Saturday, December 18, 2010

How Social Psychology Can Be Used to Create an Effective Message: A Case Study

This week's Living on Earth radio show featured an interview with Robert Cialdini, the leading authority on the psychology of social influence, about how he'd worked with an environmental group to develop an extremely effective PSA promoting recycling. You can read the transcript here: http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.htm?programID=10-P13-00051&segmentID=2

The first point discussed in the interview was perhaps not made as clear as it could have been. When Cialdini talks about "what those around us are doing," he's referring to a principle of social influence called social proof. What this means is that we tend to look at other people's behavior to decide what we should do. In the context in which he mentions it — raising awareness of global warming caused by fossil fuel use — the point is that, if the message is saying "everyone is doing it" (i.e., wasting energy), the listener's reaction, consciously or otherwise, is likely to be, "If everyone is doing it, why should I do any differently (especially if it's inconvenient)?" Instinct tells us to follow the herd, even if our intellect says otherwise. Effective messaging avoids triggering this in a way that's counterproductive.

The point here is not limited to environmental issues. The basic principles of social influence — including social proof and the other one mentioned in the interview, reciprocity, and four others — apply in all areas of human life. Activists would do well to study them carefully.

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