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Leading by example helps to spread social innovations

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass., October 24, 2018—Innovations that benefit the greater good are introduced almost every day. But these new technologies do little good unless people actually choose to use them. So what can we do to promote the diffusion of social innovations? Research published this week in Nature sheds new light on this question, and provides a surprisingly simple answer.

The research, led by MIT Sloan School of Management Professor David Rand and Yale psychology graduate student Gordon Kraft-Todd, studies the factors that convince people to adopt products and behaviors that are individually costly but beneficial to society—also known as contributing to public goods. They focused on residential solar panel installation, which remains extremely rare—despite the fact that everyone would be better off if we all switched to solar and reduced our carbon emissions.

They asked what volunteer “solar ambassadors” could do to best convince other people in their community to install solar panels. Their results validate a cultural evolutionary theory of “credibility enhancing displays” proposed by anthropologists, and also demonstrate the power of an age-old proverb: Actions speak louder than words.

“The best way to convince people to do something is to do it yourself,” says Rand. “If you are a salesman trying to sell something, you better be using it. And the same goes when you are an advocate trying to convince others to do the right thing.”

Together with their coauthors from Yale, Duke, and Toulouse, they conducted a field study of a program promoting residential solar panel installation in 58 towns in Connecticut (over 1.4 million residents in total), and found that volunteer community organizers who themselves installed through the program recruited 62.8% more residents to install solar than community organizers who did not. The authors replicated this effect in three pre-registered survey experiments with close to 2000 subjects from across the country, demonstrating the generalizability of this effect to other rare behaviors that benefit society, such as buying carbon offsets for flights. Furthermore, they show why actions matter so much: your actions help to reveal what you actually think, as opposed to just what you claim to think.

“Engaging in a behavior is the best way to communicate that you really believe in it,” says PhD candidate Gordon Kraft-Todd. “By putting your money where your mouth is, you show others that you think the benefits outweigh the costs.”

This study helps to solve the challenge of getting people to adopt innovations—like solar panels—that are good for society but costly to the individual. In the face of the increasing need for new technologies and lifestyle changes to address global problems such as climate change, this research highlights the power of leading by example.

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