Does Being Social Animals Make Us Lazy?

We’re social animals. That means there’s always someone else around, and that means it’s easy for people to shirk responsibilities. If you wait long enough, someone else will step up and do whatever group-oriented work you want to avoid. How do you get people in a group or crowd to fight this diffusion of responsibility and act?

Dr. Seuss tackled this challenge in his book “The Lorax.” As the one who speaks for the trees, the Lorax exhorted the townspeople,

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

The Problem of Shirking

This downside to our social nature takes several forms:

  • “Diffusion of responsibility” means people in groups are less likely to take individual responsibility.
  • “Social loafing” is when people do less in groups. (This is why I, and probably you, hated group projects in school.)
  • The “Bystander Effect” refers to people in a group being less likely to help a stranger in need.
  • “Free riders” are people whom economists and policymakers say are getting the benefit of a group activity or policy without contributing to the group.

If you wonder how this downside of our social nature impacts the marketing of social goods, ask yourself if any of the following statements sound familiar:

  • “I wish someone would fix this.”
  • “If they want help, they can get it.”
  • “Why should I have to pay for this? Why should I be inconvenienced?”
  • “It’s not my job to tell them.”

Each of these relates directly to the core marketing activities of design, distribution, pricing, and promotion.

I’ve said all of these, and quite recently, too.

Examples of Social Laziness, As If You Needed Them

Do I really need to list all the ways we take advantage of the diffusion of responsibility?

  • Avoiding or defrauding taxes
  • Not voting
  • Not taking public transit, but still complaining about traffic, pollution, and climate change
  • Littering
  • Not getting vaccinated

A Question of Motivation

The opposite of laziness is motivation. There is external and internal motivation. Marketing offers ways to shape both.

Imposing external motivation often comes from changing incentives. In marketing, that is a pricing approach. Want to encourage less driving and more transit use? Jack up the cost of tolls, gas taxes, and car licensing fees. Need more energy conservation? Roll out demand pricing. Looking for kinder, gentler external motivation? Try reverse tolls for bikes.

External motivation is not a sustainable solution to the diffusion of responsibility.┬áIt requires effort on those who impose it and generates resentment in those who have it imposed on them. It’s like grounding your kid as punishment. They get a lesson and you get to hang around the house with a sullen kid.

Internal motivation is a sustainable solution to social laziness but hard to implement. In marketing the social good, promotion is the path to imparting cultural values that lead to internal motivation.

Historian Yuval Noah Harari says that stories make us uniquely social. Because they lay at the root of our social nature, stories are the path to beating social laziness. Dr. Seuss in his wisdom saw this. Public and social leaders and marketers need to combat the impact of social laziness on their missions through stories that build internal motivation for individuals to accept responsibility and act.

(Image courtesy of Flickr)

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