In the aftermath of NBA player Jason Collins coming out publicly as the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport, there was an extraordinary outpouring of support across social media. It wasn’t just coming from current teammates, coaches and star professional athletes—former President (and Twitter newbie) Bill Clinton publicly tweeted that he was proud to call Jason a friend.

Jason Collins #98 of the Washington Wizards rebounds against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on April 17, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The First Lady of the United States took to Twitter as well, tweeting, “We’ve got your back.” She also signed it “mo,” signaling to everyone that it was indeed her tweet and not one sent by a member of her staff.

And, as with any important moment on social media, there were trending hashtags, people calling for a “movement” and thousands more re-posting the status updates of their more eloquent friends.

In short, it had all the hallmarks of other social slacktivism efforts on the Internet, where re-tweets and likes replace serious action toward a goal.

Why do we so easily tweet, share and “like” what we believe is right but otherwise fail to substantially act on that belief? This might be due to what psychologists call the “substitution effect.” In other words, if given the option between acting in the online sphere and the offline sphere, most of us will choose the online sphere. We substitute “likes,” tweets, upvotes and pins for action.

The logic is goes something like this – changing the color of your online avatar, re-tweeting an officially approved message or liking a Facebook page is considerably easier than actually providing time, money or in-kind assistance. In other words, we can re-tweet our support for Jason Collins, but how many of us are going to get involved if we suspect that one of our homosexual co-workers was treated inappropriately by a boss for reasons that had to do with their sexual orientation?

For now, the only way to beat the substitution effect is to engage in a program of public shaming. That’s the approach UNICEF has taken in Sweden. The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan describes how new advertisements and promotional videos from UNICEF Sweden are meant to shame us into better behavior. The non-profit organization boils it down for visitors in clear terms: “Likes don’t save lives. Money does.”

The videos—believed to be the first by a major international charity to take a negative approach—are quite explicit in their attempts to illicit shame. In one video, an orphan says, “But I think everything will be alright. Today UNICEF Sweden has 177,000 likes on Facebook. Maybe they will reach 200,000 by summer.”

But what if the problem of slacktivism goes much deeper than the “substitution effect”? What if it hits at the core of what makes us human? As many have pointed out, the difficulty of getting follow-through on social pre-dates social media. The term “slacktivism” has been traced back to a time long before Twitter or Facebook exploded on the scene. And, as behavioral psychologists point out, we lie to ourselves and otherwise act irrationally even though we know better. Social media has simply made it easier to expose our cognitive biases.

So if not public shaming, then what?

The most innovative solutions are those that fully embrace new findings in behavioral science. That’s what’s happening in the U.K., in which the government has had initial public success with a new behavioral research unit called The Nudge Unit. The project gets its name from Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s  2008 book “Nudge.” Sunstein eventually became Obama’s regulatory czar before departing in 2012 while Thaler served as an informal adviser to the administration.

The team, which employes “nudge theory,” has been deemed to be so successful that, as the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour reports, it’s being turned into a for-profit company. The idea goes as follows: by changing the default options, you can change outcomes. The classic examples are getting people to save money for retirement or getting people to eat healthier. Instead of mandating legislation or changing laws, you change the initial default settings and watch people make the right choices.


Perhaps on important but divisive issues, a nudge might turn slacktivists into activists and provide the carrot while the public shaming provides the stick. In the future, it may no longer be so hard to do the right thing.