NESTA have had some interesting events lately. They’re clearly into what Steve Moore calls “the convening power of the brand” as they assemble groups of people and interesting speakers, usually relying on word-of-mouth through social networks to get the right people in the room.
Last night, they had short talks by Howard Rheingold and Mark Earls, around a theme of mass collaboration. Howard pointed us to his site, Cooperation Commons which includes some intriguing research summaries. He mentioned one study in particular, which shows that
Altruistic punishment may be the glue that holds societies together – by distributing and internalizing policing of free-riding, solving the second-order social dilemma that is an obstacle to collective action
Mark was on good form and I enjoyed being reminded of some of the core ideas in his book, which I pretty much solidly agree with. We seem overfond in Europe/North America of an individualistic worldview that assumes change is made by individuals as a result of rational persuasion. We don’t seem to notice that a lot of the time we’re just copying each other, and often rationalisation follows behaviour. And small interventions have interesting impacts; for instance if you stick a picture of a pair of eyes over an honesty box, the takings go up significantly. Quoting someone-or-other, he says we’re people who respond to the context of other people’s responses to the context of other people’s responses.
Interestingly, I’ve just re-read Robert Cialdin’s classic book on Influence, which is full of the ways in which simple tricks can be used to get us to do things. My favourite story is of a study done in California. Researchers visit suburban homes and ask to put a billboard on the lawn saying “Drive Safely”. They don’t have many takers. But then they tried a twist: two weeks before the billboard request, a separate operator visits the homes and asks them to sign a petition supporting better road safety. Those who sign the petition become way more likely to take a billboard. Cialdini classifies this as the power of small commitments and gives many more examples.
You read Cialdini as a guidebook on making people do stuff, or (as he intends) how to protect yourself from being manipulated into doing stuff by others. On another level, I see it as more evidence that we’re not the rational creatures we think we are, and that even our smallest actions influence each other. Sometimes, we can spot that influence and use it but I suspect a lot of the time it’s going on without any of us knowing.