‘Let’s Work Together’ Message Can Be Counterproductive
New research suggests that, in for white Americans, the best way to motivate pro-social behavior is to emphasize independent action.
When it comes to climate change, we’re all in this dilemma together, and forcefully addressing it will require collaboration and cooperation. A stirring sentiment, but if you’re looking to spur white Americans to action, it’s actually counterproductive.
That’s the conclusion of a Stanford University research team, which found invoking the idea of interdependence undermined the motivation of European-American students to take a course in environmental sustainability.
The researchers, led by MarYam Hamedani of Stanford’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, argue that in mainstream European-American culture, independence functions as a “foundational schema”—that is, an underlying design or blueprint that guides behavior.
“Interdependent action is not as motivating for independent European-Americans because it is inconsistent with this schema,” they write in the journal Psychological Science.
Hamedani and her colleagues describe three studies that provide evidence supporting their thesis. In one of them, 91 Stanford students—47 European-Americans and 44 Asian-Americans—examined a website that advertised a new course focusing on environmental sustainability.
Half looked at a version of the site that emphasized independent action, noting that the students would “learn to work autonomously,” and “cultivate expertise in individual action.” The others read a version that emphasized interdependence, saying that students would “learn to collaborate with others” and “cultivate expertise in social action.”
All were then asked how much effort they would put into such a class and how motivated they would feel if they enrolled. They also allocated an amount of money to sponsor course-related activities, and indicated whether they felt it should be a requirement.
White undergraduates who were told it would help them develop unique personal skills were more interested in the class, and more likely to believe it should be required for graduation. In contrast, Asian-Americans—who have been influenced by a culture with a more communal-oriented mindset—found the individuality- and interdependence-oriented appeals equally appealing.
“These effects were robust, and suggest that the frequent and pressing calls for Americans to recognize their shared fate and think collectively may result in the unintended consequences of undermining the very motivation they seek to inspire,” the researchers write.
“In the land of the free, motivating Americans to take action for today’s pressing societal challenges will be accomplished most effectively when people are encouraged to ‘take charge’ rather than to ‘work together.’”
Clearly, the Mad Man who came up with the appeal “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” had a good intuitive sense of his audience.