What Really Drives People To Commit to Change? – Mini Case Study with Surprising Results

Mini Case Study:
I have chosen this case because it has been well documented and researched by Doug McAdam, University of Arizona:

In 1964 “black” people were allowed to vote for the first time in the southern states of the USA. In the so called Mississippi Summer Project 1000 students signed up to help to register “black” voters in the South. Each student had to submit a 5 pages long application. In the application they listed their background, why they wanted to help, their experience with voter registration, list of people to contact if they were arrested, essays, references, or for some interviews were conducted.

Opponents in the South threatened to harm or kill students who would help with the registration.

Because of the deadly risk 300 of the 1000 students decided to stay home and not go to the South.

Doug McAdam analyzed the applications and first divided them into 2 piles based on Motivation types:

1) Self -Interest with statements such as to test myself – to be where the action is
2) Higher-Interest with statement such as improve the lot of black, aid in the full realization of democracy or demonstrate the power of non-violence as vehicle of social change.

Who of these students belonging in one of this two types of motivational groups was more likely to stay at home ?

The answer is:
Both types went in equal numbers. It did not matter if the motives were selfish or by a higher purpose. It is not the key driver.

If it is not the motive maybe the opportunity cost matter (What is in it for me or what do I have to sacrifice) ?
McAdam compared those who stayed home if they were married or had a girlfriend or had just gotten a new job or couldn’t swing a two-month unpaid break?

Please choose:
a) Yes, the key driver are the personal opportunity costs
b) No, it didn’t matter

The answer is:
McAdam could not find a link. It was not the risk, nor any other type of opportunity costs such as losing a job, leaving the partner for some month, etc. that prevented these students to participate in this project.

If it were neither the motives nor the opportunity costs – what was it that drove these students to participate in this risky change project?

The final answer is:
What commits people to change is the expectation of their friends and/or the peer pressure of their acquaintances.

Students that had friends who had also signed up to go to the south or students who belong to a group or community that expected them to stick to their commitment all went. Students who either did not have friends who went or who belonged to a group or community that did not care if they go would very likely pull out. It is the strong or weak ties, basically the social commitments that drive and sustain change.

Another research that supports how strong social norms and our desire to belong influence our decisions: http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/01/stop-listening-to-your-custome/
by Steve Martin

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One Response to “What Really Drives People To Commit to Change? – Mini Case Study with Surprising Results”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    […] What Really Drives People To Commit To Change? – Mini Case Study With Surprising Results February 25th, 2014 — “Mini Case Study: I have chosen this case because it has been well documented and researched by Doug McAdam, University of Arizona: In 1964 “black” people were allowed to vote for the first time in the southern states of the USA. In the so called Mississippi Summer Project 1000 students signed up to help to […]” […]

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