For years, I wondered what my students took away from the Persuasion unit in Social Psychology. Learning the tricks and tactics of persuasion from Robert Cialdini's book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, certainly excited them -- they felt empowered as consumers to resist the tactics and make sound financial decisions. But as I thought about what I wanted students to take away from my course, I decided I wanted to do more than prepare them to skillfully avoid buying a timeshare or gracefully decline free samples. I decided to shift gears and engage students in a more active way.
Starting in 2008, I experimented with having students apply the concepts of persuasion to a social problem. The challenge was simple: Use the new skills learned from Cialdini to make the world better. We would not do this for a grade, but rather, we would do it because knowledge is power (and following the wisdom of a beloved superhero, "with great power comes great responsibility"). I will describe the assignment, spotlight the "Buzzkill" project, summarize past projects, share student testimonials, and include reflections, tips and a link to view photos from projects.
Before embarking on the social change project, students read Cialdini's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and submitted a formal APA-style paper on persuasion in action.
After learning the concepts, students were challenged to apply Cialdini's principles of Commitment and Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, Reciprocation, Authority, and Scarcity to their philanthropy project by first selecting a social problem of concern as a class.
Students screened videos of past class projects for inspiration and ideas. They participated in a class discussion on how to use the tactics learned in Influence "for good, not evil." The discussion was facilitated in a way to build momentum and excitement about what was possible.
The project was not part of their overall grade, and students were told to feel free to participate at whatever level they could. The class would need to generate whatever start-up funds were necessary from their own pockets (usually $5-$10 from those who were able to contribute) or think creatively on how to secure donations or assistance. Approximately 1-2 class periods (50 minutes each) were used for work on the project.
Spotlight: Buzzkill Bed Net Project
The Buzzkill project showcases how action teaching can bring a campus community together for a common cause. This project teamed together my Social Psychology class, the Social Justice club (I serve as advisor), and a Biology course.
Like many of the projects we have done, the passion of one or two students in the early stages inspired others to take action. For the Buzzkill project, one student expressed his desire to be part of the generation that ends malaria. He shared how he learned that malaria had been eradicated in the United States decades ago, yet parts of the world still suffered greatly from this disease.
They evaluated organizations to determine where donations would lead to the greatest direct impact. They chose the United Nations "Nothing But Nets" program in which 100% of every $10 donation aids a family in need with a life-saving insecticide-treated bed net.
The students worked through the proper organizational channels on campus for activity approval and decided to create a 4-hour event on the campus quad, a high traffic area on campus. The following describes the ways they applied Cialdini's tactics of persuasion for this project:
Commitment and Consistency: Students first asked people passing by to sign a postcard urging the government to uphold its promise to end malaria by 2015. They collected over 200 postcards that they mailed to the White House.
Social Proof: Students created and wore matching "buzzkill" t-shirts on event day. They organized a shift system so that there would always be several people by the event table, so that members of the campus community would be curious to stop and see what was going on. A full-size basketball hoop (a donation) was set up for students to play "nets for nets" and a large crowd formed around this.
Liking: Students opted to put their most attractive classmates in high visibility areas, especially around the refreshment table.
Reciprocity: All food and drinks were free. The event table had a wide variety of baked goods, drinks, and snacks for visitors. Students eagerly handed these snacks out to elicit support based on the reciprocation principle. At the very least, they wanted to win a few minutes to discuss malaria and bed nets with people walking by.
Authority: Students conducted extensive research on malaria, its transmission, treatment and the organizations working to end it. They were able to speak with authority that 100% of the $10 donation would go to the creation and distribution of a treated bed net to a family in need. They partnered with Biology students who created posters on the transmission of malaria and served as experts.
Scarcity: Students made use of the deadline tactic highlighting the possibility of their generation ending malaria by 2015. They also built a display to show the number of bed nets raised so far and how close we were to our goal of 200 nets.
Results from Buzzkill and Other Projects
The Buzzkill project raised $2,090 for insecticide-treated bed nets and generated 200 postcards sent to the White House urging the government to stand by its pledge to end malaria by 2015. More generally, the combined efforts of the Social Psychology classes and the Social Justice club have generated over $8,500 in aid for various social causes. Here are short summaries of a half dozen other projects using this model:
Text to Save a Life
Students raised $1990 for Pakistan flood relief, designing t-shirts and photographing each donor texting aid for the relief effort, then published a newspaper article.
Funds for Feet
After participating in the campus Book-in-Common program for First They Killed My Father by Luong Ung and learning that low-cost prosthetic feet could be purchased for as low as $25, students raised $1,100 for prosthetic limbs for landmine victims. Students elicited support by asking people to stop and have their foot traced on a large banner. They then discussed landmines and the low-cost prosthetics while tracing people's feet.
Students researched human trafficking and invited a survivor to speak on campus. They made custom t-shirts and affixed construction paper shackles on students the day before the event that they asked students to wear for the remainder of the day. Over 300 students, faculty, staff, and community members attended the event, and the students raised $540 for anti-trafficking organizations.
A few students completed service-learning hours building a Habitat for Humanity home for a local family. They wanted to raise funds for the family's basic household items and invited the class to help. Charging $1 for a "brick," in a plywood small-scale house they built, they raised $569 for the family and donated the small-scale house to the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. Here is a video on this project created by students:
Harvest Box Project
Students joined a campus-wide effort to donate Harvest boxes to Meals on Wheels residents. The cost of one full box was approximately $40, and the students were able to fill, decorate, and donate over 10 boxes to our local senior citizens. (A different semester, students completed the same project and were able to donate 12 full boxes to Meals on Wheels.)
Blossoms of Hope
In response to the devastating tsunami in Japan, students raised $1,327 for Red Cross relief efforts. Students made and wore Japanese flag t-shirts, and using donated wood, they built a bare tree and sold tissue paper blossoms to adorn the tree. Donors were asked to write a message of hope and attach it to their blossom before adding it to the tree. The finished tree was stunning and is currently displayed on campus as an art piece.
Here are some student reactions to these action teaching projects:
- "Upon hearing the alarming statistics on malaria and the effects it can have on an entire country, I decided that I wanted to stand up and do something about it. Although most of us had little to no knowledge about Malaria prior to this, we each dove into research… I witnessed in front of me the power and potential of what a single idea of trying to help people I've never met thousands of miles away could do to the very community in front of me. People bonded together over something that is greater than themselves to send ripples of progress to a group of strangers in need that might not ever know who we are."
- "Working on Traffic Stop was a life changing event for me. It provided a platform for students, faculty & the community to unleash our collective voice & take action towards ending modern day slavery."
- "Traffic Stop was an incredible sight to witness, watching people come together to spread awareness and raise money to stop human slavery. Traffic Stop taught me that people may not be aware of the issues going on in today's world, but once people shed some light on the issues, it is truly amazing to see how quickly people will come together to help."
Pedagogical Reflections and Tips on Implementation
This project is simple to replicate. The key to doing these projects is working through already established procedures on campus for hosting events and fundraising. The first time we tried to do a project, we had to find an already existing student organization to be able to collect funds. Although this was an excellent short-term solution, it added an extra step in the process. We had to wait for those organization members to agree to our project, submit paperwork on our behalf, and work within their organizational rules. We quickly decided that we could avoid these issues by creating a new student organization. In 2008, I worked with students and other interested faculty to create the Social Justice Club in order for us to have more decision-making power in these projects, and I agreed to serve as its faculty advisor. Creating a new student organization served our needs better than working within the confines of an existing organization because student organizations on our campus can receive activity approval and fundraising privileges. We were able to draft our own constitution and membership requirements and also streamline the activity approval process by serving as the primary contacts for our projects.
One potential pitfall of social change projects is the possibility of having students who are uninterested in participating. My approach has always been to get a sense of the class and never push a class into participating. Sometimes it's clear that a class is not going to engage in a project because no leaders emerge, so I treat the preparatory stages of the project as a thought experiment (we still apply the tactics to real life fundraising, but we don't carry out the project). If I were to encounter serious objections or resistance (this has not happened), I would table the project and take an opportunity to discuss concerns and objections with the students in question. Because the project is not factored into their course grades, the chances of encountering serious objections is low, but it's important to make sure that no student feels coerced into action. If there are students in a class who seem interested in doing something but don't want to take a leadership role in motivating others, I channel their enthusiasm into the Social Justice Club so that they can join ongoing social action projects.