What approaches would be effective at improving people's behavior?

by Maxime Perrigault3 min read10th Aug 2020No comments


Moral psychology


Recent studies (done by Singer, Schwitzgebel and others) explore if being exposed to moral arguments and/or to emotionally moving narratives are effective at improving people's behavior (for example in increasing people's donation rates).

The result of these studies is that it is not obvious that being exposed to moral arguments is effective at changing people's behavior.

(Please bear in mind that I summarized 5 studies in 2 sentences. What I wrote is, at best, a rough approximation of what is actually said in these studies)

What about other approaches?

After learning about these studies, I asked myself: What other approaches would be effective at improving people's behavior?

Two things came to my mind:

  • Self-generated arguments
  • Street epistemology

Self-generated arguments

This idea comes from a book I recently read: "How to have impossible conversations" by Peter Boghossian. Here is an extract of the book:

Chapter 2: The Seven Fundamentals of Good Conversations; #5 —Shoot the messenger

	"Have you ever thought you made a convincing case for a position only to have someone promptly reject your conclusion? This frequently occurs because people deliver messages and the recipient rejects the act of delivery. Nobody likes to be lectured.
	The research literature on effective conversations shows that delivering messages does not work. This is because messengers don’t speak across political and moral divides, or even converse—they deliver messages. Conversations are exchanges. Messages are information conveyed in one-way transactions. Messengers espouse beliefs and assume their audience will listen and ultimately embrace their conclusions.
	Even when messages are not delivered across any sort of political or moral divide, they tend to be poorly received. In the 1940s, the psychologist Kurt Lewin and his students published a series of studies concerning an attempt to get housewives to incorporate sweetbreads (organ meats) into home-cooked meals to help with meat shortages during World War II. Some housewives were given a lecture about why incorporating sweetbreads was important for the war effort. Others were invited to self-generate reasons for their importance in group sessions similar to today’s focus groups. Lewin observed that 37 percent of the members of the groups who self-generated reasons followed through and incorporated sweetbreads, and in the lectured groups, only 3 percent did so.
	There are many reasons why the self-generated groups had a much higher compliance with the desired behavior. Among these is that people tend to reject delivered messages and accept ideas they believe are their own. If you’ve had a friend reject every idea you propose until days or weeks later when she happens upon one of them “for herself,” then you have firsthand experience with this phenomenon. When a messenger delivers undesirable news or facts that contradict the recipient’s closely held beliefs, the hearer’s temptation is to be angry with (or historically, to kill) the messenger for delivering the unwelcome information. (The original adage is “Don’t shoot the messenger” for a reason) The easiest way to avoid this reaction is not to deliver uninvited messages."

Among the 5 studies I refer to, one of them tried to gather the best moral arguments philosophers could possibly write. What if the best argument someone could ever receive was a self-generated argument?

Street epistemology

Here is a definition: Street Epistemology is a conversational tool that helps people reflect on the quality of their reasons and the reliability of their methods used to derive one's confidence level in their deeply-held beliefs.

Lately, I watched a lot of talks conducted by Anthony Magnabosco, where he uses street epistemology to explore random people beliefs. The results he obtains are quite amazing. The talks can really help its interlocutors to change their mind. I wonder what would be the result if street epistemology was used to explore "the reasons someone does or does not donate" or "the reason someone is or is not involved in any kind of altruistic actions"

What are the goals of this post?

  1. To share these 5 studies since they are closely tied to EA
  2. To share my 2 ideas about what could effectively improving people's behavior. Who knows, it may inspire researchers to conduct studies about them. I would love to read a study that compare being exposed to moral arguments Versus being exposed to emotionally moving narratives Versus self-generating moral arguments Versus exploring moral ideas with the help of street epistemolgy. By the way, do you think I should contact the author of these studies to suggest these ideas?
  3. Create a space where people could share their own ideas on the matter



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