Last week, I finished reading Think Like a Freak, the third installment in the series of "Freakonomics" books by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. I enjoyed the book a great deal. One of my favorite parts features a description of a study conducted by Robert Cialdini, one of the foremost scholars in the area of persuasion and social influence.
Cialdini and his colleagues conducted a phone survey in California regarding the reasons why people wished to engage in energy conservation. The researchers listed four potential reasons:
1. It saves money (the financial motive)
2. It protects the environment (the moral motive)
3. It benefits society (the social motive)
4. A lot of other people are trying to do it (the herd-mentality motive)
The survey results demonstrated that the moral motive (#2) was ranked highest by Californians. The herd mentality motive ranked dead last. We should not be surprised by those findings.
Then Cialdini's study examined what people actually did. Did they act in accordance with their stated beliefs, or did they say one thing while doing another? The researchers explored this question through an ingenious study. They hung placards on the houses of citizens. The placards came in five different versions - one placard for each motive listed above, and one generic placard. Then the scholars measured and evaluated the actual energy usage in each home. Who conserved the most energy? The citizens who had received placards emphasizing the herd-mentality motive. Their placard read "Join Your Neighbors."
Why do I highlight this study? Many people claim that social influence does not affect their actions. We think we are independent-minded. However, our actions show that we are not so independent; we are influenced a great deal by others' words and actions. Becoming better independent thinkers begins with recognizing the impact that social influence processes actually have on us.