Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Tapping the Power of Commitment

I read the book Fostering Sustainable Behavior by Doug McKenzie-Mohr years ago and it has stuck with me since. The stories of community activists discovering ways to engage people are really fascinating. So I recently signed up for Dr. McKenzie-Mohr’s weekly e-newsletter, which he packs with new discoveries since publishing the book. Today’s newsletter builds on one of my favorite stories from the book where people agreed to outlandish commitments after making a much smaller commitment to the same cause.

Below is the text of Dr. McKenzie-Mohr’s e-newsletter from today – enjoy!


Imagine being asked to place a large, ugly, obtrusive billboard with the wording "drive carefully" on your front lawn. When a researcher posing as a volunteer made precisely this request, numerous residents in a Californian neighborhood flatly declined. That they refused is hardly surprising, especially since they were shown a picture of the billboard almost completely obscuring the view of another house. However, what is surprising is that fully 76% of another group of residents in this study agreed to have the sign placed on their lawn. Why would over three-fourths of one group agree, while virtually everyone in the other group sensibly declined? The answer lies in something that happened to the second group before this outlandish request was made. The residents who agreed in droves to have this aberration placed on their lawn were previously asked if they would display in the windows of their cars or homes a small, three-inch sign that said, "be a safe driver." This request was so innocuous that virtually everyone agreed to it. However, agreeing to this trivial request subsequently greatly increased the likelihood that they would consent to have the billboard placed on their lawn.

Are these findings a mere anomaly? Apparently not. In another study, a researcher, identifying himself as a member of a consumer group, called and asked householders if he could ask them a few questions about their soap preferences. A few days later, the same researcher called back asking for a much larger favor, "Could I send five or six people through your house to obtain an inventory of all the products in the house?" The caller carefully explained that this "inventory" would require searching through all of their drawers and closets, etc. Having agreed to the smaller request only a few days earlier, many householders apparently felt compelled to agree with this much larger and more invasive request. Indeed, over 50% agreed, more than twice as many relative to householders who had not received the prior request.

These surprising findings have now been replicated in a variety of settings. In each case, individuals who agreed to a small initial request were far more likely to agree to a subsequent larger request. For example:

·      When asked if they would financially support a recreational facility for the disabled, 92% donated if they had previously signed a petition in favor of the facility, compared with 53% for those who had not been asked to sign the petition.

·       Residents of Bloomington, Indiana, were called and asked if they would consider, hypothetically, spending three hours working as a volunteer collecting money for the American Cancer Society. When these individuals were called back three days later by a different individual, they were far more likely to volunteer than another group of residents who had not been asked the initial question (31% versus 4%, respectively).

·       A sample of registered voters was approached one day before a U.S. presidential election and asked, "Do you expect you will vote or not?" All agreed that they would vote. Compared to voters who were not asked this simple question, their likelihood of voting increased by 41%.

·       Ending a blood-drive telephone call with the query, "We'll count on seeing you then, OK?" increased the likelihood of individuals showing up from 62% to 81%.

·       Individuals who were asked to wear a lapel pin publicizing the Canadian Cancer Society were nearly twice as likely to donate than those who were not asked to wear the pin.

·       When residents of a college community were asked to sign promise cards to use crosswalks and yield to pedestrians in crosswalks when driving, crosswalk usage increased by 10%, and yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks increased by 21%.

Understanding Commitment

Why does agreeing to a small request lead people to agree subsequently to a much larger one? When individuals agree to a small request, it often alters the way they perceive themselves. When they sign a petition favoring the building of a new facility for the disabled, the act of signing subtly changes their attitudes on the topic. Through a process that Darryl Bem refers to as self-perception, they come to view themselves as the type of person who supports initiatives for the disabled. When asked later to comply with the more significant request, donating, there is strong internal pressure to behave "consistently." Similarly, saying that you "think" you would volunteer for the Cancer Society, vote in an election, give blood or wear a lapel pin, alters your attitudes and increases the likelihood that you will later act in a way that is consistent with your new beliefs.

Consistency is an important character trait. Those who behave inconsistently are often perceived as untrustworthy and unreliable. In contrast, individuals whose deeds match their words are viewed as being honest and having integrity. The need for all of us to behave consistently is underscored by an intriguing study on a New York City beach at a time in which smoking (and radios) were still common. In this study, a researcher posing as a sunbather put a blanket down some five feet from a randomly selected sunbather. He then proceeded to relax on the blanket for a few minutes while listening to his radio. When he got up, he said to the person beside him, "Excuse me, I'm here alone and have no matches ... do you have a light?" He then went for a walk on the beach, leaving the blanket and radio behind. Shortly afterward, another researcher, posing as a thief, stole the radio and fled down the beach. Under these circumstances, the thief was pursued 4 times out of 20 stagings. However, the results were dramatically different when the researcher made a modest request prior to taking the walk. When he asked the person beside him to "watch his things," in 19 out of the 20 stagings the individual leapt up to pursue the thief. When they caught him some restrained him, others grabbed the radio back, while yet others demanded an explanation. Almost all acted consistently with what they had said they would do.

The need to behave consistently is further supported by findings that a substantial amount of time can pass between the first and second requests and that a different individual can make the second request. That considerable time can pass between the two requests provides further evidence that complying with the initial request alters how we see ourselves in an enduring way. Furthermore, we will comply with a second request initiated by a new person, indicating that these changes are not transitory; otherwise, we would only feel bound to comply if the second request were made by the individual who had made the initial request.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Bosnian Project Exceeds Expectations

I’ve recently returned from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) where I was honored to work with some of the brightest and most effective community activists I’ve known. If you’ve read our previous newsletters or seen our GoFundMe page for the project, you’ll know that such success was not certain. The activists are the ones who are making the admirable changes for their communities. Our wonderful donors are the ones who made it all possible. Thanks to all of you!

As I traveled around BiH with my colleagues from Center for Environment (CfE), I was stunned by how far ahead all the campaign leaders were. I had asked each to meet with their officials prior to our visit to find out their reaction to the requested community change. Not only had they met with their officials, officials in most of the cities were already helping move the campaigns forward. Some even joined us on our visits… Read the rest and find a link to the photo journal from the trip here.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Bosnian Project Helping Nonprofits Needs Help

For the past four years, I have had the honor of working with activists in this war-battered country. Along with my colleagues at the Center for Environment (CfE), our partner in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), we have guided activists from all over BiH to improve their communities through bicycling and environmental campaigns. Each campaign helps build their organization and prepare for the next.

Now the project needs many people to step up and help. Our funder for the project could only provide half of the funds we need for the next phase of the project. So we launched a GoFundMe Charity fundraiser to fill the gap – please donate and share the link.

The war ended 25 years ago and in its shadow, corruption, despair and poverty have thrived. People are still leaving, but not these activists. They are fighting back by causing positive change. These are the toughest and most committed activists I have ever worked with. Let’s show them we appreciate their commitment to creating a country they are proud of, where all Bosnians can choose to bicycle, where they would like to live and raise their families.

We need your help to make this happen. Even small donations add up toward our goal. Your donations are tax-deductible.

Please also invite others to donate by sharing and forwarding the GoFundMe Charity page. Thank you!


Sunday, April 1, 2018

Social Change through Bicycles and Healthy Organizations

The publication of my memoir, Bike Hunt, gave me the opportunity to present at various venues and through various media about the power of bicycles for improving our world. Even though, or perhaps because Bike Hunt covers my struggle toward that goal, the book offers the perfect backdrop for intense discussions on this topic.

The bicycle is the greatest machine ever invented because it provides so much for so little. With simple pedal strokes it will transport a person six times faster than walking and can carry hundreds of pounds. It is easy to make and available in all parts of the world. When people choose to travel by bike, they not only improve their own physical health, but the health of their communities by reducing emissions and noise. And yet, in most countries, bicycles are only used for fewer than ten percent of trips.

Central to my presentation are the many disturbing barriers to bicycles being used as a tool for social change. Since the 1950s, the U.S. bicycle industry has presented bicycles as toys. On top of that, their push to sell bicycle helmets has stigmatized bicycling as far more dangerous than it actually is. Though car occupants suffer 25 times more head injuries than cyclists, the car industry would never dream of promoting helmets for their customers. Then there is Hollywood with its portrayal of cyclists as dorks. So it’s no wonder bicycles are forgotten by social movements (see my last post on Civil Rights) and even the environmental movement.

The other barrier is one that is faced by all nonprofits – group dysfunction. In Bike Hunt, I delve into many of the causes of this, including power grabs and infighting. Unfortunately, because our bicycle movement is so fragile and undermined by our bike industry and other stigmas, bicycle nonprofits cannot withstand the forces of group dysfunction like nonprofits in other movements.

I show in Bike Hunt and my presentations how to overcome these barriers first by recognizing them then stopping them at the slightest hint. If you have run into these sorts of struggles or more, please read the book and visit www.OneStreet.org to tap into the resources there.


Monday, January 15, 2018

Human Progress Is Neither Automatic nor Inevitable, MLK

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, my favorite holiday because the man it honors would expect us to work for good on his day rather than take an actual holiday. I like to start this day by flipping through a huge volume of his writings, stopping to read random passages. I did that this morning and found some good ones, but there is one simple quote of his that I have fixated on this year: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.”

My fixation on this MLK quote actually began months ago. In my job at One Street, I answer calls for assistance from leaders of bicycle advocacy organizations all over the world. Since last fall, I have had the great pleasure of working with several extraordinary nonprofit leaders in some of the most battered areas of our world including Bosnia, Puerto Rico, and DR Congo. In spite of great odds against them, whether a recent war or hurricane, or marauding armed gangs, these nonprofits have become beacons of hope in their communities. But just like them, I have had to recognize the infection of human malice that has crippled and even destroyed other nonprofits that have contacted me for help.

Martin’s quote is imbedded in his book from 1958, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, where he describes the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement up to that point, but shows that much more must be done. I think that he was rightfully afraid that their successes would cause complacency. But even more than that, I believe that Martin had seen both the extraordinary potential of humans to overcome malice as well as the insidiousness of that malice. He knew all too well that backing off even slightly would allow of flood of brutality back in.

Over my more than forty years of working with nonprofits, I, like Martin, have come to realize that our species will not reach a point where we care for each other and halt brutality without a great effort.

I discussed this with a friend of mine recently and, instead of simply agreeing, she described a scene where a child is building a tower with building blocks. He places each block with care choosing his next to ensure his tower will reach the greatest height. Then another child enters the room and kicks the tower over. I tried to butt in here to bemoan the human tendency to destroy things built for good, but she corrected me. The second child did not kick the tower over in order to destroy it or even to harm the first child. He did so simply because he could, because it was easy.

Working to improve our world and help others is difficult. Harming it and others is easy. We must keep Martin’s quote in mind as we commit to this difficult task and always remember that human progress will never be automatic nor inevitable.


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Bike Hunt Stories Show the Power of Bicycles and the Struggles of Nonprofits

Over the past few months, I’ve been posting excerpts from my recently published memoir, Bike Hunt, to our Defying Poverty with Bicycles blog because each story shows how this simple machine can change a person’s life. From the bright-pink girl’s BMX bike in Miami that I named Peaches to Silver in San Antonio, these bike hunt stories capture the power of bicycles.

All have the label “Bike Hunt” so you can easily find them. Click here to find all nine tagged posts.

But Bike Hunt is about more than giving away bikes. It is based on the disturbing time I spent as director of a national nonprofit where bad group behavior took hold of people I knew to be caring, passionate bike advocates. I capture my experience at that nonprofit along with my encounters with other nonprofit leaders facing similar distress. I wrap up the book with my analysis of what happened, having had ten years to recover, learn, discuss, and think it through.

I often hear from readers that they loved the bike hunt stories throughout the book, like the ones I shared on the other blog. Readers of this blog, however, will find solace in the deeper story about nonprofits and their common struggles. You can buy Bike Hunt through any online book vendor worldwide (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.) or order it through your local book store. We also have copies for sale at www.OneStreet.org.

Bike Hunt would make a perfect Christmas gift for anyone who loves bikes and is passionate about changing our world for the better.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Bicycle Memoir Reveals Disturbing Group Behavior

A new memoir, called Bike Hunt, uncovers disturbing patterns in bicycle advocacy and other nonprofits. In the early 2000s, Sue Knaup believed she had landed her dream job as director of the Thunderhead Alliance, a national bicycle nonprofit. Though she had escaped abuse as a child, her ambition obscured her descent into workplace abuse. Over the ensuing five years, she discovered she was not the only nonprofit leader struggling against bizarre manipulations.

Ten years after her board fired her without cause, Ms. Knaup has published her memoir capturing not only the disturbing group behavior she encountered, but her own role in allowing the abuse. Her first years at Thunderhead are thrilling as she compares her successes to her previous jobs in nonprofits. All the while, a system of manipulation is laid out by one particular board member as he slowly gains support from others within Thunderhead as well as the bicycle industry. Meanwhile, she watches in dismay as bicycle nonprofits across the United States are crippled by similar group behavior.

As she fights for her job, Ms. Knaup’s “Bike Hunts,” searching for then giving away used bikes, become her lifeline back to her former, courageous self and the world. Recollections of her daring as a San Francisco bike messenger, river guide, and hitchhiker remind her of a time when no one could bully her. Her previous experience in the animal rights, environmental, and special populations movements help her decipher how her time at Thunderhead went so terribly wrong.

The day after she surrenders the fight, Ms. Knaup founds One Street, an international nonprofit serving bicycle organizations with kindness and respect.

Bike Hunt is a tragic love story of an enchantment with and sacrifice for a magical machine. In the end, it is a story of hope and resilience for anyone who has ever let themselves slip away into ambition.

“Sue Knaup’s Bike Hunt is at once a compelling memoir, a narrative of discovery and political activism as well as a look at bicycles as you haven’t seen them before,” said Thomas Cobb author of Darkness the Color of Snow and Crazy Heart.

Knaup’s story is deeply moving—sad and funny and full of moments of insight. She has the rare talent to see with clarity where meanness or dishonesty have prevailed, and her adventures are a thrilling read,” said Elaine Greensmith Jordan author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp. 

Buy your copy of Bike Hunt through booksellers worldwide or at www.OneStreet.org. All proceeds support One Street’s service to bicycle nonprofits around the world.