Better at the Press of a Button

Image Credit: Photo by Teona Swift

Author: Ethical Swag


In our line of work, we’ve been lucky to speak with many marketers, company leaders, and brand leaders who are problem-aware. Most people in the working world are conscious of and sensitive to the crises we face together. Companies are grappling with attracting, retaining, and ensuring ethical work practices for every employee their business activity impacts. People are defining their personal missions and looking for work that aligns with the impact they want to actualize. And in any context, corporate and otherwise, people understand that we’re at a turning point in the climate crisis, and they’re looking for real ways to lessen their environmental impact. 

Awareness is certainly the first step in creating solutions, but it poses another problem–one we’ve encountered often. The problems facing us are large, and it’s easy to feel discouraged. A concept called ‘learned helplessness’ describes a diminished ability to act in the face of big challenges. Even in the most aware, committed teams, we’ve seen learned helplessness take its toll. 

This blog studies the psychological effects of the learned helplessness phenomenon and, more importantly, how we can overcome it with the right approach.

Learnings from the Lab: The Seligman and Maier Experiment

In the 1970s, psychologists Seligman and Maier conducted an intriguing experiment with lab rats. They divided the rats into three groups: one received mild foot buzzes (not hurtful, not pleasant) without a means to stop them. The second group also received the zaps, but they were given a button they could press to stop them. The third group wasn’t zapped at all. Later, all the rats were placed in a new cage with a button. 

The results were eye-opening when scientists delivered the foot zaps in the new cage setting. The first group, conditioned to helplessness from their first round without a button, didn't press the button to stop the zaps. The second group, familiar with the button as a solution, used it effectively. Interestingly, the third group, which had never faced the zaps, discovered and used the button as effectively as the second group.

The Paradox of Awareness: What It Means for Cause-Based Marketing

We’re up against some tough challenges as a society. It’s easy to want to emphasize the problem in an effort to motivate action. But that’s just like turning up the zaps–it’s much more useful to offer people a button. 

People are motivated toward solutions. Our job as business leaders is to make these solutions easily available–to scatter the landscape with buttons, big and small. 

Making ‘Better’ Easier

The pursuit of social impact requires a rethought strategy. Rather than emphasizing problems, we can proliferate solutions. The solution-oriented approach aligns with positive psychology, encourages action, and reduces the chance of finding ourselves paralyzed in the face of our problems. 

We’ve seen the compounding power that comes from positive messaging, empowered choices, and inclusive opportunities. A small business that sets the standard at net zero might not know where to begin. But given the choice to order lunch from a local, sustainable supplier, they’d be quick to act. 
Inclusive opportunities ease companies into the positive feedback of taking small steps. Not every company has the budget they need to show up how they want to. Here again, small actions compound. With proper transparency, companies can still select the partners, initiatives, materials, and suppliers that move them closer to their sustainability goals. 

At Ethical Swag, our mission is to make more buttons; to shape perceptions, drive behavior, and make small actions toward big problems easy, possible, and habitual. It’s through this kind of process that impact will compound. 

In choosing between increasing the ‘zaps’ or creating more ‘buttons,’ the lesson from the lab rats is clear. Our problems don’t need to get bigger. Solutions just need to be present, visible, and accessible. We’re committed to giving companies better ways to tell their stories. In a world full of problems, we want to bring people better at the push of a button–creating easy, compelling, and small solutions that create forward action.