participation. Still, both these analyses only showed that activity and political behaviour were associated, not that one caused the other. So, they did a more direct experiment.

They first asked university students to complete a list of incomplete words (such as “A _ T _ _ _”). Some students had a word list that included action-related words like “go” and “move”. Others had a list containing inaction-related words like “sit”. A third group had a list with neutral words. Then, in a supposedly separate experiment, all the students were asked whether they intended to vote or campaign in an upcoming election. Those students who had completed action-related words said they were more likely to participate in that election than those who had completed inaction-related words.

A second experiment found that completing action-related words also made students more likely to take action about a new policy at their university.

This is an example of priming, which I’ve discussed before. It occurs when we are exposed to something that affects our responses to a later situation. Other studies have shown that priming with action-related words in a word completion task makes people eat more, choose more vigorous activities, and solve puzzles more quickly. It appears that it also makes us more likely to become politically engaged.

I doubt you want to start asking people to do word puzzles, but the idea still has potential for use, even outside politics. Bring up a new project when your audience is most energetic. Put up photos of race winners to encourage your volunteers to go the extra mile. Get your people thinking about activity and energy when you want them to get involved.

Keep it realistic, though. Signing your team up for a marathon is likely to make them vote, all right… and the first thing they’ll do is vote to have you replaced. Or possibly tarred and feathered.

How to extinguish those burning pants

July 14th, 2011

LiarWe all tell white lies and they don’t usually do much harm. But sometimes dishonesty is bigger than that. Sometimes the good things you’re trying to accomplish get sidetracked or even completely derailed by people cheating or being untruthful.

It’s a hard one to fix, not least because no one will admit to doing it. Fortunately, studies have found a number of ways to discourage dishonest behaviour.

Associate cheating with the “out-group”. A study involving university students paid to solve puzzles was set up so that the students could lie about how many they solved (and make more money). When the participants saw one student blatantly lie about his puzzle solving and collect maximum cash, other students were more likely to do the same. However, when the lying student was wearing a t-shirt from a rival university, cheating almost completely stopped. We don’t want to associate ourselves with outsiders who cheat.

Ask for an honesty promise up front. In an interview, behavioural economist Dan Ariely described an experiment in which he and his colleagues asked an insurance company to slightly alter the yearly mileage forms they sent to their customers. All the forms asked the customer to sign a statement promising truthful answers, but half of the forms had that statement at the top and half had it at the bottom. Drivers often understate their annual mileage to insurance companies, but those who signed at the top of their insurance form acknowledged driving 15% more miles than those who signed at the bottom. Once we’ve promised honesty, our preference for internal consistency (discussed in more detail here) makes us more likely to live up to it.

A Cheating Oldie But GoodieIt works in person, too. Angela Evans and Kang Lee told a hundred 8- to 16-year-olds that they would be paid if they got all the answers right on a trivia test (which included two unanswerable questions). About half the kids peeked at the answers, but when asked, most lied and said they hadn’t. Some of them were then asked to promise to tell the truth in response to the next question (which was, again, whether they had peeked). Those who had promised were much more likely to answer truthfully than those who weren’t asked to promise.

Reduce anonymity. A classic study done in the 1970s tested the honesty of over a thousand trick-or-treaters one Halloween. Children were given one candy bar, along with the opportunity to sneak more candy or steal small change from a bowl. Sometimes the kids were asked their names and addresses by the host and sometimes they weren’t – and significantly more children acted dishonestly when they were anonymous.

CHEAT 2 DIE!!1Reduce competitive pressure. Some participants in a puzzle-solving study were paid according to the number of puzzles they solved, while others were asked to compete against one another for their payments. Those who had to compete cheated more often – but this effect was almost always seen in those participants who weren’t good at puzzles. We tend to cheat more if we have more to gain.

Keep them real. This one’s weird, but people wearing sunglasses they believed were counterfeit were much more likely to cheat on a set of paid math problems than people wearing the identical sunglasses who believed they were authentic. The counterfeit-wearers also believed that other people were more likely to behave unethically. It appears that if you put people in a situation where they feel inauthentic, they will transfer that feeling to their behaviours.

Put eyes on the wall. This one’s even stranger. Staff members using an honour system to pay for their drinks in a communal coffee room weren’t paying very much – but placing a picture of a pair of eyes (looking directly at the observer) on the wall above the drink-making equipment more than doubled their contributions compared to a picture of flowers. The staff weren’t aware of the experiment, but their unconscious sense of being watched apparently made them more honest

That’s it! If you use these techniques, I guarantee you’ll reduce dishonesty in your organization by at least 50%.

I’m lying, of course. But at least now you know some ways to make me stop.

My group makes better decisions than your group

July 11th, 2011

GroupWe’re a social species, we humans, and we like to gather together when it’s time to make important decisions. There’s a sense of comfort in community, as well as a belief that we make better choices when we do so as a team.

Except that, unfortunately, we don’t. Sometimes we make terrible choices as a team.

Here are some of the things we do wrong:

  • We spend most of our time telling each other things that everyone already knows instead of sharing information known only to ourselves
  • Each of us puts in less effort as the group gets larger (as we saw in a previous post)
  • If we know the other group members’ preferences before we discuss the problem, we pay less attention to the available information.

Fortunately, there are several ways to improve your group’s decision-making abilities.

Present information before preferences. Avoid the third error listed above by sharing as much information as possible before group members announce their own decision preferences.

Include more women. One large study found that groups performed a variety of tasks better if they included more women or more individuals with high “social sensitivity” (the ability to recognize other people’s emotions).

Savage Chickens, by Doug SavageLet everyone talk. The same study found that groups in which a few people dominated the conversation didn’t perform as well as groups in which people took turns talking.

Publicly identify your experts. When groups were informed of individual members’ expertise in specific areas at the start of a meeting, members were more likely to share information that wasn’t known to the rest of the group.

Rank your alternatives. Groups told to list their alternatives in order from best to worst tended to make better decisions than did groups told to pick the best alternative.

Discuss reasons for disagreements. Teams of two people were found to make better decisions than individuals did – but only if they communicated about why they disagreed and how sure they were of their own opinions.

Don’t play “devil’s advocate”. While real disagreement can spur original thinking and attitude change, playing the devil’s advocate can make people dig their heels in and defend their original position.

There are enough tips here that most of us could benefit from one or two, so I expect you all to get out there and start improving your team decision processes.

Because it’s not like the world couldn’t use a few better decisions here and there. Maybe more than a few.

White rabbits can’t dance and other stereotypes (part 2)

July 7th, 2011

His and HersIf you’ve visited this palace of culture before, you’ll have read last Monday’s post on “stereotype threat” (being seen as stereotypically bad at something makes it harder for you to do it well). If you haven’t, go do that so that the rest of this makes sense. I’ll wait.

Everybody back in their chairs? Good. Here are two more ways psychologists have found to counter stereotype threat.

Think about positive role models

Cheryl Taylor and her colleagues did a clever two-part experiment with female university students. In the first part, the students were asked to rate how much various successful women deserved their success (rather than just having been lucky). A month later, the same students participated in a supposedly separate study in which they read a short biography of Hillary Clinton then took a math test. The catch is that before they started, half the students were reminded of the stereotype that women are bad at math.

Other parts of this study had shown that reminding women about the sexist stereotype tended to lower their scores on the math test by about 10 points. In the biography-reading group, however, those students who had previously rated Clinton as deserving her success were protected from this effect – their math scores didn’t drop. Meanwhile, those who believed that Clinton was successful due to luck and her husband’s position experienced the usual 10-point score drop. Reading the biography had protected only those women who thought Clinton had earned her success.

So, reminding people of positive role models does help to counter stereotype threat – but only when those role models are seen to deserve their success.

Show that difficulties aren’t stereotype-related

Social belonging (a sense of having positive relationships with other people) is known to affect test scores and health, among other things. Greg Walton and Geoffrey Cohen theorized that black first-year university students feel less social belonging on campus than do white students and that this could be hurting their grades. So, they decided to try to counter it.

They had a group of first-year students read the results of a survey* that showed that most undergraduates found it hard to “fit in” during their first year of university, but eventually became confident about belonging. The students were then asked to write an essay about how their own experiences reflected those shown in the survey, then were videotaped reading that essay so that other students could benefit from their experiences. The whole thing took about an hour.

The results over the next three years were startling. While the intervention had no effect on the grades of white students, those black students who had participated got better grades every year (compared with black students who had been part of the experiment but had written about different topics) and reported being happier, feeling a greater sense of belonging, and visiting the doctor less often.

So what can I do?

Scott type 222C front panelObviously, you’re not going to start asking people to write essays or press buttons while watching words on a computer screen. Still, I think an understanding of stereotype threat and how to block it can be useful. Remind the people you’re working with that some circumstances are difficult for everyone, not just for them. Mention positive role models in their stereotyped group. Get them talking about their most important values.

typingIn some ways, it all comes down to reminding people of their individuality – that they are more than representatives of some typecast group.

And if we help people counter the effects of stereotype threat, they’ll be less likely to live up to those stereotypes… which might eventually help erase some of them. I’d be happier in a world with fewer harmful stereotypes. I think you would, too.


* The survey results included personal reports by the older students, with comments like this one from a black woman: “Everybody feels they are different freshman year from everybody else, when really in at least some ways we are all pretty similar. Since I realized that, my experience at [school name] has been almost 100 percent positive.”

Math, maple syrup and morals – pick your stereotype (part 1)

July 4th, 2011

Break the Stereo Type

I am a woman who’s good at math. I am a Canadian who doesn’t like maple syrup. I am a feminist who shaves her legs. I am an environmentalist who doesn’t eat granola. I am an atheist who has morals.

You can see why stereotypes make me cranky.

Of course, the worst part isn’t the arguments about whether “childless by choice” means “selfish” or whether all writers are antisocial.* Those are just annoying.

The worst part is that knowing you’re being stereotyped can cause a phenomenon called “stereotype threat”: you perform below your ability level because you know that you’re expected to perform poorly.

Stereotype threat has been shown to affect individuals’ abilities in a wide range of circumstances, and psychologists are still figuring out exactly how it causes its harmful effects.

I’m more interested in how to counter it… and there are several ways.

Retrain attitudes

Chad Forbes and Toni Schmader had female university students undergo a subtle retraining exercise. They were asked to categorize words on a computer screen: first a list of actions according to whether society perceives men or women to be better at them, then a list of words according to whether they related to math or language. Then all the words were mixed together and the participants categorized them again – but one button was used for both “women are better” and “math-related” words while another was used for both “men are better” and “language-related” words. (This is a personalized Implicit Association Test, which has been shown to change attitudes in other research.)

The next day, the same women were asked to solve math problems. Half of them were also asked to mark their gender on a questionnaire and told by a male researcher that their natural math ability would be tested afterward. This combination has been shown to produce a feeling of stereotype threat, and it usually reduces problem-solving ability. However, when the “retrained” women were faced with this stereotype threat, they did even better on the math problems than when there was no threat.

Affirm personal values

Typing birdGeoffrey Cohen and his colleagues had students spend 15 minutes writing an essay at the beginning of seventh grade. Half were asked to write about why their most important personal values were important to them, while the other half were asked to write about why an unimportant value might be important to someone else. Then the researchers tracked the students’ school performance.

About half the students in this school were black and about half white. The marks of the white students didn’t differ according to their essays. However, the black students who wrote about their important values did measurably better at school in the following months compared to black students who wrote the other essay. The lowest-achieving students showed the greatest benefit, but even the high-performing black students got a boost.

A colleague of Cohen’s tried the same experiment on male and female university students in an introductory physics class. The men’s marks in the class didn’t differ based on their essay, but the women who wrote about their important values did significantly better than those who wrote the other essay, bringing their average marks to the same level as the men’s. The exercise made a particular difference in those women who had believed that men tended to be better at physics.

More to come…

There are other methods, but this post is already longer than usual. Tune in on Thursday for some more ideas as well as a discussion of how we can use these approaches to achieve our world-changing goals.


* No, that’s just me. Okay, fine, reclusive.

Strut your altruistic stuff

June 30th, 2011

Big Show OffSo, I gave a lot of money to charity recently. And I helped eleven people, and I signed more petitions than anyone you know, and I protested several bad, bad things that won’t happen now.

Are you impressed yet?

Okay, I also gave five litres of blood and opened my home to a family of destitute manatees. And, um, hand-delivered vaccines to the African jungle. (By hand. To the jungle.)

You people don’t impress easily, do you?

Fine. I also donated both my kidneys to strangers—

—and let’s stop while I still have most of the organs I started with.

The idea of bragging about generosity sounds silly to me (obviously) but buried in there is a useful concept: studies have shown that people will do good things for the purpose of being seen to do them.

A clever study recently tested this idea. Jennifer Jacquet and her colleagues asked volunteers to play a “public goods” game in which they were given a sum of money and asked to decide privately whether to contribute to a group pool (whose proceeds were doubled then shared among all the players) or keep their money while benefiting from the generosity of other players. (For more about how this kind of game works, see this post.) The twist was that after playing 10 rounds, the researcher would announce the names of the two most generous (or, in another group, the two least generous) participants.

Jacquet’s team expected to find that the prospect of being shamed for selfishness would make all the players more generous, and it did. What surprised them was that the prospect of being honoured for unselfishness had the same effect: players gave about 50% more to the group pool when there was the possibility of being publicly commended for it.

Psychologists think that one reason behind this kind of behaviour is that conspicuous altruism indicates an individual’s status in a group. For example, a shopping study found that when university students had recently been thinking about social status, they were more likely to choose a “green” product over a more luxurious or less expensive non-green product — but only when their purchase would take place in public.

Visible altruism might also be a mating signal: one study found that men contributed more to charity when in the presence of a woman then when alone or in the presence of another man.

Named Bricks at Heritage CenterWhatever the reason, you can see how this phenomenon can be used. People already give to charities in return for their names on a concert program, a bench or a brick. Can you honour your volunteers more visibly? Provide a public show of respect to those who’ve helped you or donated to your cause? Offer seals of approval to encourage companies to do more? Give your kid a gold star?

Because you know, if you make enough of a fuss over me, I will hand-deliver those vaccines. I wouldn’t hold my breath for the kidneys, though.

Positive pressure

June 27th, 2011

ReminderDid you make your bed?

Remember to pick up milk!

When will that report be ready?

Depending on your personal outlook, you may perceive these kinds of comments to be useful prompts, or unnecessary but well meant reminders – or possibly obnoxious nagging. From the perspective of the one doing the reminding, it’s hard to tell whether it’s worth the trouble or simply makes things worse.

Fortunately (if you’re the reminding type), it turns out that repeating a request or suggestion appears to do more good than harm.

One study on exercise motivation divided sedentary people aged 55 and up into three groups. After a session with a health educator in which participants set exercise goals, the members of one group received a phone call from the educator every few weeks, asking how they were doing, congratulating them on their achievements, and suggesting ways to improve. Another group went through the same process, but their phone calls came from a computer. The third group (the ‘control group’) weren’t encouraged to exercise any more than they already were.

After a year, the participants in both the groups receiving telephone calls were exercising significantly more than the control group. Six months after the study finished, most of them were still exercising regularly.

A very different study looked at managers who sent the same message in different ways to their employees. The researchers watched a number of project managers during their normal office interactions and observed that they often communicated something to their team members in person, then repeated it in an email or text message (or vice versa, repeating in person something that had already been written).

Analyzing all the communications, the researchers found that even when the original message had been clear, repetition led to team members understanding the situation better and projects moving forward more smoothly. This was especially true when the follow-up messages encouraged the recipients to evaluate the urgency of a situation themselves, rather than just telling them it was urgent.

So, in general, it looks as though reminders work. This information might not be useful to those of you working toward society-wide changes, but if you’re trying to encourage individuals to change, it could help to know that occasional reminders – phrased tactfully, of course – are more likely to result in cooperation than in resentful obstinacy.

Can't Stop Reminding YouAnd yes, Mum, I made my bed. Isn’t it gratifying to know that those hundreds of reminders during my childhood are still working?

(Well, mostly. Ahem. Let’s not talk about the dishes.)