How change happens

Dark-skinned soldier with flag on background - LGBT people

By Cass R Sunstein, Harvard Law School

Based on the preface to the book  by Cass Sunstein: “How Change Happens”. Published by The MIT Press in April 2019

A few decades ago, I testified in Congress about President Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the U.S. military, but only on condition that they did not disclose their sexual orientation. After my testimony, a member of Congress came up to me and said, with evident nostalgia, “In my day, we didn’t have any homosexuals.” He paused and added, “Well, maybe we had one. There was a guy who lived by himself, up on a hill.”

How does social change happen? One answer points to the role of social norms, which can be both powerful (in the sense that they greatly affect behavior) and fragile (in the sense that they can collapse in a short time). If norms lead people to silence themselves, a status quo can persist — even if some or many people hate it, and even if those who seem to support it are actually pretty indifferent to it. One day, someone challenges the norm. Maybe it’s a child who says that the Emperor has no clothes. Maybe it’s a guy who lives by himself, up on a hill. After that small challenge, others may begin to say what they think. Once that happens, a drip can become a flood.

Most of us live, at least some of the time, in accordance with norms that we dislike or perhaps abhor. We might not think about them; they are part of life’s furniture. But in our heart of hearts, we dislike or abhor them. The problem is that none of us can change a norm on our own. To be sure, we can defy a norm, but defiance comes at a cost, and it may end up entrenching rather than undermining existing norms. What is needed is some kind of movement, initiated by people who say that they disapprove the norm, and succeeding when some kind of tipping point is reached, by which time it is socially costless, and maybe beneficial, and maybe even mandatory, to say: Me Too. (It is in this sense that the #MeToo movement captured a phenomenon that is quite general, and that arises whenever people begin to disclose values, desires, or experiences that had once been hidden.)

That is a stylized version of what has happened with respect to gays and lesbians in many nations; it is continuing to happen. But the same dynamics help capture a host of social movements, including those that involve disability discrimination, age discrimination, animal rights, the rise of Donald Trump, Brexit, nationalism, and white supremacy. These movements are of course different in important ways. Some of them are unambiguously good, while others are harder to evaluate, and still others are deeply troubling. But in all of them, suppressed beliefs and values, including suppressed outrage, started to get some oxygen. Once they did, change was inevitable.

We can understand the underlying social dynamics, and even model them, in standard economic terms. People might be fully rational, updating their beliefs on the basis of what they observe, and acting accordingly. But any such account would miss important aspects of social situations. For example:

  1. It would underplay the role of boundedly rational probability judgments, influenced by the availability heuristic, which plays a large role in fueling social movements.
  2. It would pay too little attention to the crucial importance of salience. With respect to social change, salience can make all the difference.
  3. It would disregard the role of reciprocity, helping to solve prisoner’s dilemmas faced by rebels of all kinds.

It is important to see that many social movements are difficult or even impossible to foresee. A central reason is that because people falsify their preferences, people often do not know what their fellow citizens actually think. In the face of preference falsification, the circumstances are right for unleashing social change — but because preferences are falsified, few people may be aware of that fact.

Another reason for the unpredictability is the overriding importance of social interactions. For change to occur, interactions need to produce, at just the right times and places, a growing sense that an existing norm is vulnerable, and that may or may not happen. Serendipity might be crucial. Who talks to whom at the right point? What is covered in the right newspaper? Who retweets what, and exactly when?

Science fiction writers like to explore “counterfactual history” – historical arcs in which the South won the Civil War, or Hitler became a painter, or John F. Kennedy wasn’t assassinated, or Donald Trump decided to ramp up his real estate activities rather than to run for president. At their most intriguing, counterfactual histories emphasize small shifts (or nudges) that produced massive changes; they make it plausible to think that with a little push or pull, nations might have ended up looking radically different.

Because history is only run once, we can’t know when that’s true. But we do observe large shifts in short time frames. If we have a sense of the mechanisms that account for those shifts, we might be newly aware of the extent to which things we now take for granted were not exactly predestined, and of fragile seemingly stable contemporary equilibria actually are — and of how with a statement or action at the right moment, societies can move in entirely unanticipated directions.