It’s not what you know, it’s who you hang out with

Nonprofits spend a lot of time and effort trying to change what other people do, from influencing a teen to quit smoking to getting a prospective donor to write that first check. Why is it that our most logical arguments and most eloquent appeals so often fall on deaf ears?

Because behavior changes like these are driven by face-to-face contacts and peer pressure, not our logical minds, according to Alex Pentland of MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab, interviewed on NPR’s Here and Now recently.

“We’re not really as rational as we think we are.” he told Here and Now host Robin Young. “If you want to change their behavior, giving people arguments is probably the wrong thing to do.”

Pentland studies human behavior using smart phones and other devices to track his subjects’ every movement and social interaction. He also uses phone polls to supplement the tracking data with subject reports on everything from their opinions to their weight. These “digital bread crumbs” give Pentland a huge amount of new and highly accurate data about what people really do all day (and night).

“What are the behaviors that lead to decisions?” Pentland asks. In study after study, he finds that it’s who we spend time with, not what we learn consciously, that predicts our decision-making. “Most of the decisions you make about behavior are ‘when in Rome do what the Romans do’ behaviors.”

In a study of students in an MIT dorm, Pentland discovered that face-to-face contacts led one-third of students to change their Presidential preference in the 2008 election. Similarly, he says, “Obesity is contagious.” If you eat with people who take a third slice of pizza, chances are you’ll have that extra slice, too.

In an article from American Scientist, To Signal Is Human, Pentland explains that what we call “common sense,” are really beliefs we base on “social signals,” the attitudes and actions of our peers and models, rather than logic and argument. Pentland says that this kind of social-intuitive decision-making really can be an effective and efficient way to make better decisions and adopt more productive or healthier habits, particularly for large groups.

“The most important thing is that people be exposed to lots of different ideas,” Pentland said. Unfortunately, many people inhabit “information ghettos,” at their workplaces and in their communities. These people don’t talk to many other people and have weak ties to the wider community.

A Bank of America call center deliberately created an information ghetto by scheduling worker breaks to prevent socializing among the staff. Pentland was able to show managers that their most productive employees were also their most sociable workers: the “chatterboxes.” When the call center reschedule breaks for informal group socialization, productivity shot up, employee turnover went down and Bankamerica made an estimated $15 million.

We always urge our strategic planning clients to schedule more open-ended, face-to-face conversations – with donors, with peers, with their beneficiaries and with staff. Pentland’s work suggests two major reasons to follow our advice.

First, by joining another person’s social circle, you influence them to believe and act like you. Second, by expanding your own circle, you expose yourself to more information and options to guide your own actions.

Fundraisers know that the big gifts come from personal, in-person requests from peers. Pentland’s work confirms that common sense and encourages strategies that create even more social contacts among your prospective and current givers.

For advocacy organizations, the findings point toward fewer formal briefings and rallies and more spontaneous gatherings of like-minded people. That’s the idea behind Drinking Liberally, a movement to bring people with shared political values together over beers instead of manifestos, that now has 228 chapters meeting every month.

4 responses to It’s not what you know, it’s who you hang out with

  1. Kirsten Bullock

    Thanks for these thoughts Jon – it’s given me some ideas we can try out at our local AFP chapter.

    One way to establish rapport with someone is to eat together (or ‘break bread’ together). I haven’t quite figured it out, but there’s a familiarity and comfort that can be quickly established.

  2. Marc A. Pitman,

    Thanks for this reminder.

    I loved the line “We’re not really as rational as we think we are.”

    Growing up, I was told that where I’d be in 5 years was determined by the books I read and the people I hung out with. Guess that’s true!

  3. Sherry Truhlar

    Jon, great insight into working with an organization’s supporters. I agree, it is who you hang out with but I also think you tend to hang out more if you are having fun.

    I like the Volkswagen’s project in which they’ve been changing human behavior for the better via their creative program called The Fun Theory. Absent peers persuading us, we will make a change if it is fun.

    Here’s a link to more on the fun theory and a Volkswagen video:

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