The challenge of collective action

As I write this, we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Collective action – when we all act together – is playing out in the headlines, as we watch from isolation. Collective action comes in various forms: Constructive collective action, with people keeping social distance and stores and businesses doing what they can to help despite the challenges. Destructive collective action, when scared people create an unnecessary and uncomfortable toilet paper shortage. And a lack of collective action, when individuals take the opportunity to price gouge or just ignore all advice and throw a dinner party.

As we watch the positive and negative results of worldwide collective action issues, we should remember that it doesn’t only occur at the large scale or during crises. Collective action happens any time the actions of the many come together to create a large impact. To the individual, however, the cost of the action may be greater than the immediate benefit. This is the case with climate change, with voting, with employees not wasting supplies, and with washing your dishes at home or in the office lunchroom. Collective action comes into play any time that if anyone acts, it is meaningless, but if everyone (or no one) acts, then the group wins.

I wish I had an answer for the greater collective action problems of society, but of course I don’t. There is extensive study and writing on the challenge, mechanism, and psychology of collective action. But for those smaller issues that might fall into your sphere of control, it might help to understand a few ways you can harness the power of the group.

Make it personal
How can you make the results of the individual action meaningful to the individual? You could try to shift the cost-benefit ratio by adjusting the benefits. Can you incentivize the action you want in some way? Remember that incentives don’t have to be monetary; pride, inclusion, and respect are all perfectly good motivators, perhaps even more powerful than money. If you are applauded for staying home while sick rather than punished for taking a sick day, you are more likely to do the right thing. The point is the to make the benefit something that affects people personally.

A good example is the recent headline “You probably won’t get sick, but stop killing people“. This shifts the weak personal argument (you might get seriously ill, but you probably won’t, because you are young and healthy) to a stronger personal message (you don’t want to be the kind of person who kills people through their negligence).

Make it human
Despite millions being affected by the current viral pandemic, the fact that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson caught the disease was major news. How does it make sense that the story of one or two people could be more powerful than a statistic about thousands?  It’s because are touched by human stories, not statistics. We feel like we know (and like) Tom Hanks through his many movies, and his illness made what might otherwise be yet another news report about a disaster into an important human story. Telling human stories can bring large problems to a scale that we can understand and react to emotionally.

Lower the cost
During the recent democratic primary, some found themselves facing a 5-hour line to vote. As much as I believe in exercising the right to vote, I honestly would not have stayed; the personal cost would have been to high, and I know that my one vote doesn’t really make a difference. It’s a typical lack-of-collective action scenario, with high group benefit, low personal value, and high individual cost. On the other hand, I have always filled out my vote-from-home ballot and mailed it on time, because it’s so easy. If you lower the cost, the equation shifts.

Make it normal
We do a lot of costly things because it’s the “normal” thing to do. How many foods do you eat, clothes do you wear, and actions do you take only because it’s expected of you? Every time I put on a tie and uncomfortable dress shoes I ask myself this question. Humans will expend a large amount of energy to stay with the range of normal. Even those of us who pride ourselves on being different are often just conforming to a different subgroup of “outcasts” with their own norms. If you can make the desired action normal, most people will do it. If everyone always washed their hands and stayed home when sick, then we wouldn’t have to remind anyone about it. We can see this shifting now during this pandemic; as more people practice social distancing, it becomes easier to do it yourself.

We live in a world of connection and leverage. We have the ability to post a message that could reach millions. We take actions that, together, change the planet as a whole. Despite that, as individuals, we respond most to the circumstances right around us. If we want to change behavior on a large scale, we can’t rely on intellectual understanding of large numbers and broad effects, we need to bring things down to a human scale. We may act globally, but we react personally.


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