Two minds

Many of us have strong opinions about how society might be improved, whether we think of ourselves as activists, community organizers, volunteers, or merely ordinary people who care about the world in which we live. Even closet activists like myself wonder how best to help persuade others of the importance of whatever it is we would like to see happen.

In Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change, by Nick Cooney, readers learn how to improve the odds of getting governments, institutions, and individuals to change in some way.

“This book is about how to create change,” writes Cooney, “particularly in individuals. If you’re seeking a more compassionate world, consider this a psychological road map.”

Cooney, Director of the Humane League, has spent many years doing advocacy work on behalf of poor people, prisoners, and animals. In Change of Heart, he has gathered relevant aspects of many decades of credible experimental research in social psychology, behavioral science, personality psychology, persuasion science, network science, diffusion science, and social marketing. Making use of this research should greatly increase your ability to create change.


1. Be willing to alter your own appearance and emotions. “Just as wearing whatever we like may seem justifiable but won’t lead to the best results for our cause,” notes Cooney, “saying whatever we feel and acting out our emotions may seem justifiable but will usually not lead to the best results.” Be prepared to let go of what’s not working, no matter how much your self-identity is invested in it.

2. Create empathy before asking for action, because people avoid getting involved if the cost seems high. Activists should try to prevent empathy avoidance by emphasizing how taking an action will have a real impact on those in need; showing how the cause is in line with what the listener already believes; noting that there’s always more that can be done; and making clear how serious the problem is.

3. Beware of people’s tendency to blame the victim. People prefer to think of the world as just, so that they often denigrate those who seem to have done nothing to deserve their suffering. “It helps explain the lack of concern the public has for groups that are particularly innocent and particularly exploited, such as farm and laboratory animals, migrant laborers, and people starving in other countries.” Even when people’s actions contribute to the problem, through eating chicken, buying clothing made in sweatshops, wasting paper, etc., campaigns may be more effective if they focus their blame on the companies that are directly responsible, while at the same time urging individuals to make a change.

4. Focus on changing behaviors, not attitudes. Behaviors and attitudes often don’t match, and people don’t come up with their beliefs and attitudes by rational, thoughtful means. If you can get people to actually do something, their attitudes may later change to decrease their cognitive dissonance.

5. Make curiosity work for you and your cause. Begin your appeal with a question that will likely ensure the listener (or reader) will not turn away until that curiosity is satisfied. It works for mystery writers, and it can work for activists.

6. Anything helps. Pointing out that any amount is helpful has been shown to increase responsiveness when people are asked to contribute to a cause. Adding “even a penny will help” makes a difference in people’s willingness to give.

7. Get your foot in the door. Studies have shown that you’ll get much greater participation from people if you start with something small. Cooney’s example is based on a study asking people to place a small sticker in their window. Many agreed, though others asked to place a large yard sign refused. Then a few weeks later, those who okayed the sticker accepted the placement of a large lawn sign for the same cause.

These strategies are only a small proportion of what Change of Heart offers anyone who would work to create a better world. The clearly explained psychological studies might also be useful for general education purposes, so when you are solicited by phone or at your front door, you’ll better understand what’s being asked of you and why. Either way, whether activist or member of the public, you can then make wiser choices.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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