Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Shall I compare thee to a winter’s day?

April 21st, 2011

You’ve probably noticed that an easy way to change your opinion of yourself – or anything else – is to change what you compare it to.

For example, compared to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, I’m a pretty good writer. Compared to Sylvia Plath, I’m a pretty good, um, typist.

Compared to my cats, I can sing quite sweetly. Compared to Aretha Franklin, I sound like… well, my cats. You get the picture.

A paper came out this week that demonstrated a way to use this phenomenon to encourage people toward specific behaviours. Mark Ferguson and his colleagues asked university students to “take a moment” to think about the important differences between their own generation (students in 2010) and fellow students in another era. Each participant was randomly assigned to think about either students in 1960 or students in 2060.

All the students then read a paragraph about current scientific findings on climate change. They were told that the rest of the survey would address generational differences of opinion, and that they should respond from the perspective of a student in 2010. They were then asked about their own willingness to perform actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

All these students went through exactly the same process. The only difference was that half of them were asked to think for a “moment” about past students and half were asked to think about future students.

And yet, they responded differently to the survey questions. Those who had compared themselves to students in the past claimed to be significantly more willing to perform sustainable behaviours (such as using public transportation), support energy-saving laws and advocate for social change.

I’ve written before about the way we change our behaviour if told that other members of our group do something, but this is the first evidence I’ve seen that reminding your audience that they are more socially responsible than another group will make them even more socially responsible.

You can imagine how to use this, I’m sure. If you’re addressing the perception of women in the workplace, remind your audience of their grandmother’s generation. If you’re a Canadian concerned about keeping gay marriage, get your audience to compare themselves with Americans. If you want people to care about science, talk to them about Galileo’s unsupportive peer group.

But if you’d like your lawyer to charge you less, don’t praise him for being less money-grubbing than his colleagues. He’ll probably feel obliged to raise his rates. Peer pressure, you know.

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