PopTech Blog

Subtle Nudges for Greater Good

Editor’s note: this guest post is from Alana Conner, senior editor of the Stanford Social Innovation Review and co-host of the podcast channel Social Innovation Conversations. The Stanford Graduate School of Business is holding another event April 29th, “Collaboration for the Greater Good: Social and Environmental Responsibility in the Global Supply Chain.” (Registration details.)

Many psychologists, writers and other students of human nature have reached the same conclusion: people are usually too distracted, tired, scared, or just plain lazy to act on their best intentions. But few of these observers suggest how us humans might overcome our less noble tendencies.

Scientists at a recent Stanford Center for Social Innovation conference, however, presented a bevy of tactics for transforming even the most bumbling schlemiel into a model citizen. Called “Small Steps, Big Leaps: The Science of Getting People to do the Right Thing,” the event showcased how to use gentle nudges, subtle tweaks, and quiet prompts to summon better behavior.

One of the most overlooked strategies for getting people to be generous, for instance, is actually to ask them, related Frank Flynn of Stanford Graduate School of Business. Flynn discussed his experiments,

showing that one barrier to “the ask” is that people grossly underestimate how often their requests for help will be honored. And if at first you do not succeed, then ask, ask again, he recommended, presenting findings that people who say “no” to an initial ask are more likely to say “yes” to a subsequent one.

You need not even tell people how much to give, noted Leif Nelson of the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. His findings show that people sometimes donate more when they get to set the amount.

And you need not feel guilty about asking people to help, because you may actually be doing them a favor, suggested Mike Norton of Harvard Business School. His studies reveal that giving people the chance to help others can improve everything from their mood to their dodge-ball game.

Even better than asking people to take the high road is making the high road the easiest one to take, argued Eric Johnson of the Columbia School of Business. When policies and practices turn good behavior into the default option, people tend to act more ethically—or, as Johnson put it, “There’s something very special about doing nothing.”

For example, in countries where people have to take the trouble to opt out of organ donation—a post-death benevolence that many societies value—vastly more people donate their organs than do in countries like the United States, where people have to go out of their way to opt in to organ donation. Likewise, people save more money when their employers automatically enroll them in retirement savings programs and use less energy when florescent bulbs are the only light in town. (For more about defaults, see “Helping the Poor Save More” (.pdf) in the winter 2010 Stanford Social Innovation Review.)

If you must trouble yourself with framing a message, several researchers revealed how simple shifts in wording can spell the difference between vice and virtue. Just mentioning money can throw people off their altruism game, showed Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. Her experiments demonstrate that even minor references to cash make people stingier and less sensitive to suffering—even their own. For fundraisers whose job is to ask people for money, Vohs’ findings could inspire dismay. But she has an antidote: First ask people to donate their time, and then ask them to donate their money.

Noah Goldstein of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management similarly showed the power of getting words right.

Public service announcements and other social good campaigns often communicate that everybody pollutes, steals, carouses, or otherwise behaves badly—but you shouldn’t. (“Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” exhorts Smokey Bear.) Yet humans are herd animals; and so despite our claims to uniqueness and independence, we tend to follow the crowd. As a result, campaigns that imply that the crowd is up to no good often backfire: A sign in Arizona’s Petrified Forest reporting that visitors purloin some 14 tons of wood per year, for example, doesn’t deter such theft—it encourages theft.

A better way, said Goldstein, is to convey that most people are doing the right thing—and you should, too. Accordingly, a sign saying that most guests conserved water by reusing their towels (rather than having them laundered) inspires far more towel reuse than does a sign lamenting how many guests waste water.

Pictures and stories that put a human face on an issue can also steer people towards right action, related Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Radiologists read X-rays more accurately when they see a picture of the bones’ owners, Grant showed, and lifeguards work harder after hearing stories about heroic water rescues.

Putting people in the driver’s seat of their own narratives also works wonders, reported Steve Cole of HopeLab, a Redwood City, Calif.-based company that makes health-promoting products for children with chronic diseases. In HopeLab’s first-person shooter video game, Re-Mission, for example, kids recovering from cancer travel through the human body and, with the help of medicines, blast would-be cancer cells out of their paths (audio lecture). The game is clinically proven to help kids take their post-chemotherapy maintenance drugs—a crucial, yet difficult step in their recovery.

Nonprofits too must control their own narratives, warned Jennifer Aaker of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She presented data showing that nonprofits suffer from the stereotype of being warm and caring, but not very competent.

To boost donations and public confidence, nonprofits need to advertise their business acumen.

But perhaps they should do so softly, for the resounding message throughout the conference was this: You need not scream and push when a whisper and a nudge will do. That’s advice that even the most distracted, tired, scared, and even lazy social innovator can get behind.

Zero Waste: The Future of Green panel at SxSW

On Sunday afternoon at the SxSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, moderator Steven Mandzik led a discussion about zero waste, a lifestyle he describes as living without producing trash, focusing on reduction and reuse even before recycling.

The panel included PopTech Fellow Jason Aramburu of re:char, who talked about the challenges of scaling with biomass and why he moved his company from Brooklyn to Austin, and Beth Ferguson, the designer behind “solar pumps” and an advocate for urban solar grid applications:

Also at SxSW Interactive:

- PopTech board member and MTV VP of Public Affairs Jason Rzepka unveiled “Over the Line?”, a place for teens to upload and rate examples of digital use/abuse.

- PopTech 2009 speaker Zach Lieberman presented on his recent work (see our video with him last week on his recent work and inspirations).

- PopTech Social Innovation Faculty member Beth Kanter spoke on the “Crowdsourcing Innovative Social Change” panel (nice summary of the panel’s examples and lessons by frequent PopTech blog contributor Marcia Stepanek).

What was your favorite part of SxSW Interactive?

Educational Games for a $10 Computer: News from Indian Student Teams

What would be the social impact of an educational computer that only cost $10?

Last October, I introduced the PopTech community to an organization that is trying to answer that question. Playpower.org is an open-source community that is helping to make educational games available for “radically affordable” computers—including a $10 computer that is already widely available in many developing countries. The 5 minute PopTech talk helps describe the educational potential of open-source learning games—and explains the improbable story of how a computer can be sold for only $10!

Just this past December, I traveled to Hyderabad, India to conduct a two week educational game design workshop for top university students in India.

Playpower workshop in Hyderabad
Image courtesy of Playpower.org.

Using IDEO’s Human Centered Design Toolkit and Playpower’s unique game design curriculum, the students learned to design new educational games to support the needs of low income families in India. In order to make the games engaging and relevant to the target audience, the students created games based on familiar Hindu stories, including the adventures of Hanuman—a deity with immense powers who takes the form of a monkey.

Playpower Hanuman game
Image courtesy of Playpower.org.

Kishan Patel, an engineering student at DAIICT (The Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Infomation and Communication Technology) followed up on the workshop by founding a working group at his own university. There, he leads a team of students who are working on completing the games. They are also helping to conduct formal field studies, in order to assess whether the games are fun and effective for the groups we are targeting.

Playpower Hanuman game
Image courtesy of Playpower.org.

To learn more, check out playpower.org.

Also, more specific descriptions of the games and source code are available here.

The games prototyped at the workshop:

Hanuman: Quiz Adventure – Quiz game shows are popular in India and this quiz game challenges the intellectual power of the whole family to help a young Hanuman fly all the way to the sun.

Hanuman: Typing Warrior – Typing is a skill that can help expand economic opportunities. In this game, players use their typing skills to help progress Hanuman through a series of challenges in order to help win a war against the evil Lord Ravena.

Mosquito SWAT Team – Malaria is one of the greatest public health threats in India. In this game, important information about preventing malaria is embedded in an addictive set of mini-games that invariably involve killing lots and lots of mosquitoes.

Reimagining Hospitals for the Future

While on the plane ride down yesterday to the SXSW Festival in Austin, I was flipping through the February issue of Fast Company and came across an article that put a huge smile on my face. It was a visual representation of what the future of design would be for hospitals—hospital 2.0 you could call it.

image of hospital

The hospital has been more or less a place where they get one thing done: get people better and get them home. But this article made me think about hospitals in a new light – part of a collaborative effort to improve communities as a whole.

In thinking about Public Health 2.0 and next level ways of thinking in the field, I feel it’s important to look at cross-disciplinary collaboration in order to meet the increasing needs of the public’s health and well-being. This includes bringing in the design/UXand green aspects of community building.

Of note: hospitals consume twice as much energy as typical office buildings – they are also making it happen all day, every day! Needless to say, hospitals are huge targets for examining efficiency, and the U.S. Green Building Council is developing LEED for Healthcare. With everything from aesthetics (roof garden, cafeteria) and electronic data (medical records) to user design (waiting room, the views) and energy efficiency (on site power, solar power harnessing), the future is looking brighter for staff and patients alike.

As these ideas go from prototype/concept to reality, I hope this new road of inter-disciplinary inclusion will serve as a catalyst in other areas of health.

Shouts to Golden Section Graphics for the illustration.

PopTech Reads: Questions for James Fowler about connections?

For the past few weeks, along with you, PopTech staff has been reading Connected, the book PopTech 2009 speaker James Fowler co-authored with Nicholas Christakis (find the book on Better World Books or through an independent bookseller on Indie Bound).

Tell us: what did you find curious, alarming, or fascinating in Connected?

Please leave your questions for James in the comments, and let us know some of the parts you found especially interesting.

Four things I found particularly relevant:

- Some of the research in the book is becoming known as the “your-friends’-friends-can-make-you-fat” effect; this indirect influence is called hyperdyadic spread.

- We have heard, thought, and considered exhaustively the success of Barack Obama’s political campaign; the twist in chapter six of Connected:

Obama’s campaign was a historical milestone in all kinds of ways, but the most revolutionary way may not have been its fund-raising. Many have commented on Obama’s remarkable ability to connect with voters, but even more impressive was his ability to connect voters to each other.


- In chapter nine we learn that social networks are self-annealing. “They can close up around their gaps, in the same way that the edges of a wound come together.”

- The final pages return to the underlying overall theme, that networks facilitate contagion as well as altruism, but that’s not to say networks accelerate charity or even, perhaps, microdonations without befriending the group or individual; “We would rather give a gift to a friend who will never repay us than to give a gift to a stranger who will.”

Here is James’s talk at PopTech 2009:

and an update from James in February 2010 about the danger of not thinking of ourselves within networks:

Please leave questions and thoughts in the comments below.

Know a great book we should read together in 2010? Drop us a recommendation: hello [at] poptech [dot] org

Video: Update from Zach Lieberman

Yesterday, artist and computer programmer Zach Lieberman came by the PopTech Brooklyn office—it’s actually right down the hall from his working space—to tell us what projects he’s worked on recently.

Last October, Zach spoke at PopTech about his EyeWriter Initiative, “a low-cost eye-tracking apparatus & custom software that allows graffiti writers and artists with paralysis resulting from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis to draw using only their eyes.”

Look for Zach’s PopTech talk next week; for now, more on his recent travels and inspirations:

Zach will be speaking at SxSW this Saturday morning on a panel (details) about openFrameworks, an open-source c++ library “designed to assist the creative process by providing a simple and intuitive framework for experimentation.”

I’ll be at the Interactive part of SxSW this weekend (do @poptech or leave a comment if you’d like to meet up and talk about PopTech) attending panels on the SXSW Greater Good Programming track.

Can you think of other ways to use Zach’s technologies? What are some of your recent inspirations?

Video: Chandler Burr and the PopTech 2009 Scent Dinner

During PopTech 2009, I shot an interview with The New York Times scent critic Chandler Burr about his PopTech 2009 “scent dinner,” where he collaborated with Executive Chef Lawrence Klang at Natalie’s Restaurant in Camden, Maine. For each course, Chef Klang created in taste and flavors what Chandler created in scents:

Chandler told me that he has fallen in love with culinary perfumes, a category of scents little known in the U.S., which are either conceptually food – for example, a perfume that smells of salt – or perfumes made with food raw materials – such as peruvian pink peppercorns or crushed sugarcane used in the rum-making process.

This led him to his scent dinners – a delicious and educational experience that actually consists of two parallel dinners – one olfactory, the other edible.

Kudos to Camden-based David Berez at Post Office Editorial for his smart editing, Scott Buffrey for audio sweetening, Daniel Stephens for his artful shooting, and Mo Kirkham for his patience, even when the audio stopped mid-interview.

Oh, and Chandler’s NYT column is “Scent Notes.”

Highlights from the 2010 Shorty Awards

The 2010 Shorty Awards had some fun with Twitter community conventions on Wednesday night at TheTimesCenter in New York—highlights below include financial celebrity (and Shorty Award Winner) Suze Orman pressing a caller for why he would want to buy Twitter and the serious note that ended the evening, awarding the use of Twitter in Haiti:

What do you think should be rewarded and acknowledged in the Twitter community?

Nick Bilton on Smart Content and Future Reporting

Nick Bilton thinks about the future of storytelling and media as Lead Technology Reporter for The New York Times “Bits” blog (see his post today on controversial British online copyright laws), and he spoke at PopTech 2009 about what’s next for journalism and why multitasking is important:

Yesterday, I visited Nick at the NYT, finding out how his NYU class is using sensors, how his book (I Live in the Future: & Here’s How it Works) research is going, and why he thinks everyone has a social responsibility to report the news:

What do you think about the public’s involvement with reporting the news; are using sensors to collect data an inevitable future journalism practice?

A Marketplace for BoP Products

With so much ingenious technology being developed by social entrepreneurs around the world, one of the great remaining challenges is figuring out how to make it available to the people who need it—first by letting them know that it exists, and then by raising the money to pay for it.

For now, technologists and their affiliate organizations usually identify the populations that might benefit from these new tools, for the simple reason that small local NGOs have no simple way of learning about new technology when it becomes available.


Kopernik, a new organization founded by two former UN staff members, Ewa Wojkowska and Toshi Nakamura, proposes to solve this problem by creating what they call an Amazon.com of life-changing technology—a marketplace that allows local NGOs, who understand their own needs best, to discover products that would help them.

After that, these NGOs can apply for funding, in the form of microdonations. Anyone can look through a list of proposals on Kopernik’s website and contribute toward an organization’s goal. For example, a local NGO in East Timor that fights domestic violence and promotes gender equality hopes to raise $4,990 to buy 30 Q-Drums. The Q-Drum is a “durable, donut-shaped” 50-liter water container that can be transported by rolling rather than hoisting on one’s head or shoulder. (See a video of one in use here.) In East Timor, where women and girls fetch water over long distances several times a day in 5-liter plastic jerry cans, the Q-Drum could save time and great physical strain.

One of the most promising aspects of the Kopernik marketplace is a rating system that gives technology makers the opportunity to hear from local groups about how they used the product and how it might be refined. “We want to know whether it’s effective, whether it’s appropriate, and areas for improvement,” Wojkowska says.

So far, Kopernik has formed partnerships with 12 technology organizations, 10 for-profit and 2 nonprofit. In addition to the Q-Drum, the list of technologies includes a compact solar-powered water-treatment unit for the home; a portable water filter used like a straw; eyeglasses whose corrective settings can be adjusted by the user (watch 2009 PopTech fellow Emily Pilloton fit Stephen Colbert with a pair here); a solar-powered LED lantern; and a digital hearing aid with rechargeable batteries.

Wojkowska and Nakamura founded Kopernik after observing the limitations of the traditional approach to development work. Last year, for instance, Nakamura observed development efforts in the eastern part of Sri Lanka, where workers are helping the community in its long-term recovery from the 2004 tsunami. One of their projects was to distribute buckets so that people could collect water for their households. The Q-Drum wasn’t on the radar. A related problem is that international organizations often reuse the same solutions in places that culturally and geographically are very different from each other. Sometimes this works; sometimes it could work better.

A side benefit of giving local NGOs a menu of technologies to choose from, Wojkowska says, is that it helps them think in a focused way about what their most pressing needs are and whether a technological solution is appropriate. So far, approximately 200 local NGOs of all sizes and kinds have applied to be part of Kopernik’s network. (Kopernik vets them to ensure that they are worthy recipients and that they can afford to disseminate the products if they receive them.)

Right now, Kopernik is building its catalog of products and screening potential recipient organizations. In the future, Wojkowska and Nakamura hope to entice entrepreneurs to sell some of these products locally, to reach those who are not served by NGOs. They are also exploring ways to bring locally developed solutions into general production. In all these projects, Wojkowska says, the point is to “give choice and voice to local communities.”