The Social Science Behind How Change Happens

Saying what we believe may be the first step to social change.
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Revisions in norms can result in large-scale changes in an astoundingly short time.

Photo illustration by Greg Newington

In How Change Happens, law professor Cass R. Sunstein, formerly a senior adviser in the Obama White House, draws on behavioral science to describe the actions that lead to social change, whether for good or ill. In this excerpt, he describes the power of breaking with convention and challenging the seemingly entrenched norms that “leash” and inhibit us.


In the late 1980s, when I was a visiting professor at Columbia Law School, I happened to pass, in the hallway near my office, a law student (female) speaking to an older law professor (male). To my amazement, the professor was stroking the student’s hair. I thought I saw, very briefly, a grimace on her face. It was a quick flash. When he left, I said to her, “That was completely inappropriate. He shouldn’t have done that.” Her response was dismissive: “It’s fine. He’s an old man. It’s really not a problem.”

Thirty minutes later, I heard a knock on my door. It was the student. She was in tears. She said, “He does this all the time. It’s horrible. My boyfriend thinks I should make a formal complaint, but I don’t want to do that. Please—I don’t want to make a fuss. Do not talk to him about it and do not tell anyone.” (What I did in response is a tale for another occasion.)

Social norms imposed constraints on what the law student could say or do. She hated what the professor was doing; she felt harassed. After hearing my little comment, she felt free to tell me what she actually thought. But because of existing norms, she did not want to say or do anything.

I am interested here in two different propositions. The first is that when norms start to collapse, people are unleashed, in the sense that they feel free to reveal what they believe and prefer, to disclose their experiences, and to talk and act as they wish. (Bystanders can of course be important here.) New norms, and laws that entrench or fortify them, may lead to the discovery of preexisting beliefs, preferences, and values. The discovery can be startling. In various times and places, the women’s movement has been an example. The same is true for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the movement for LGBT rights, and the disability rights movement. It is also true for the pro-life movement. 

The second is that revisions of norms can construct preferences and values. New norms, and laws that entrench or fortify them, can give rise to beliefs, preferences, and values that did not exist before. No one is unleashed. People are changed. Something like this can be said for the antismoking movement, the rise of seatbelt-buckling, and the rise of Nazism.

Begin with the phenomenon of unleashing: When certain norms are in force, people falsify their preferences or are silent about them. As a result, strangers and even friends and family members may not be able to know about them. People with certain political or religious convictions might just shut up. Once norms are revised, people will reveal preexisting preferences and values, which norms had successfully suppressed. What was once unsayable is said, and what was once unthinkable is done.

In the context of sexual harassment, something like this account is broadly correct: Women disliked being harassed, or even hated it, and revision of old norms was (and remains) necessary to spur expression of their feelings and beliefs. (This account is incomplete, and I will complicate it.) As we shall see, law often plays a significant role in fortifying existing norms or in spurring their revision. Part of the importance of judicial rulings that forbid sexual harassment is that they contributed to the revision of norms. The election of a new leader or the enactment of new legislation can have a crucial and even transformative signaling effect, offering people information about what other people think. If people hear the signal, norms may shift, because people are influenced by what they think other people think.

But some revisions of norms, and some laws that entrench those revisions, do not liberate anything. As norms begin to be altered, people come to hold, or to act as if they hold, preferences and values that they did not hold before. Revisions of norms, and resulting legal reforms, do not uncover suppressed desires; they produce new ones, or at least statements and actions that are consistent with new ones.

Politically correct

Consider in this regard the idea of “political correctness,” which is standardly a reference to left-leaning social norms, forbidding the expression of views that defy the left-of-center orthodoxy and so silencing people. Political correctness means that people cannot say what they actually think; they are forced into some kind of closet. (The very term should be seen as an effort to combat existing norms. Part of the cleverness of the term is that it describes those who follow certain views as cowardly conformists, rather than people who are committed to hard-won principles. That is often what happens. On many university campuses, those who are right of center learn to shut up. What a terrible lesson: they are leashed. But in other environments, the norms are different, and they can say what they think. Sometimes their friends and associates are surprised, even stunned: “Does he really think that? I had no idea.”

In the educational setting, one problem is that left-of-center students will have no idea about the actual distribution of views within the community. They might think that everyone thinks as they do. Another problem is that people will be less able to learn from one another. And when people say what they actually think, large-scale changes might occur. I taught at the University of Chicago Law School in the early 1980s, when a group of terrific students created the Federalist Society, an organization dedicated to the exploration and defense of conservative views about the American legal system. The Federalist Society has had a massive effect on American political and legal life because it creates a kind of forum, or enclave, in which people can say what they think.

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But whether left or right, political correctness can go beyond the suppression of views. It can also reconstruct preferences and values, making certain views unthinkable (for better or for worse). If some view is beyond the pale, people will stop expressing it. Eventually the unthinkable might become unthought. Is that chilling? Sometimes, but sometimes not; it is not terrible if no one thinks pro-Nazi thoughts.

A stunning study of the power of political correctness comes from Saudi Arabia. In that country, there remains a custom of “guardianship,” by which husbands are allowed to have the final word on whether their wives work outside the home. The overwhelming majority of young married men are privately in favor of female labor force participation. But those men are profoundly mistaken about the social norm; they think that other, similar men do not want women to join the labor force. When researchers randomly corrected those young men’s beliefs about what other young men believed, they became far more willing to let their wives work. The result was a significant impact on what women actually did. A full four months after the intervention, the wives of men in the experiment were more likely to have applied and interviewed for a job.

The best reading of this research is that because of social norms, men in Saudi Arabia are in a sense leashed, and as a result, their wives are leashed as well. Most young men privately support female labor force participation, but they will say what they think, even to their own wives, only after they learn that other young men think as they do. It is fair to say that after the researchers revealed what young men actually thought, both men and women ended up more liberated.

What matters

Does it matter whether revisions of norms free people to say what they think or instead construct new preferences and values? For purposes of understanding social phenomena, it certainly does. If preferences and values are hidden, rapid social change is possible and nearly impossible to predict. When people are silent about their preferences or values, and when they falsify them, it can be exceedingly difficult to know what they are. Because people conceal their preferences, outsiders cannot readily identify them. If people are discontent but fail to say so, and if they start to talk and act differently once norms are challenged and changed, then large-scale shifts in behavior are possible—but no one may have anticipated them.

The rise of norms against sex discrimination and sexual harassment is an example (which is hardly to say that either has disappeared). The partial collapse of norms authorizing or promoting discrimination against transgender people can be seen in similar terms: For (many) transgender people, the effect is to prevent self-silencing and preference falsification. Similar dynamics help account for the rise of religions, the fall of Communism, the Arab Spring, and the election of Donald Trump.

When revisions in norms produce new preferences and beliefs, rapid change is also possible, but the mechanics are different. Those who produce such change do not seek to elicit preexisting preferences, beliefs, and values. As norms shift, people are not liberated. Influenced and informed by new or emerging norms, they develop fresh thoughts and feelings, or at least act as if they have them. The rise of Nazism is famously complicated and highly disputed, but it can be understood in these terms. From one view, of course, it had a great deal to do with the longstanding geographical segregation of Jews and the emergence of suppressed hatred: “In this separation the devil slumbered and in slumber built sinew before Hitler was born.” From another view, Hitler was able to spur hatred that did not really exist before. As one former Nazi put it, he was not anti-Semitic “until [he] heard anti-Semitic propaganda.”

We can also find intermediate cases, in which people do not exactly have antecedent preferences that norms silence, but in which they hear a stubborn, uneasy voice in their heads that they ignore, thinking, Why bother to listen to that? But as norms start to shift, that question has an answer: Maybe it is telling me something important, or something that reflects my real feelings and beliefs. There is a kind of intrapersonal tipping point at which that answer becomes louder and people’s statements and actions change.

My principal examples involve discrimination, but the general points hold more broadly. Consider, for example, cigarette smoking, seatbelt buckling, alcohol consumption, uses of green energy, purchases of organic food, considerateness, veganism, the use of new languages, polyamory, religious beliefs and practices, drug use, and crime. In all of these cases, norms can constrain antecedent preferences; new norms can liberate them or instead help construct new ones (or at least the appearance of new ones). In all of these cases, revisions in norms can result in large-scale changes in an astoundingly short time, including legal reforms, which can entrench and fortify those revisions.

Excerpt from How Change Happens by Cass R. Sunstein (2019), published by permission of the MIT Press.