Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

So. Why this blog?

September 2nd, 2010

A few months ago, I was sitting around with my parents, talking about everything and solving the world’s problems.

Except that we weren’t solving any problems. In fact, we were getting pretty frustrated that so many problems seemed impervious to sensible solutions.

So many people seemed not to see what was perfectly obvious. So many issues could be fixed if only people would do some ridiculously easy things. (I’m sure we’re the first people to notice this.)

Fluorescent light bulbIf only people could be convinced to do these simple things in the same way they’re convinced to buy breakfast cereal and pedicures and insurance.

And then the light bulb went on. If only people could be convinced to do these simple things in the same way.

Well, why couldn’t they?

I’d been reading a lot about social psychology, just because I find it fascinating, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know anyone who was looking for ways to apply social psychology techniques to solving social problems.

Thus… this blog.

Definition of social psychology from textbookSocial psychologists study how our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are influenced by other people. This can include anything from how advertising affects car purchases to why mobs behave differently than do individuals. Essentially, social psychology looks at what leads us to do this rather than that.

As you can imagine, understanding why people do things could be very useful if you wanted to convince them to do things. Advertisers apply principles from social psychology every day to encourage, or persuade, or influence us to buy their products.

So, why not use those techniques for good causes?

Whatever your personal goal for the world, there are techniques that can help you achieve it. It doesn’t matter whether you want to encourage people to vote your way or persuade them to buy green or influence their attitudes toward minority groups. There are ways to move people in your direction without threatening or lecturing them.

This might sound as if I’m encouraging you to manipulate people. Perhaps I am. I’m not taking Machiavelli as a role model (although I’ll write more about him later) but here’s why I’m personally comfortable encouraging you to apply social psychology-based techniques:

1. They work. We’re all sure we’re immune to techniques meant to influence us, but studies show that we’re still influenced, often without realizing that any persuasion has taken place.

2. They’re already being used. Marketing is a huge industry and marketers examine every new psychological insight for potential use. Since these techniques are already being used to persuade us to buy things, why shouldn’t we also use them to make the world a better place?

3. You can learn to identify others’ manipulation. An understanding of social psychology lets you recognize techniques other people are trying to use on you. Once you can see them, you can choose to ignore them (or not) when you make decisions.

4. They lead to an increase in total happiness. The examples I’ll give in this blog will encourage actions that often make people feel better about themselves. Convincing other people to recycle (or volunteer or parent more effectively) helps the one being influenced as well as the one trying to make the change. This may not always apply, but it’s one of my goals.

5. They replace more unpleasant techniques. People will always want other people to change and if they don’t use these tactics, they’ll use other ones. I’d rather try a psychology-based technique than try to bludgeon people into changing. More social psychology means less bludgeoning.

6. They can be used on ourselves. You can use many of the techniques I’ll talk about here to help change your own habits, if you want to.

I think there’s a lot of potential for good here. I hope you’ll join me.

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