Social Connections Drive Responsible Actions

People who feel socially connected are more likely to believe they make an impact.

People are more likely to behave in a socially responsible manner if they believe their actions make a difference, according to Irina Cojuharenco of Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts; Gert Cornelissen of University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain; and Natalia Karelaia of INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France. The three researchers found that whether or not people feel like they make an impact depends on how socially connected they are.

They surveyed more than 600 adults in the U.S. to learn about their social values, sense of connectedness, and belief in the effectiveness of their actions. Respondents who felt a high degree of social connectedness felt their individ­ual actions had a greater impact on a larger scale. They also tended to be the most socially conscious consumers, based on how often they recycled and whether they were environmentally conscious in their purchasing behaviors. Respondents’ social values—measured by their answers to questions about morally appropriate behavior—were less important as predictors of behavior than whether the respondents felt they could make a difference.

The researchers conducted additional studies to determine whether a person’s decision making could be influenced by his or her level of social con­nectedness. In one, some participants were asked to write about a situation in which they were purchasing a gift, and some were asked to write about a time they bought something for themselves. Afterward, they were asked to provide assistance to an NGO by developing slogans designed to win the support of cor­porate sponsors. The researchers found that those in the first group felt more connected, and those who felt more connected developed more slogans for the NGO. A different group went through the same writing exercise, then were asked to make a financial contribution to an NGO. The same pattern emerged.

Cojuharenco, Cornelissen, and Karelaia conclude that people who feel socially connected perceive their actions as being more effective, which raises their appreciation for the consequences of their actions. The researchers recommend that managers build communal awareness among employees, framing the actions of individuals and the firm in the context of the wider community.

“Overall, this suggests that we’re at our ethical best when we feel part of a human community that transcends our immediate surroundings,” says Karelaia.

“Yes, I can: Feeling con­nected to others increases perceived effectiveness and socially responsible behavior” was published in the Decem­ber 2016 issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

This article appeared in print in the March/April 2017 issue.