Doing good by doing right

A study shows that to persuade others, you should walk the talk.

The mantra of every leadership coach is “lead by example.” According to a study headed by an MIT biologist and a Yale psychology doctoral student, the coaches are right. If we want to promote behaviors that improve the social good—especially in situations where those behaviors aren’t yet common—our best move is to adopt the behaviors ourselves.

The study, led by MIT professor David Rand and Gordon Kraft-Todd ’20PhD, was published in Nature. It focused on how people responded to different parties who urged them to install solar panels. There’s an evolutionary theory, Kraft-Todd explains, which posits that beliefs are spread more effectively by actions than by words alone. (An example: if skilled hunter-gatherers share their food freely, demonstrating confidence in their skills, they may be more attractive mates.) “By putting your money where your mouth is,” he says, “you prove that you think the benefits of something outweigh its costs.”

Between 2012 and 2015, the nonprofit SmartPower ran a Solarize Connecticut campaign in 58 towns with a combined population of 1.4 million. Local volunteer “solar ambassadors,” recruited for their connections or leadership in their communities, encouraged residents to install solar panels. About a third of the volunteers signed up for the Solarize program themselves.

Analyzing the data, Rand and Kraft-Todd found that ambassadors who installed the panels were much more effective than those who didn’t: they recruited nearly 63 percent more participants. “Problems of cooperation and the provision of public goods are becoming increasingly urgent,” Kraft-Todd notes. “Our results suggest that advocacy will be more effective if built on a foundation of action rather than just words.”

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