Understanding How Change Happens, with Cass Sunstein

Published: 29 May 2019

Can the origins of social movements and revolutions be explained by behaviour change theory?

While there are plenty of examples of widespread behaviour change that can be explained after the fact, Sunstein acknowledges that it is very difficult to predict when a revolution will occur.

Co-author of Nudge and Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein has written a new book, How Change Happens. In the book, Sunstein explores how social movements and revolutions occur, looking to identify common factors that might help us anticipate significant behaviour change.

One common factor in bringing about widespread transformation is the role of social norms. Sunstein describes how we often have a private opinion or preference that sits in opposition to a perceived social norm. When an instance occurs that sees our preference come into conflict with what we consider to be most prevalent, our tendency is to fall in line with the rest of society.

Sunstein cites a particularly interesting case in a Middle Eastern country, where wives are not allowed to work without their husband’s permission. Partly as a result, most wives did not have jobs. But while in public, men claimed they were happy with such a state of affairs, many in private confided that they would like their wives to work.

When it came to light that this private view was actually shared by many other husbands in the country, they felt comfortable to express their opinion more openly. Consequently, the number of working wives increased significantly.

But while there are plenty of examples of widespread behaviour change that can be explained after the fact, Sunstein acknowledges that it is very difficult to predict when a revolution will occur. As a result, Sunstein references a number of historic examples in his book to help support his theory of social change.

One such example is the #MeToo movement, which highlights the influential role often played by brave individuals in raising awareness and laying the foundations for genuine social transformation. In October 2017, actor and activisty Alyssa Milano used the power of social media to spread her call for followers to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault. The almost domino effect that followed saw the movement go viral in less than 24 hours.

To better understand how Sunstein explains the origins of #MeToo, and social change more widely, you can listen to him speak at an RSA event via this link. And do get in touch if you want to learn how to tap into and influence social norms to improve the effectiveness of your communications and behaviour change campaigns.

Jos Kelly

Consultant

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