Saturday, April 11, 2009

Understanding Mass Behavior: an important strategy in gaining support

Which do you think is the more common behavior: To want to be the first one on the block to install fluorescent light bulbs or to want to avoid being the last one?

I was reading an interesting article by Michael Grunwald in the April 13th issue of TIME about the current administration's use of scientific behavioral research in facilitating societal change - a key component of President Obama's campaign. As I read, it struck me as to how this approach could be used in the conservation movement (nature, ocean, sharks, etc). One paragraph in particular summed up what could be another strategic arrow in our quiver:

"Which message would persuade homeowners to save electricity: a call to their environmental conscience, or an appeal to their wallet? [Psychologist Robert] Cialdini tested those approaches in a San Diego experiment, and the answer was neither. What worked was an appeal to conformity. Residents used less power when they were told their neighbors were using less power. We're a herdlike species, more likely to be obese if our peers are."

So, the rational arguments failed and what worked was the need to conform, to belong to a majority. Now can this be applied to many of the environmental and ecological causes we are so passionate about? Definitely yes - with a measure of subtlety, but yes.

Take shark conservation for instance. We would still want to cite all the facts and figures regarding declining populations of sharks, the cruelty of shark finning, and even the potential harm of mercury poisoning from shark meat. But we also need to add one more important element: that it's a growing movement. Although shark conservation springs from a strong negative base, we must accentuate the positives by mentioning organizations, governments, restaurants, and celebrities that support the cause, listing statistics that show growth in the movement, and anything else that subtly says to the individual: you will not be alone if you join us.

Sometimes this is what weakens the effectiveness of some of the more strident conservation groups. Despite the validity of their positions, they often are marginalized and perceived as a fringe group. And this impacts their broad acceptance by the general public.

Does this mean we soft soap the issues, that we water down the harsh realities? Absolutely not! Does this mean we profess a level of support that does not exist? Again, no! What it does say is that we need to find a balance between using empirical facts and understanding the behavioral response of those whose support we seek. Part of the public relations strategy of any successful movement is in making the participants feel that they are not alone in their support, that they are part of a greater whole for the common good. It's a subtle psychological nudge, but a very powerful one.

Read the entire article in Time.


the One called "Bitey".... said...

excellent post, thank you!
I'm sending this link to my buddies....

RTSea said...

Thanks, "Bitey".

Hopefully, whether in one-on-one conversations or as part of major media campaigns, conservationists keep in mind some of those subtle behavioral characteristics to win converts and support.