Dan Ariely, the popular author and behavioral economist, spent years recovering from 3rd degree burns on 70% of his body. His treatments were extremely painful. The nurses removed his bandages daily to soak him in a disinfectant bath using the “rip-off-the-Band-Aid-as-quickly-as-possible” method. I use that same method with my kids. Best to get it over with as quickly as possible.
Years later, Ariely wanted to know if this made sense. So he performed a study (he is a behavioral economist after all) and guess what? The nurses had it all wrong. Turns out it’s significantly preferable to minimize the intensity of the pain by going slower, even if that means drawing out the process. Oops.
He went back to the hospital to present his findings, certain that the nurses would immediately change their approach. They didn’t react quite the way he expected.
But how the nurses did react tells us something interesting and important — something that also explains a key reason why the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been such a great success.
WHAT IS THE ALS ICE BUCKET CHALLENGE?
The premise is simple. You either make a donation to a charity dedicated to fighting ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease) or you record yourself dumping a bucket of ice water on your head and put it up on Facebook. Then, you challenge three friends to do the same (tagging them to make sure they see it).
The implication here is, some people would rather donate than be made uncomfortable, even for a moment.
I saw an ice bucket video for the first time last weekend. Since then I must have seen at least 100 more. It’s everywhere. Even celebrities are doing it.
But wait! If 100 people from my newsfeed made ice bucket videos, doesn’t that mean they didn’t have to donate anything? Wasn’t a lot of money was left on the table? Perhaps not.
The ALS Association reported on August 12 that it, along with its 38 chapters, had received $4 million in donations in just two weeks, more than triple what was donated during the same period last year. They’ve added 70,000 new donors.
IS THIS MERELY SLACKTIVISM AT WORK?
The campaign is working, charges of narcissism and “slacktivism” notwithstanding.
In an article on Slate, Will Oremus argues this campaign has been misguided. “More than anything else,” Oremus writes, “the ice bucket videos feel like an exercise in raising awareness of one’s own zaniness, altruism, and/or attractiveness in a wet T-shirt.”
Ben Kosinski makes a similar point at Huffington Post. “We’re using #IceBucketChallenge to show off our summer bodies. We’re using it to tag old friends. We’re using it to show people we care. We’re using it to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. We’re using it to promote ourselves, in one way or another.”
Both of them suggest doing away with the circus and instead everyone should just make a donation.
They are completely missing the point. The ALS #IceBucketChallenge works precisely because, more than anything else, we put ourselves first.
EVEN NURSES ARE SELFISH
Let’s go back to Dan Ariely and his rip-off-the-bandage study. How exactly did Dan Ariely’s nurses react when he presented his findings? They asked him a simple question — a question he had not considered at all.
What about the well-being of the nurses themselves?
After all, they were the ones who had to deal with their patients screaming in agony for hours on end. Maybe, in an attempt to bear that burden day after day, the nurses were subconsciously motivated to make the process go as fast as possible.
Realizing that they were being selfish, even without meaning to be, some (but not all) of the nurses changed. Self-interest is a powerful and motivating thing. But so is self-identity. For those who changed, these nurses thought of themselves as selfless people who had devoted their lives to helping their patients get better. By seeing that they were making their patients suffer, they were also destroying that self-identity.
WHAT MOTIVATES PEOPLE TO TAKE ACTION?
How great would it be to live in a world where everybody cared about the plight of everybody else? A world of pure selflessness? It would be wonderful. But that’s not the world we live in.
You’re not going to drive people to take action by convincing them of how worthy your cause is, even if it’s terribly worthy.
Sure, some people may donate because it’s “the right thing to do.” But even your most seemingly selfless advocates do what they do for their own inscrutable reasons. Maybe it’s to avoid pain. Maybe it’s to seek approval. Maybe it’s to make themselves happy.
If you want people to take an action on your behalf — like donating to a worthy cause — you should help them to see how their own self-interest and self-identity aligns with your goals. Don’t just make your cause about you; make it about them, too.
This is what the #IceBucketChallenge has done so well. It helps people reinforce their self-identities by tapping into their deeper psychological needs:
- People like to be seen as having a sense of humor and being a bit mischievous.
- Being challenged makes us feel popular.
- A bit of public peer pressure doesn’t hurt in driving action.
- Challenging others provides a sense of schadenfreude.
Oh, and by the way, all of this is for a great cause. Don’t I feel good about myself? Aren’t I a good person?
And what exactly is wrong with that?
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