Social Change Diary: Novel Communications Strategies for a Better World


Sendhil Mullainathan

Sendhil Mullainathan

Social Change Diary: Novel Communications Strategies for a Better World

On Tuesday, February 20, 2013 at 3:30 PM at the Ford Foundation, I attended a thought-provoking seminar led by MacArthur Foundation “genius” grantee, TED-Talk participant, and Harvard University Professor of Economics Sendhil Mullainathan. The topic was communications and social change.

The talk, part of the “Science of Communications Series,” was moderated by NPR Science Friday’s Ira Flatow, and was co-sponsored by The Communications Network and Spitfire Strategies.

Mullainathan’s main thrust involved re-tooling social change marketing and communications to target audiences or specific populations more effectively. He emphasized the importance of carefully planned quantitative research and rigorously neutral focus groups to better understand a target population’s beliefs about, and conceptions of, their own circumstances and challenges. In other words, he was advocating informed empathy.

While he didn’t insist on the moral implications of his approach, an attentive listener might have heard the pin dropping quietly in the background. Isn’t it a basic rule of thumb in communicating well in any relationship—whether as a spouse or an advocate for increased education for girls in the developing world—that you listen to your audience first, before you articulate your goals?

He also emphasized the vast gap between intentions and actions on the part of target audiences. (I feel that gap, in my own life, every day.)  Sometimes, what folk need isn’t more information about why they should behave differently, but behavioral modification techniques to help bridge the gap between what they already know they should do and how they normally act.

Breaking down big social problems into much smaller and more manageable behavioral components was therefore key, he suggested.

For example, worried about climate change? Figure out how to get more Americans to buy programmable thermostats and, when they buy them, figure out a way to get them to use them. While those behavioral changes, by themselves, won’t “fix” global warming, they would create a significant energy savings over the long term.  Solving global warming might thus consist of thousands of such smaller behavior changes around the world that would, he suggested, eventually add up.

Audience ability to receive messages is also very limited, he noted, even under the best of circumstances. But research suggests that stress, hunger, and worry about money can all severely use up our scarcest resource: audience attention. (Learn more about the most precious “merchandise” in an information economy.)

I might have added that there’s a lot of for-profit marketing and communications—and partisan communication—that’s sometimes focusing audiences on trivia or the superfluous, encouraging potentially deleterious behavior, and using up precious bandwidth that audiences might otherwise give to messaging about self-improvement or community empowerment.

Finally, he suggested that creating novel channels of communication to effect specific behavioral or social change is what we should aim for. He cited two examples.

First, he referenced a mobile robot alarm clock that runs away from a sleeper who hits the snooze button, forcing the sleeper to wake up, find it, and turn it off.

Second, he discussed a pill bottle with a “smart” cap that starts glowing when a patient is non-adherent to medication regimes, then sends the patient a text, then texts the patient’s mother, then escalates messaging further if patient is still non-adherent.

Mullainathan has co-founded a think tank to help craft more effective strategies for social change.  It’s called Ideas42.

What other novel behavioral interventions might we think of to improve social conditions, increase justice, or enhance everyday lives? Comments welcome.

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About Malcolm Farley

Writer, Photographer, Poet, Imagineer
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