(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our Fall 2014 series, “Are We Using Technology, or is Technology Using Us?“)

This past summer, everyone from Bill Gates to George W. Bush to Jennifer Aniston to your old college roommate to your boss’s daughter filmed themselves dumping a bucket of icewater on their heads. It was all but impossible to miss “The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge,” and by all accounts, it was a massive success. It raised both awareness and financial support for the disease, with literally millions of people sharing their videos, and raising money that ended up in the eight-figure range.

But it also received a fair share of criticism. Many people believed that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge – like “Bring Back Our Girls” from May or “Kony 2012” video two years ago – was a form of “slacktivism.” People could click “Like” or share a video, and feel good about “doing something to help the world,” but in reality, they would not be making that much of an impact.

This issue, in fact, parallels a challenge most religious communities face. Many religions have a mission to try to address social justice causes, such as homelessness, climate change, or human rights. But even those who are involved wonder how much of an impact they are truly making on these issues. Indeed, they may ask, how much of the purpose of these programs is simply to make people feel good that they are helping?

So that leads to a question that warrants some discussion: what’s the relationship between “slacktivism” and” activism”?

What Prompts People To Get Involved in Social Justice Causes?

First, we need to understand what leads people to commit their time, money and energy in social justice causes.

Nearly everyone has a pet cause they care deeply about. Be it breast cancer, mental illness, or immigration reform, social activists strive to make our world better. And while there are many tools in the social activist toolkit, almost all of them require getting other people excited and inspired to act on their mission.

And that’s the challenge — by definition, outside of the circle of people who deeply care, no one else is as dedicated to the issue. Instead, for those outside that committed circle, most people tend to make a cost-benefit analysis about their involvement: Do I care enough about the environment to dedicate a whole Sunday for a climate change rally? Is gun control important enough to me that I will support the Brady campaign? If so, how much?

When we try to decide just how much of an activist we will be, scientific research suggests there are two different paradigms we use.

The first framework is “internal consistency,” the idea that we want our actions to be match our self-image. In this model, if you do something good, you begin to see yourself as “a good person,” and so you will get more involved in positive social actions.

The second framework is “moral balancing,” and it’s almost the total opposite perspective. This model argues that if you do something good, then you’ve done your good deed for the day, and so you give yourself permission not to do something else.

Thus within our minds, these two frameworks compete against each other, both online and in the real world.

In the virtual world, you might have changed your profile picture blue to raise awareness for autism. When you did that, perhaps you began to view yourself as someone who cares about autism, and thus became more likely to give money or time to this cause. On the other hand, if you changed your profile picture gold for childhood cancer awareness, you might have said to yourself, “I’ve helped!” and not given it a second thought — and in fact, became less involved in other social justice causes, as well.

In the religious world, we all know people who were so inspired by a simple social justice program that they end up devoting many hours per week volunteering. On the other hand, how often do we hear something like, “Since I gave a donation to my church, now I don’t have to go to services”?

So the question becomes, when do we use which framework? When does slacktvism help activism, and when does it harm it?

Slacktivism Helps Activism…A Little Bit. Sometimes.

The best research on this question comes from  Yu-Hao Lee and Gary Hsieh at Michigan State University, with their paper, ‘Does Slacktivism Hurt Activism?: The Effects of Moral Balancing and Consistency in Online Activism.

They define “slacktivism” as “low-risk, low-cost activity via social media whose purpose is to raise awareness, produce change, or grant satisfaction to the person engaged in the activity,” and wondered: when and how can this type of activity inspire others to give up their money or time?

There were several fascinating findings in the study, but for our purposes, the most important is this: slacktivism rarely hurts activism, but it doesn’t really help much activism, either.

One the positive side, they found that the major criticism of slacktivism — that it allows us to say, “I’ve helped the world” without actually doing anything — isn’t supported by evidence.

But the strong advocates for slacktivism — those who say that “awareness is enough” — don’t have a whole lot of support, either. As Lee and Hsieh note,

…[S]igning [an online] petition increases the likelihood of donating money, but not the amount…[And] while performing slacktivism increased likelihood of performing a congruent subsequent civic action, our findings also suggest that this increase may only be limited to scenarios where the subsequent civic action is also relatively low-cost. Our analyses of participants’ intentions showed that signing the petition did not increase or decrease participants’ intentions to participate in subsequent high cost actions such as attending protests, it only increased intentions to sign future petitions and write letters.

Slacktivism’s greatest asset is its cost-benefit analysis. It costs us and risks us almost nothing to share a video or retweet a post, and the benefits may be great because they may inspire others to get involved. But according to Lee and Hsieh, slacktivism’s reach is only to other low-risk, low-cost actions. It has real limits, and we need to know them.

So by all means, you absolutely should post, like and share articles and videos, and you should participate in simple actions that might have a positive impact on the world, especially because in the aggregate, these actions can potentially have a real difference. But make no mistake — creating a significant impact is likely to involve making some significant sacrifices.

A Question for Religious Communities

So when should religious communities focus on low-risk, low-cost programs, perhaps even encouraging a form of “slacktivism,” and when should they push people to invest more of their time, energy and money?

In his book I’m God, You’re NotObservations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner makes a strong case that if religious congregations want real commitment, then low-risk, low-cost activities are counterproductive. As he says:

There is no evidence whatsoever to support the notion that people who are drawn into the congregation for an innocuous nonreligious event, such as gourmet cooking, move onto activities of…religious worth any sooner than if they had been left alone to discover their own inevitable and personal religious agendas and timetables. Indeed, there is substantial data to suggest that congregations that run many “basement” activities in hopes of getting people from there to the upper floors only wind up adding on to the basement. (Kushner, 24-25)

On some level, he is right. Yet perhaps the most important action a religious community can do is foster relationships. If people come in for a low-risk, low-cost activity, and feel good about it afterwards, and even help make a small difference, there is value in that, as well. But if we want true dedication for an issue, then we need there to be a higher risk and a higher cost.

In other words, there is a place for both “slacktivism” and “activism” — we just have to make sure we’re not conflating them.

So what do you think? What do you see as the value and the limits of low-risk, low-cost social justice actions?