The secret to social change

We all have a lot of ideas about what people should be doing differently. What am I talking about? Well, pretty much everything – every topic of laws and norms and morality that affect other people’s decisions. It could be smoking cigarettes (or something more potent); it could be recycling; it could be sex; it could be buying cars that use gasoline rather than some alternative fuel.

And that’s our job as citizens, in a democracy – deciding collectively what people should be able to do and encouraged to do. We don’t just leave it to a king or some other power to declare from on high; we get to have these discussions ourselves.

vote_dryIf you don’t want people to do something, one obvious approach is to make it illegal (like Prohibition) or unavailable (like shutting down abortion clinics, or deciding stores can’t sell the kind of light bulbs we all used ten years ago). But people don’t always comply with laws (again, like Prohibition), and sometimes we might want people to be less likely to do something that’s both legal and ordinary (like eating meat). It’s quite challenging to get people to change an ordinary behavior, especially if it’s pleasurable or wrapped up in traditions.

At the other extreme, maybe whatever we want people to do differently is actually none of our business – more of a “social libertarian” perspective. Why should it matter to me if one young man falls in love with another, or if a consenting couple want to get intimate without a marriage license? For the rest of this post I’m going to assume there are solid reasons affecting our collective well-being to actually encourage different behavior. People may disagree about the validity of those reasons, of course, but let’s imagine that I’m only talking about influencing others respectfully and ethically.

The usual approach to changing people’s behavior is to have a campaign to raise awareness, coupled with laws and regulations to create incentives, and sometimes this all gets “moralized” so that people are treated as being “good” if they do what’s now considered desirable and “bad” if they don’t. An example here would be cigarette smoking. Everyone now knows that smoking can cause lung cancer and that second-hand smoke can be harmful to others. Taxes have been added to discourage consumers (especially young people) from buying cigarettes. And at this point, people who still smoke are often stigmatized and treated as though they should be ashamed of their nicotine addiction.

vegan-red-beans-and-rice-image-720x540When I was in grad school, for my first-year project I studied vegetarianism and veganism, so that I could learn more about how acting consistently with ideals affects our well-being. (Short answer – making life choices that feel meaningful to you leads to greater well-being, no big surprise.) It was very interesting to learn more about other people’s research on the psychology of not eating meat. People have a lot of reasons for becoming vegetarian. Sometimes it’s for health reasons; those with heart disease are often encouraged to shift to plant-based diets, for example. Sometimes it’s for economic reasons – beans and rice are much less expensive than steak and salmon. And sometimes it’s because eating meat just seems wrong, which is what I meant by “moralized.” The interesting thing is that once you see eating meat as wrong, you’re often likely to start adding all the other reasons, too, whereas if you’re just doing it for health reasons, your thinking doesn’t change as much. And of course, once you see it as morally wrong, you’re more likely to try to influence others in the same direction.

Where it gets complicated is when beliefs about what everyone should do, or not do, get adopted disproportionately by some sub-group. Everyone agrees that smoking tobacco is problematic, but in 2020 in America, believing we should drastically cut our use of fossil fuels has become associated with the political Left. It didn’t have to go that way. Scott Alexander wrote up what he thought a “Red Tribe” version of a climate change argument might have looked like, and it’s great, so I’ll quote the whole thing here:

In the 1950s, brave American scientists shunned by the climate establishment of the day discovered that the Earth was warming as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, leading to potentially devastating natural disasters that could destroy American agriculture and flood American cities. As a result, the country mobilized against the threat. Strong government action by the Bush administration outlawed the worst of these gases, and brilliant entrepreneurs were able to discover and manufacture new cleaner energy sources. As a result of these brave decisions, our emissions stabilized and are currently declining.

Unfortunately, even as we do our part, the authoritarian governments of Russia and China continue to industrialize and militarize rapidly as part of their bid to challenge American supremacy. As a result, Communist China is now by far the world’s largest greenhouse gas producer, with the Russians close behind. Many analysts believe Putin secretly welcomes global warming as a way to gain access to frozen Siberian resources and weaken the more temperate United States at the same time. These countries blow off huge disgusting globs of toxic gas, which effortlessly cross American borders and disrupt the climate of the United States. Although we have asked them to stop several times, they refuse, perhaps egged on by major oil producers like Iran and Venezuela who have the most to gain by keeping the world dependent on the fossil fuels they produce and sell to prop up their dictatorships.

We need to take immediate action. While we cannot rule out the threat of military force, we should start by using our diplomatic muscle to push for firm action at top-level summits like the Kyoto Protocol. Second, we should fight back against the liberals who are trying to hold up this important work, from big government bureaucrats trying to regulate clean energy to celebrities accusing people who believe in global warming of being ‘racist’. Third, we need to continue working with American industries to set an example for the world by decreasing our own emissions in order to protect ourselves and our allies. Finally, we need to punish people and institutions who, instead of cleaning up their own carbon, try to parasitize off the rest of us and expect the federal government to do it for them.

Please join our brave men and women in uniform in pushing for an end to climate change now.

WagingWater_USArmy-637x425Isn’t that powerful? Unfortunately, though, America has decided that climate change is a liberal or Leftist idea, even though career military leaders remain deeply concerned about it.

Once an idea about behavior has been labelled as partisan, everyone else tends to think they can ignore it. And a great many American beliefs and behaviors have been labelled as partisan. Given that we’re in this situation, what do we do? It’s a tough question, and last summer I was excited to read a paper by Dan Kahan, a Yale law professor, that has a really good answer. Kahan explains that policies and laws will be most effective when multiple groups see their values reflected in them. He gives examples of tradeable emissions credits, social welfare policies (which had bipartisan support for decades), and France’s abortion reform laws, which manage to simultaneously satisfy those concerned about the sanctity of life and those defending women’s personal autonomy.

The bottom line is, if you really think people should do X, and X has become associated with a particular belief system, the answer is NOT to fight for that belief system. Or rather, fight for that belief system if it’s important to you, but recognize that doing so is not going to increase the general public’s rate of doing X in the near term. If getting X to happen is more urgent than changing other people’s belief systems – for example, to address climate change – then you’ve got to take a different approach. In fact, maybe you’ve got to take a lot of different approaches.

As long as people are working toward the same goal, it’s fine to have Blue Tribe reasons for the liberals and Left, Red Tribe reasons for the traditionalists and Right, Christian reasons for the believers, secular reasons for the non-believers, and so on. Multiple means, one end.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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2 Responses to The secret to social change

  1. Robin Turner says:

    This is spot on. One of the frustrations I’ve experienced in politics )particularly when I was involved on the ground rather than just as a keyboard warrior) was my fellow-progressives’ refusal to unlink issues from their general programme. It was all “We can’t even begin to think about protecting the environment without challenging the capitalist/patriarchal/imperialist thinking that is leading to its destruction.” Well actually, we can. While it is true that these attitudes can make a society more likely to despoil the natural world, the climate crisis isn’t going to go away while we dismantle the patriarchy, take over the means of production or liberate the Third World.

    • That’s such a good point. If my grandma buys organic produce because it “tastes better” or uses energy-efficient technologies because she values thrift, the net result is just the same – and it may even be stronger, in some cases, because sometimes people think their conversion to the cause has an intrinsic value that allows them some leeway behavior-wise. Thanks for making the point, Robin, and for reminding me about that.

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