The Science Behind Using Online Communities To Change Behavior

Sean D. Young in TechCrunch: “Although social media and online communities might have been developed for people to connect and share information, recent research shows that these technologies are really helpful in changing behaviors. My colleagues and I in the medical school, for instance, created online communities designed to improve health by getting people to do things, such as test for HIV, stop using methamphetamines, and just de-stress and relax. We don’t handpick people to join because we think they’ll love the technology; that’s not how science works. We invite them because the technology is relevant to them — they’re engaging in drugs, sex and other behaviors that might put themselves and others at risk. It’s our job to create the communities in a way that engages them enough to want to stay and participate. Yes, we do offer to pay them $30 to complete an hour-long survey, but then they are free to collect their money and never talk to us again. But for some reason, they stay in the group and decide to be actively engaged with strangers.
So how do we create online communities that keep people engaged and change their behaviors? Our starting point is to understand and address their psychological needs….
Throughout our research, we find that newly created online communities can change people’s behaviors by addressing the following psychological needs:
The Need to Trust. Sharing our thoughts, experiences, and difficulties with others makes us feel closer to others and increases our trust. When we trust people, we’re more open-minded, more willing to learn, and more willing to change our behavior. In our studies, we found that sharing personal information (even something as small as describing what you did today) can help increase trust and change behavior.
The Need to Fit In. Most of us inherently strive to fit in. Social norms, or other people’s attitudes and behaviors, heavily influence our own attitudes and behaviors. Each time a new online community or group forms, it creates its own set of social norms and expectations for how people should behave. Most people are willing to change their attitudes and/or behavior to fit these group norms and fit in with the community.
The Need for Self-Worth. When people feel good about themselves, they are more open to change and feel empowered to be able to change their behavior. When an online community is designed to have people support and care for each other, they can help to increase self-esteem.
The Need to Be Rewarded for Good Behavior. Anyone who has trained a puppy knows that you can get him to keep sitting as long as you keep the treats flowing to reward him, but if you want to wean him off the treats and really train him then you’ll need to begin spacing out the treats to make them less predictable. Well, people aren’t that different from animals in that way and can be trained with reinforcements too. For example, “liking” people’s communications when they immediately join a network, and then progressively spacing out the time that their posts are liked (psychologists call this variable reinforcement) can be incorporated onto social network platforms to encourage them to keep posting content. Eventually, these behaviors become habits.
The Need to Feel Empowered. While increasing self-esteem makes people feel good about themselves, increasing empowerment helps them know they have the ability to change. Creating a sense of empowerment is one of the most powerful predictors of whether people will change their behavior. Belonging to a network of people who are changing their own behaviors, support our needs, and are confident in our changing our behavior empowers us and gives us the ability to change our behavior.”