Shrink your bucket: maybe ours aren’t ‘people problems’

Tomorrow’s post is about how, in the realm of advocacy and social action, we can’t rely on the same environmental changes that marketers and athletic trainers and others use to motivate people to take action more easily. Because, after all, if advocacy is so easy, doesn’t it lose some of its impact?

But that’s enough of a spoiler.

Because I’m still thinking through this whole “how much do we focus on motivating the individual to change, versus change the context in which the change needs to occur” question. And I’m thinking that, in social policy, there’s a pretty good argument to be made for bucket-shrinking, and that social workers would be well-served to shift some of our advocacy efforts towards those policy solutions that focus on the size of the bucket, and not the decisions people make in response.

See, there’s this popcorn bucket study in Switch that is pretty compelling–essentially, researchers found that they could make people eat more, or less, popcorn just by changing the size of the bucket.

Just the bucket. That’s all that was different.

There are all kinds of applications for this bucket shrinking in the social policy world, some of which are among our greatest policy successes. What if we made cars safer, so that even really bad driving isn’t as likely to kill anyone? What if we made food safer, so that fewer people contracted foodborne illnesses? What if we built highways everywhere and defunded public transportation, so that people learned to think that they need to drive themselves everywhere? (OK, I know, but that last one WAS successful, if that had been our goal!)

What if we applied this bucket-shrinking approach to the social policy realm?

What if Election Day was a holiday, so people would be more likely to vote (especially if they didn’t have to register in advance)? What if we gave everyone time off work to participate in their kids’ schools, instead of complaining that “parents aren’t involved”? What if we co-located services, so that it is easier for parents to, say, stay up on their kids’ immunizations and get their own cholesterol checked? What if insurance paid for mental health check-ups every year, just like physicals? What if credit cards weren’t so easy to use, and debt not so hard to avoid? What if every child in poverty knew that college was paid for?

What if, instead of just telling people over and over again, with exhortations and graphic warnings and shiny social marketing, that they should really, really eat less popcorn…we just made the buckets smaller?

Where, in the social policy issues you care about, is there a need for a different bucket size? How would changing the incentives, and the costs, make a difference? What are the limits of these contextual modifications, and what kinds of policy approaches would test those? How do social workers ensure that individuals’ right to self-determination is protected, without confusing true self-determination with the unnecessary divorce of context and behavior? Why do we focus so much on the individual, scratching our heads and wondering “what is WRONG with ‘these people’, that they eat SO MUCH popcorn”…instead of just making the buckets smaller?

3 responses to “Shrink your bucket: maybe ours aren’t ‘people problems’

  1. Melinda as I read this the whole time I’m thinking (forgive me, not trying to be negative, but stating the reality)… there is an ENTIRE INDUSTRY who is spending LOTS of time (and money) thinking… how can we make these buckets EVEN BIGGER?

    • In the arena of food itself, I think that’s largely true, but what about some of the other ways we can shape behavior? What if parents could complete kids’ immunizations when they dropped them off at school? What if all fast food restaurants gave out books as the ‘prizes’? What if everybody had convenient and attractive places to exercise with their kids? I obviously have way more questions than answers, but I think the key is to think about how, when, and where we can be shaping the environment in which ‘free choices’ are exercised, instead of just trying to convince people to make better choices. What would that look like in your work?

  2. I always wondered “what if” the fast food restaurants did away with the playgrounds and the prizes altogether. (clearly they wouldn’t because that, of course, is the draw) But enough about fast food. The real conversation here is about making change by looking at incentives, costs, etc.

    For me and my world, it is really about how as a group we can address concerns. Does one person/agency have a skill/service that another needs but can’t do on their own and can a partnership in some way benefit both and the community. I’m lucky, I think, to work in a field and a geographical area where partnerships like this are not only workable, but happening. Where our struggles come, then, is not among us, but the forces that we feel we are up against – as a community.

    I so enjoy our conversations over your thoughtful blog comments, Melinda.

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