Hope for the Common Good

Ice bucket challenge
Remember the ice bucket challenge? Was there more good from it than raising money for one charity?
(Photo: “John Maino performs the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge” by Chris RandOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
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.”

PIBBS cover
The Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, or FABBS, with SAGE, the parent of Social Science Space, publishes the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. This annual journal features research findings in the sciences of mind, brain, and behavior that are applicable to nearly every area of public policy. The first issue comprises 33 articles in social and personality psychology focused on topics including health, education, justice, the environment, and inequality.

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:

  • Make contributions observable. We’re more likely to contribute when we know our contributions – or lack thereof – will be visible to others. Studies show that individuals are more likely to donate blood when donors’ names are included in a newsletter and more likely to enroll in energy reduction programs through publicly visible sign-up lists than by phone. But these kinds of strategies are only effective if they promote behaviors that the target audience finds desirable and uncontroversial.

  • Prevent people from avoiding the ask. Have you ever been stopped when walking down the street by someone who asked, “Do you have five minutes to help kids?” They were ensuring that you were aware of their cause and forcing you to make a decision about whether to contribute. That makes people more likely to give, because saying “no” out loud – or even ignoring the asker – carries a cost in the form of embarrassment, reputation, or guilt.

  • Show that cooperation is the norm. There’s a reason that “I voted” stickers have become ubiquitous: people are more likely to contribute when they know that the majority of their peers do, too. One study found that students were more likely to give to a charity when told that 64 percent of peers gave than when told that 46 percent gave. And people are more likely to reduce energy use when told that their immediate neighbors have done the same.
    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.

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    Suzanne Bouffard

    Suzanne Bouffard is a writer with a passion for making social science research accessible to the general public. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Parents, the Harvard Education Letter, and other outlets, and she is the winner of a 2013 Solutions Journalism Network grant. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Duke University.

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