If you’ve ever organized a bake sale, led a neighborhood clean-up, or collected signatures for a petition, you’ve probably experienced a familiar dilemma: motivating people to contribute to the common good when it will cost them time, money, or effort. The same dilemma vexes those who organize large-scale social welfare efforts like reducing energy consumption and funding medical research. That’s because we often aim to minimize our own personal costs, even when we believe in the cause and expect others to contribute. But there’s hope for collective causes, according to social science research.
It turns out there is data to support the golden rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
When we help someone, it makes that person more likely to help us in return. And the same dynamic applies in groups: when we contribute to the common good, it makes others more likely to help. This is called the principle of reciprocity, and it can be a useful tool for those who run charitable causes and advocate for social policies, according to David Rand, Erez Yoeli and Moshe Hoffman. When individuals and organizations highlight the actions of people who contribute to the common good, it can activate reciprocity and increase others’ contributions, say Rand and his colleagues, who recently reviewed laboratory studies of the classic “prisoner’s dilemma” game and real-world social experiments from around the globe.
Based on their review recently published in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the researchers suggest several strategies for people and organizations who aim to benefit the common good. They include:
These strategies might sound like they rely on peer pressure, and that’s sometimes the case, says lead author Rand, although he and his colleagues focus on using that pressure for good. And reciprocity doesn’t have to involve “people explicitly trying to influence your behavior,” Rand explains. “It can also occur in the absence of any feedback from others, simply due to your own calculations – conscious or not – about the effects your actions will have on your reputation.” That little nudge may be all that’s needed to help us make the leap from knowing the right thing to doing the right thing.