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Episode 23: The Best (And Only?) Way To Change Group Behavior With Ideas



There are lots of ways to change behavior (again read Dr. Susan Weinschenk’s book “How To Get People To Do Stuff”). But let’s talk specifically about a war of ideas. Information, such as a news report, can change your opinion on a topic, or at least in theory it’s supposed to.

As long as humans have been around there have been wars of ideas between us. Think of Communist propaganda, or wars of religion. Turning people to your side using words alone has been one of humanities earliest mind weapons.

I want to focus on saving electricity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Behavior change is hard. You can tell people all day long that climate change is real, give them facts, but it’s very, very hard to turn that into using less electricity. Is it even possible to achieve behavior change with pure information? What information could you give that would turn into behavior change?

There’s a nice study by Nolan, Schulz, Cialdini, Goldstein, and Griskevicius that set out to study that question. They attempted to answer two questions. First, are people self-aware enough to know what sort of information can change their behavior? And second, what information actually works? The paper is called (spoiler alert) “Normative Social Influence is Underdetected”. I kinda wish they would have buried the lead, or at least made it so convoluted that you, the reader, wouldn’t understand it.

Nolan, created 5 experimental messages (check out Study 2 for more information).  The first was environmental protection, the second was social responsibility, the third self-interest, the fourth social norms, and the fifth was an information-only control.

Each had a different way of trying to convince people to save electricity. The researchers had research helpers go out door to door and give doorhangers with information, conduct interviews, read electrical meters, and more; it was a well-funded study.

After providing the information, the researchers then measured the subjects’ electrical consumption over the short term and over the long term.

The results were interesting.

Take a look at this graph. In the left column are the different conditions. The middle two columns show the short term effect in daily kilowatt hours (kWh, a measure of electricity usage). M stands for the median which is what we are interested in, and SE stands for standard error, which you can ignore. The right two columns show the long term effect median.

Notice that the ONLY condition that seems to have any major effect is social norms.

I’ll quote from the paper:

“Despite the fact that participants believed that the behavior of their neighbors – the [social] norm – had the least impact on their own energy conservation, results showed that the [social] norm actually had the strongest effect on participants’ energy conservation behaviors.”

All the arguments for social responsibility, save the planet, or self-interest (save money), etc… none of them really worked. Maybe a tiny little sliver of something. But telling people how much electricity their neighbors used, and showing them that they, themselves were using more? That had a large and lasting impact.

The best and perhaps only way to change behavior when your only tool available to you is information, is to give people information demonstrating how “bad” a job they are doing in relationship to other people.

People just want to be cool. They want to fit in. Social pressure is much, much stronger of a motivator than any sort of love for the environment.

If you’re designing a campaign to change minds; use social pressure. Turn it into a “club” a “group”, a tribe. Setting out what a tribe is and saying what it takes to be “in” the tribe is the best way to get people to do stuff. Us humans will do almost anything (*ahem cough* Nazi’s *cough*) to be part of the group or a group society thinks is important.

Give it a try. It’s also cheaper than rewards so that’s a plus 😊.

Nolan, J. M., Schultz, P. W., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). Normative Social Influence is Underdetected. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin34(7), 913-923. doi:10.1177/0146167208316691


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