19 March 2007

Other People

Where design meets activism, one often runs into questions of persuasion.

Via Mike’s snippets I found Following the Crowd to Save the Planet, an article on influence, persuasion, and the social psychology of environmental action. In a nutshell, though people rank “because neighbors are doing it” lowest on a scale of motivational reasons for household conservation, actual data indicates that this is in fact the highest.

“[Researchers] placed one of four cards in each guestroom:  

  • ‘Help Save The Environment,’ with information stressing respect for nature. 
  • ‘Help Save Resources For Future Generations,’ with information stressing the importance of energy-saving. 
  • ‘Partner With Us To Help Save The Environment,’ with information urging guests to help the hotel preserve the environment. 
  • ‘Join Your Fellow Citizens In Helping To Save The Environment,’ stating the majority of hotel guests reuse their towels.

Compared with the first three messages, the final one asking guests to join others increased towel reuse by about 28 percent.


But it’s not fool-proof. The scientists erected signs in the Petrified Forest in Arizona. One sign showed a scene of three wood-taking thieves, with text that urged visitors not to take any wood. After passing this sign, park-goers were three times more likely to steal than the average visitor.

‘The subtext message is that everybody is doing it, which legitimizes the behavior,’ [Robert] Cialdini said.

The second sign showed a lone thief with the same anti-thieving text. Passersby were half as likely to steal as those who didn’t read that sign. The secret to a successful deterrent is to avoid validating deviant actions of a small minority.”

(And note the visual overriding the written message!)

The data comes from studies by Robert Cialdini. Social Proof, the idea that people will do things that they see other people are doing, is one of the six “weapons of influence” outlined here. See his wikipedia page for more as well. (The military language is revealing, perhaps tailored to his consulting practice for business professionals.)

That people will do what others do also meshes with the research of sociologists Duncan Watts and Peter Dodds on social networks, referenced here. (Warning: annoying Flash ad.) They find that it’s not the so-called “hubs” or particular kinds of “influentials” that spark trends, but rather “many easily influenced people influencing one another.”

This idea speaks to the power of otherwise seemingly innocuous designs: lawn signage around election time, protest stickers, ribbon badges of various colors, etc. These are often mocked as simplistic or feeble, perhaps when compared to television, posters, or other broader canvases or narrative media. But I think they have power in quietier way: by revealing the things that others believe and that those ideas are acceptable to express and to have. That these ideas are normal, perhaps something to be proud of.

Much of the social power of design is in manufacture of “normalcy.” Both in depiction (what a normal person looks like or wears, how they behave) and in physical manifestation (how high a normal sink is, what size type a normal person should read.) But I think the pervasiveness and social proximity of design also affects the broader conception of what is “normal.” These make ideas visible, creating space for marginal ideas or making some ideas appear more common than others. This is not just “social context,” but within a familiar context.

Making ideas common and normal is a means of social change described by the Overton window, a political theory of how ideas achieve political acceptance. The theory holds that policy decisions are made within a narrow range of what is politically feasible at a given point in time. The goal is to move ideas from Unthinkable to Radical, Acceptable to Sensible to Popular, and ultimately to actual Policy. The trick, then is how to move ideas from one threshold to the next. I think there’s some truth to this.

The posters, pins, and other design artifacts I list above are evidence of what other people think and desire, and what other people find acceptable. And while visibility alone does not necessarily trump other kinds of experience or knowing, such designs are, I think, quietly persuasive.

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