Erez Yoeli

Erez Yoeli: How to motivate people to do good for others

How can we get people to do more good: to go to the polls, give to charity, conserve resources or just generally act better towards others? MIT research scientist Erez Yoeli shares a simple checklist for harnessing the power of reputations -- or our collective desire to be seen as generous and kind instead of selfish -- to motivate people to act in the interest of others. Learn more about how small changes to your approach to getting people to do good could yield surprising results.


How can we get people to do more good, to go to the polls, give to charity, conserve resources, or even to do something as simple as washing their mugs at work so that the sink isn't always full of dirty dishes?

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When I first started working on this problem, I collaborated with a power company to recruit customers for a program that prevents blackouts by reducing energy demand during peaks. The program is based on a tried-and-true technology. It's one the Obama administration even called "the cornerstone to modernizing America's electrical grid." But, like so many great technological solutions, it has a key weakness: people. People need to sign up. To try to get people to sign up, the power company sent them a nice letter, told them about all the program's benefits, and it asked them to call into a hotline if they were interested. Those letters went out, but the phones, they were silent. So when we got involved, we suggested one small change. Instead of that hotline, we suggested that they use sign-up sheets that they'd post near the mailboxes in people's buildings. This tripled participation.

Why? Well, we all know people care deeply about what others think of them, that we try to be seen as generous and kind, and we try to avoid being seen as selfish or a mooch. Whether we are aware of it or not, this is a big part of why people do good, and so small changes that give people more credit for doing good, those changes can make a really big difference. Small changes like switching from a hotline, where nobody will ever find out about your good deed, to a sign-up sheet where anyone who walks by can see your name.

In our collaborations with governments, nonprofits, companies, when we're trying to get people to do more good, we harness the power of reputations. And we have a simple checklist for this. And in fact, you already know the first item on that checklist. It's to increase observability, to make sure people find out about good deeds.

Now, wait a minute, I know some of you are probably thinking, there's no way people here thought, "Oh, well, now that I'm getting credit for my good deed, now it's totally worth it." And you're right. Usually, people don't. Rather, when they're making decisions in private, they worry about their own problems, about what to put on the table for dinner or how to pay their bills on time. But, when we make their decision more observable, they start to attend more to the opportunity to do good. In other words, what's so powerful about our approach is that it could turn on people's existing desire to do good, in this case, to help to prevent a blackout.

Back to observability. I want to give you another example. This one is from a collaboration with a nonprofit that gets out the vote, and it does this by sending hundreds of thousands of letters every election in order to remind people and try to motivate them to go to the polls. We suggested adding the following sentence: "Someone may call you to find out about your experience at the polls." This sentence makes it feel more observable when you go to the polls, and it increased the effect of the letter by 50 percent. Making the letter more effective reduced the cost of getting an additional vote from 70 dollars down to about 40 dollars. Observability has been used to do things like get people to donate blood more frequently by listing the names of donors on local newsletters, or to pay their taxes on time by listing the names of delinquents on a public website.

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What about this example? Toyota got hundreds of thousands of people to buy a more fuel-efficient car by making the Prius so unique ...

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that their good deed was observable from a mile away.

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Alright, so observability is great, but we all know, we've all seen people walk by an opportunity to do good. They'll see somebody asking for money on the sidewalk and they'll pull out their phones and look really busy, or they'll go to the museum and they'll waltz right on by the donation box. Imagine it's the holiday season and you're going to the supermarket, and there's a Salvation Army volunteer, and he's ringing his bell. A few years ago, researchers in San Diego teamed up with a local chapter from the Salvation Army to try to find ways to increase donations. What they found was kind of funny. When the volunteer stood in front of just one door, people would avoid giving by going out the other door. Why? Well, because they can always claim, "Oh, I didn't see the volunteer," or, "I wanted to get something from over there," or, "That's where my car is." In other words, there's lots of excuses. And that brings us to the second item on our checklist: to eliminate excuses. In the case of the Salvation Army, eliminating excuses just means standing in front of both doors, and sure enough, when they did this, donations rose. But that's when things got kind of funny, even funnier. The researchers were out in the parking lot, and they were counting people as they came in and out of the store, and they noticed that when the volunteers stood in front of both doors, people stopped coming out of the store at all.

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Obviously, they were surprised by this, so they decided to look into it further, and that's when they found that there was actually a third, smaller utility door usually used to take out the recycling --

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and now people were going out that door in order to avoid the volunteers.

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This teaches us an important lesson though. When we're trying to eliminate excuses, we need to be very thorough, because people are really creative in making them.

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Alright, I want to switch to a setting where excuses can have deadly consequences. What if I told you that the world's deadliest infectious disease has a cure, in fact, that it's had one for 70 years, a good one, one that works almost every time? It's incredible, but it's true. The disease is tuberculosis. It infects some 10 million people a year, and it kills almost two million of them. Like the blackout prevention program, we've got the solution. The problem is people. People need to take their medication so that they're cured, and so that they don't get other people sick. For a few years now, we've been collaborating with a mobile health startup called Keheala to support TB patients as they undergo treatment.

Now, you have to understand, TB treatment, it's really tough. We're talking about taking a really strong antibiotic every single day for six months or more. That antibiotic is so strong that it will make you feel sick. It will make you feel nauseous and dizzy. It will make your pee turn funny colors. It's also a problem because you have to go back to the clinic about every week in order to get more pills, and in sub-Saharan Africa or other places where TB is common, now you're talking about going someplace pretty far, taking tough and slow public transport, maybe the clinic is inefficient. So now you're talking about taking a half day off of work every week from a job you desperately can't afford to lose. It's even worse when you consider the fact that there's a terrible stigma, and you desperately don't want people to find that you have the disease. Some of the toughest stories we hear are actually from women who, in these places where domestic violence can be kind of common, they tell us that they have to hide it from their husbands that they're coming to the clinic.

So it's no surprise that people don't complete treatment. Can our approach really help them? Can we really get them to stick it out? Yeah. Every day, we text patients to remind them to take their medication, but if we stopped there, there'd be lots of excuses. "Well, I didn't see the text." Or, "You know, I saw the text, but then I totally forgot, put the phone down and I just forgot about it." Or, "I lent the phone out to my mom." We have to eliminate these excuses and we do that by asking patients to log in and verify that they've taken their medication. If they don't log in, we text them again. If they don't log in, we text them yet again. If, after three times, they still haven't verified, we notify a team of supporters and that team will call and text them to try to get them back on the wagon. No excuses.

Our approach, which, admittedly, uses all sorts of behavioral techniques, including, as you've probably noticed, observability, it was very effective. Patients without access to our platform were three times more likely not to complete treatment.

Alright, you've increased observability, you've eliminated excuses, but there's still a third thing you need to be aware of. If you've been to Washington, DC or Japan or London, you know that metro riders there will be very careful to stand on the right-hand side of the escalator so that people can go by on the left. But unfortunately, not everywhere is that the norm, and there's plenty of places where you can just stand on both sides and block the escalator. Obviously, it's better for others when we stand on the right and let them go by, but we're only expected to do that some places.

This is a general phenomenon. Sometimes we're expected to do good and sometimes not, and it means that people are really sensitive to cues that they're expected to do good in a particular situation, which brings us to the third and final item on our checklist: to communicate expectations, to tell people, "Do the good deed right now." Here's a simple way to communicate expectations; simply tell them, "Hey, everybody else is doing the good deed." The company Opower sends people in their electricity bill a small insert that compares their energy consumption with that of people with similarly sized homes. And when people find out that their neighbors are using less electricity, they start to consume less. That same approach, it's been used to get people to vote or give to charity or even reuse their towels in hotels.

What about this one? Here's another way to communicate expectations; simply do it by saying, "Do the good deed" just at the right time. What about this one? This ticker reframes the kind of mundane task of turning off the lights and turns it instead into an environmental contribution.

The bottom line is, lots of different ways to do this, lots of ways to communicate expectations. Just don't forget to do it. And that's it. That's our checklist.

Many of you are working on problems with important social consequences, and sometimes you might need to motivate people to do more good. The tools you learned today can help you with this. And these tools, they don't require that you raise additional funds or that you develop any more fancy technologies. They just require harnessing reputations by increasing observability, eliminating excuses and communicating expectations.

Thank you.

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