In two recent, fascinating field experiments, Situationist Contributor Julia M. Puaschunder demonstrated how social conscientiousness can be “nudged” by social forces: Social status drops trigger social responsibility.
In a field experiment in Harvard dormitories, social identity insignia (in the form of Harvard logo posters) connected to social norm cues (Sustainability at Harvard posters) promoting environmentalism fostered recycling compliance – once prior social status endowments were taken away. Building on prospect theory, the paper argues looming social status losses are compensated with socially-favored ethicality. Social status downs combined with social norm cues steer social responsibility.
A second study on energy conservation in Harvard libraries found a similar effect. Tent card signage, featuring the Harvard logo, was placed in Harvard Law School’s Langdell Library in combination with social norm instructions asking students to turn off their task-light when finished studying. When the social status endowing cards were removed, energy light consumption conscientiousness improved. Situational social status losses related to social norm reminders nudged library visitors towards pro-social environmentalism.
Based on these findings, the Harvard Law School installed similar tent cards in Langdell Library study areas. The results have attracted attention of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Cabinet Team on Behavioral Insights. The U.S. Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education distributed the learning. Follow-up studies in the organizational context have been inspired by the unprecedented idea to use social status endowments to gain social responsibility.
Here’s the abstract to the paper titled ‘Ethical Decision Making under Social Uncertainty’:
Decision making research has been revolutionized by prospect theory. In laboratory experiments, prospect theory captures human to code outcome perspectives as gains or losses relative to an individual reference point, by which decisions are anchored. Prospect theory’s core finding that monetary losses loom larger than gains has been generalized in many domains; yet not been tested for social status changes. Social status striving has been subject to social sciences’ research for a long time but until today we have no clear picture of how social status prospects relative to an individual reference point may influence our decision making and action. Understanding human cognition in the light of social status perspectives, however, could allow turning social status experiences into ethicality nudges. The perceived endowment through social status may drive social responsibility. Ethicality as a socially-appreciated, noble societal contribution offers the prospect of social status gains given the societal respect for altruism and pro-social acts. An Überethical filling of current legal gaps or outperforming legal regulations grant additional social status elevation opportunities. Building on prospect theory, two field observations of environmentally conscientious recycling behavior and sustainable energy consumption tested if social status losses are more likely to be answered with ethicality than social status gains. Social status losses are found as significant drivers of socially responsible environmental conscientiousness. Testing prospect theory for social status striving advances socio-economics and helps understanding the underlying mechanisms of social identity theories. Pegging social status to ethicality is an unprecedented approach to use social forces as a means for accomplishing positive societal change. Future studies may target at elucidating if ethicality in the wake of social status losses is more a cognitive, rational strategy or emotional compensation for feelings of unworthiness after social status drops.
Download the full paper, ‘Ethical Decision Making under Social Uncertainty,’ for free here.
Situationist Contributor Julia M. Puaschunder is an Associate of the Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences Center for the Environment working on intergenerational equity constraints in the domains of environmental sustainability, overindebtedness and social welfare reform of an aging Western world population.
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