Overcoming Pseudoinefficacy with the Collective Aggregation Effect


By Andrew Quist

Psychologists have observed that people are less willing to help one person when they are made aware of the broader scope of people in need that they are not helping. In the context of a large societal problem like world hunger, it may feel like any effort to help will not make a difference because it is just “a drop-in-the-bucket.” Psychologists call this tendency pseudoinefficacy. This is a false sense of inefficacy because helping even one person does make a difference.

Pseudoinefficacy likely demotivates people from working to solve societal problems like climate change and global poverty. Therefore, for those interested in spurring prosocial action to solve these issues, finding a way to help people overcome pseudoinefficacy is important.

In a recent paper published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, two scholars on decision making, Adrian Camilleri and Richard Larrick, describe how messages that aggregate the collective benefits of actions can motivate people to act more prosocially. For example, in one experiment, the researchers presented a group of participants with a prompt that informed them that if one person reduced their television usage by 20% for a week, they would save $0.14 and prevent 1.19 lbs. of CO2 from being released into the environment. Another group of participants were given a similar prompt that informed them that if 1,000 people reduced their television usage by 20% for a week, they would save $140 and prevent 1,190 lbs. of CO2 from being released into the environment. The participants were asked to rate the persuasiveness of the message, and the message that contained the aggregated benefits of 1,000 people reducing television usage was rated more persuasive than the message about the benefits of one person reducing television usage, despite the messages being mathematically equivalent.

The researchers conducted similar experiments with messages about other prosocial actions, such as keeping cell phone chargers unplugged to save energy, reducing time spent in the shower, and donating to charity. In each experiment, respondents responded more strongly to the message that aggregated the benefits of the prosocial actions over many people.

The collective aggregation effect is a promising tool for encouraging people to contribute to efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and donate to humanitarian programs that provide for the destitute. As Camilleri and Larrick write, “Collective aggregation may be a unique and effective mechanism for encouraging prosocial behavior in a range of contexts.”

The researchers believe that collective aggregation is effective at encouraging prosocial behavior for three reasons. First, this method presents larger aggregated benefits, and psychologists have learned that people give more weight to numerators than to associated denominators. For example, the amount of CO2 that is saved if 1,000 reduce their electricity usage by watching 20% less television—1,190 lbs.—is a large number that grabs people’s attention, while they neglect to put as much weight in the fact that it takes 1,000 people to reach that amount of savings.

The second reason why collective aggregation is effective at motivating prosocial behavior is because it presents the benefits all at once. People have a tendency to discount benefits that occur in the future. We prefer benefits that occur now, even when those benefits are numerically less desirable compared to ones that occur in the future. For this reason, aggregating benefits over 1,000 people for action taken in one day is more persuasive than aggregating the benefits of one person acting over 1,000 days, as Camilleri and Larrick’s experiments demonstrate.

The third reason that collective aggregation is effective is because it produces increased perceptions of outcome efficacy—the ability for people to produce a desired result. Camilleri and Larrick found that “people tend to perceive higher outcome efficacy when the potential benefits from action are aggregated over many people.” In other words, the participants who were presented with messages containing the aggregated benefits of prosocial actions imagined that the impact of the actions would be more effective at achieving a goal, compared to messages that presented the impact of one person performing the same actions.

Collective aggregation is useful tool to help people overcome the feeling that their actions are a mere drop-in-the-bucket. As the authors of the report state, “Such collective aggregation can transform demotivating drop-in-the-bucket perceptions by making individual actions seem bucket-sized, immediate, and important and thereby boosting belief in the effectiveness of many buckets.”

You can view the abstract of the paper and request a copy here.

Photograph by Flickr user peasap CC BY 2.0