'Social Psychology' course helps students tackle questions from nonprofits

Jan. 29, 2015 noon
CBLI Psychology Class animation

Princeton undergraduates in the course "Social Psychology" are combining concepts learned in class with their own research to offer local nonprofit groups ideas about how to tackle their challenges. (Animation by Kyle McKernan, Office of Communications)

Central New Jersey nonprofit groups had questions:

• What would motivate people in the Princeton community to reduce the amount of landfill waste they produce?

• What services are most effective for HIV-positive young people who were infected as infants?

• How effective are plain-language fact sheets in changing peoples' attitudes toward preventive health care? 

Students in the course "Social Psychology" developed ways to find the answers. 

In a collaboration facilitated by the University's Community-Based Learning Initiative, the undergraduates combined concepts from the course about the way people think about, feel and behave in social situations with their own research to offer the nonprofit groups a wide range of ideas and insights. 

"In class, we cover topics such as persuasion, social influence and social norms," said Nicole Shelton, a professor of psychology who leads the class. "These are principles in social psychology that people can use to intervene in social situations and social problems. The students have the principles and the knowledge to address the community partners' questions." 

CBLI Psychology Class Nicole Shelton

Nicole Shelton, a professor of psychology at Princeton, is working with the University's Community-Based Learning Initiative to develop ways for students to learn about social psychology and to assist nonprofit groups. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)

The questions this fall came from the groups Sustainable Princeton, which focuses on reducing waste and energy use in Princeton; Centurion Ministries, which works to exonerate people who have been wrongly accused of a crime; the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, whose goals include improving clients' health; Kidsbridge, which provides in-school anti-bullying programs to students from elementary school to high school; and Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, which runs a multisite program that provides customized services to a range of clients. 

Working in groups of two or three, the 161 students in the course selected one of the nonprofits to focus on, then researched the organization and relevant social issues. After meeting with a representative from their selected nonprofit, the students identified a psychological concept examined in the class and explored how it could be used to reach the nonprofit's goal.

At the end of the semester, each group made a presentation to its nonprofit and submitted a report about its recommendations. Altogether, each nonprofit received information from about 10 groups, providing them a variety of ideas. While the students won't put their ideas into action for this course, Shelton said she hopes some will pursue their proposals as part of their junior paper or senior thesis.

"Learning about and thinking through real-world examples of how social psychology techniques can be applied to make the world a better place has been very personally rewarding and has improved my understanding of concepts from the course and has helped me do better on assessments," said Samantha Essig, a sophomore who is majoring in economics.

A focus on sustainability

Essig and her group looked at Sustainable Princeton's goal of increasing participation in the town's organic-waste composting program, which allows residents to place food waste in a special bin to be collected for composting. Essig's group focused on the "foot-in-the-door" theory, the idea that when people agree to a small initial request, they are more likely to agree to a larger follow-up request because they want their behavior to be consistent over time. 

"We are recommending that Sustainable Princeton go around to houses in Princeton and ask residents to sign a waste-reduction petition, a small initial request," Essig said. 

"Sustainable Princeton would then ask these same residents to sign up for the organic-waste composting program, a larger follow-up request given that it costs $65 a year," she said. "We hypothesize that residents who are first asked to sign the waste-reduction petition would be more likely to sign up for the composting program than those who do not receive the initial request." 

Catherine Ivanovich, a sophomore who is considering majoring in geosciences, was part of another group focused on Sustainable Princeton. She and her colleagues turned to the psychological concept of framing, which concerns how people react to information depending on the way it is presented.  

They proposed an experiment in which participants would come into a room and watch a video. One group would see a video centered on "gain-framed" information about recycling, which means it would focus on the benefits the practice. Another group would see a video centered on "loss-framed" information, which would focus on the negative outcomes of not recycling. A control group would see a video on an unrelated topic. While watching the video, participants would be given a salty snack and a small bottle of water. 

"At the end of the study, we will provide participants with the opportunity to recycle or throw away their water bottles, and the rates of recycling will be recorded," Ivanovich said.   

The results could show whether "gain-framed" or "loss-framed" messages are best suited for increasing recycling rates. 

Diane Landis, executive director of Sustainable Princeton, said she is "thrilled that this kind of collaborative effort is happening." 

"This is really research that is going to move our town forward," she said. 

Everyone involved can benefit from the collaboration, Shelton said. 

"I hope the students walk away knowing social psychology, knowing how to do science and feeling really good that they could potentially help their communities," she said. "I hope the community partners walk away with ideas that could be really useful to them."