“Give More Tomorrow”: Can we program ourselves for social action?

My favorite part of the book Nudge was the section on how to nudge ourselves towards the actions that we know we should be taking anyway.

Because, of course, policymakers and recalcitrant should-be voters aren’t the only people who need a little nudging.

There is evidence, for example, that getting people to commit to increasing their charitable contributions by a predetermined amount at a preset time is an effective way to get them to the desired level of financial commitment.

Because, while I may not be willing to give more right now, I’m also fairly likely to just go along with it once it kicks in.

Inertia, and all that.

And, so, what I’m wondering is, if regularly-scheduled increases in charitable contributions work, then what about regularly-scheduled commitments to take on advocacy?

If we know that imagining, in detail, how we’ll take action, increases the likelihood that we will, then shouldn’t actually committing that it will happen have all-the-greater effect?

We do this some, already, in our campaigns. We ask people to sign up to come to a meeting, we ask them to commit to calling their legislators, we ask them to sign a pledge to boycott a certain company.

But I think, too often, we tell ourselves that the reason that we’re asking for this commitment is so that we have an excuse to call them (repeatedly, sometimes) to remind them of their promise, as though it’s our nagging, and not their own ‘commitment trigger’ that makes the difference.

I think the psychology on that is wrong, and I think that confusing internal priming and external haranguing also leads us to overlook some opportunities to make this whole ‘advocate more tomorrow’ approach work even better for us.

What if, for example, we used social media, or even our websites, to publish people’s commitments? Not in a ‘shame-on-you’ way, but a ‘look who’s going to be there–awesome, hunh?’ way.

Or what if we had people sign a commitment to contact their legislator, with great detail (“I’ll call Senator XYZ about the Earned Income Tax Credit cuts the second week in February”) and then we sent them the reminder in their own handwriting (maybe scanned and emailed), so that they could see where they had already put this into motion?

What if we asked people to tell us exactly when they would be ready to come to a rally, or write a letter, and then we made that date our timeline for their engagement in the campaign, instead of trying to get them to slot into our calendar?

With my kids, they know that they can choose whether they’re going to stop playing to eat dinner, or brush their teeth, or pick up their room.

They can choose to do it now, or in 5 minutes.

And choose they do, programming themselves to do what I wanted them to do.

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