What Dr. King Knew

The science behind social change

One of the reasons I’ve never managed read any of those best-selling self-help pop psychology books that I suspect I’d find fascinating (if not life-changing) is because I can’t spend more than about 3.5 minutes in the self-help section of the bookstore without feeling like I’m in the wrong place: If I haven’t yet tried to improve myself by reading the complete works of Thoreau or the unabridged biography of Gandhi or the collected oratory genius of Dr. King, is it really appropriate to simply turn inward for self-improvement via contemplation over who stole my cheese? (Disclaimer: This reasoning does not keep me from buying a People magazine. I’m a walking contradiction, folks.)

But yesterday I spoke to a Philly author named Nick Cooney about his new book, Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change, and I think maybe he’s stumbled a sort of brilliant twist on self-improvement via psychology with an approach that is equal parts Gladwell and Gandhi. In his book, he puts riveting scientific research to use in an argument as to how to make positive social change—any positive social change, be it getting more people to recycle, or to spay their cat, or to help the homeless.

Cooney, 29, has for years been known around here as an animal-rights activist and the founding director of the nonprofit called The Humane League, but veered from his specific social passion to write a book aimed at anybody with a social passion. It’s interesting, and it’s useful—even for those of us who don’t run our own nonprofits. Did you know, for example, that when organizations put out pamphlets with those fun-to-read fact-versus-myth format in order to educate the public, people frequently misremember and quote the false statements as true? (Lesson: When you’re convincing people that something’s good, simply tell the truth.) And did you know that the single greatest motivator for people to do something like, say, save energy in their home isn’t money, or environmentalism, but that the fact that their neighbors are all conserving energy, too? (Lesson: Don’t underestimate the power of appealing to the social norm.)

The real inspiration here, though, is Cooney himself, I think: a guy trying to help people make our city and world better, a guy who—in a world increasingly concerned with self, self, self—sees beyond himself, ourselves and even his own cause to consider the greater good. How refreshing.