Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

We are what we do

September 13th, 2010

You feel like you’ve hit a wall. Everyone you know believes in women’s rights. Everyone you talk to supports the right of a woman to make her own educational and professional choices, to hold any job she’s qualified for. Everyone around you is appalled by sexism and prejudice.

But when you ask them to help you run a careers conference for teenage girls, suddenly they’re too busy or not interested or have an appointment to get their Pomeranian groomed that day.

Here’s another one. Everyone you know recycles.  Some of them have backyard gardens.  Many of them buy green products.

But when you ask them to sign a petition for environmental change, they apologetically explain that they “don’t do” politics or are late for a pedicure or just sprained their writing hand in a freak eggbeating accident.

It seems like a disconnect, but it isn’t, really. It’s a matter of identification.

You can write your own labelIf you don’t think of yourself as a feminist or an environmentalist or a rights activist, you won’t act like one. So, how do we encourage people to think of themselves as the people we want them to be?

There are ways. There are no instant solutions, but there are ways.

Psychologist Gert Cornelissen and his colleagues asked people whether they performed everyday actions the researchers described as “environmental” (such as recycling and not littering). They discovered that simply answering questions phrased like that made people more likely to describe themselves as “environmentally responsible” – and more likely to make eco-friendly choices afterwards.

We like to think that we have certain traits and therefore behave a certain way. But it can work in reverse. Self-perception theory suggests that when we see ourselves behaving a certain way, we draw conclusions about the kind of person we are.

This is how we normally judge other people, after all. We observe their behaviours, look for  external reasons for those behaviours, and (especially if we see no external reasons) draw conclusions about the kind of people they are.

We do the same thing to ourselves. If we “see” ourselves doing something without any obvious external reason (such as payment or peer pressure), we conclude that we’re the kind of person who does that. And we change the way we think about ourselves. (The foot-in-the-door technique, which I’ll discuss in the next post, is based on the same principle.)

This has all kinds of applications, as you can imagine. One suggestion I liked: put a sign in public transit vehicles saying that passengers are “responsible citizens choosing an environmentally friendly means of transport”. It might change the self-perception of people who originally took the bus or subway because their car broke down or to avoid having to find a parking space.

This can be used almost anywhere. Offer a deal to get people to buy a product, but label that product as one used by people with the trait you want to encourage. It sounds corny, but it works. If only friendly people buy WeLoveEveryone soap, then buying it means you’re a friendly person – even if you originally chose to buy the soap because of the deal offered.

I suspect it might even help when changing your own habits. Reward yourself for exercising until you think of yourself as someone who values physical fitness.

If you come up with any other ways to use this technique for positive ends, let me know! I’m always interested in new approaches and solutions.

Leave a Comment