Most people want to be normal. So, when we are given information that underscores our deviancy, the natural impulse is to get ourselves as quickly as we can back toward the center. Marketers know about this impulse, and a lot of marketing makes use of social norms. This is especially true of campaigns targeting some kind of public good: reducing smoking or binge drinking, for example, or encouraging recycling.
This tendency may not always be used for good. This is, after all, the idea behind the Overton Window, which the Right wing has abused for about three decades now – moving the ‘window’ of what is socially and politically acceptable further and further to the Right, to the extent that extreme Right-wing rhetoric and ideas, bordering on fascist, are acceptable, while anything left of center is deemed unpalatable (“socialist”, as if that was a bad word or something).
I have noted before that neither Clinton nor Obama understand the concept and thus play straight into the conservatives’ hands, allowing or even helping them to keep moving the “center” further to the right (while only Edwards understands this and wants to move it back to the Center where it belongs). This also explains why people with a Compulsive Centrist Disorder, including the pundits, keep moving to the Right and keep calling it the Center.
But, perhaps the study linked above can give us some ideas:
Indeed, Schultz and his colleagues suspect that people who are already performing better than the norm may also adjust–but in a socially undesirable way. That is, they also move toward the center, seeking out the average, but in their case by increasing their energy use. This boomerang effect could in theory offset any greening of behavior and account for the overall ineffectiveness of such marketing strategies.
Schultz decided to test this idea in the real world. He enlisted nearly 300 residents of San Marcos, California, who agreed to let him monitor their home energy consumption. He measured their energy use once to start, again soon after, and once again several weeks later. Throughout the experiment, he gave them information about their actual energy use and how it compared to the average energy use in San Marcos.
Schultz wanted to test one additional idea. With some of the households, he did not just deliver straight information. He attached an emoticon to the information sheet. If the homeowners were below the community average in energy use they got a smiley face; if they were consuming more than their neighbors were, they got a frowning face. He wanted to see if social approval or disapproval–conveyed by the emoticons–might moderate people’s behavior, for better or worse.
The results were clear. As reported in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science, the residents who got just straight information changed their behavior as predicted. That is, wastrels became more conservative, and the frugal became more licentious. There was a boomerang effect in other words. However, the greener consumers who also got praise, in the form of a smiley face, did not become more wasteful. The message they were getting was something like: “You’re doing better than most on the environmental front and society applauds you for this. Keep it up.” And they did.
How about the frowning face, the stinging symbol of society’s disappointment with you? Well, people who earned a frown did moderate their consumption, but no more than those who simply learned of their excessive energy consumption.
So, what is an equivalent of smiley or frowny faces in political discourse and media? How can we get people to move back to the Left and thus bring the Center where it belongs, while at the same time preventing those already on the Left (including so-called liberal pundits and Presidential candidates like Clinton and Obama) not to move to the Right?