A Harvard professor explains how social movements that create broad social change become possible

A Harvard professor explains how social movements that create broad social change become possible

At the heart of all politics and activism is the concept of change. People agitate, organize and vote because they believe that they can affect change in the world — or, in some cases, reverse changes that have already happened. But the process of change can be a bit mysterious. How does it happen? How can people make it happen?


In his new book, "How Change Happens," Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein tackles these larger issues, looking at a history of social change and analyzing it for lessons that could be useful for those who seek to make changes to the status quo. He sat down with me recently on "Salon Talks" to discuss the way social movements get started and why what used to be considered common sense or can sometimes transform with surprising speed.

Watch my "Salon Talks" conversation with Cass Sunstein here. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

This is a huge topic in a lot of ways, how does change happen. And I think it's an issue that's on the forefront of a lot of people's minds these days. When Barack Obama was elected he ran on a platform of "hope and change," and then we saw Donald Trump be elected in reaction to that. The sense, I think, is growing in a lot of quarters that change may not be possible. Your book delivers the opposite message: Change is possible and there's reason for hope. 

That's a good point: Change can go in all sorts of directions. You seem to posit that we are in an era of a lot of social upheaval. And one movement that you single out is the Me Too movement, which was a fairly dramatic shift in the way the public thinks about and reacts to sexual harassment. How does what happened there fit into your theory of change?

OK. So with MeToo, it was a recent example of where people living under circumstances of, let's say, injustice or oppression or horror have often been quiet about what happened to them or about what they actually hope will happen in the future, and they need a kind of permission slip or a green light. And we all have in our minds, with respect to at least one issue, maybe 12 issues, a sense that things aren't as they should be. But whether we give voice to them depends on whether there's a green light or not.

The American Revolution which created our country was basically a green light emerging as people said, "Independence is a good idea." In the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Rosa Parks was in some ways a heroic but ordinary person. Not someone who sought the limelight. She was not ordinary in her soul but ordinary in the sense that she didn't have public office or a big pulpit. But she created a permission slip for lots of people to defy segregation. And Martin Luther King, of course, was the organizing thinker and voice behind a lot of disclosure of what people actually thought should happen and about what people experienced that wasn't good, or that was worse than not good.

And under MeToo, what happened was a lot of women who had somewhere between bad and horrific experiences were authorized really by the courage of others to say, "Me too." We're not where we should be with respect to sexual violence and sexual harassment. But there are a lot of people, men as well as women -- though mostly women -- who are not going to be subject to stuff because the movement has been so vocal and norm-shifting.

Sure. Under President Obama, whether you love him or not, we had the most important social legislation since the 1960s. That's the Affordable Care Act. We had the most important financial regulation since the 1930s. That's Dodd-Frank. We had the most aggressive environmental movement probably ever in the sense of clean air, particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen oxide and more.

And that doesn't even mention climate, and a great deal has been done on climate. And that doesn't even refer to what was done on civil rights, with respect to sex equality and sexual orientation discrimination, where the change is remarkable that we lived through. And that doesn't even mention what happens with effect to tobacco, where we had the most aggressive anti-tobacco basically in the nation's history.

Now, a lot of this is contested, and so it doesn't seem like we had a sea change -- but, gosh we did. And whether you like President Trump or not, and I gather you're not a huge fan, he has changed significant things. So, whether it's hope or the opposite, he hasn't been a status quo president by any means.

Well, I think that's very interesting. Something that was once maybe not a taboo but close to it suddenly is no longer a taboo. How does that happen? What is the catalyst that causes a situation where once people felt they couldn't say anything and now they feel like they can?

So we all live in accordance with norms that we either don't like but just accept, or in some cases that we despise, but we have to accept because they're norms. It might about what you wear, it might be about who you can date, it might be about your workplace. What has to happen for the change to occur is the norm has to be under some pressure, either because someone courageous has said the norm's not good, which means that the second person who says that doesn't seem like a crazy person or a rebel but seems brave rather than reckless. And then once there are two, a third person can say, "This isn't good. I agree with that."

And once there are three, and you can think of three as a metaphor for 300 or 3,000, then you can have something very large like the environmental movement which worked in large part in this way, where there were people breathing dirty air in New York or Los Angeles or Massachusetts and they thought, "What can we do about it?" Or, "If we say something about it, we'll look like we're radical, anti-business people."

But once the norm in favor of combating pollution started to get energized, and the norm in favor of shutting up people who objected to it started to soften, then you could have a tipping point, where the original norm was, "You can't say this," and then the norm became, "You have to say this."

A lot of people who would pick up your book, I would assume, would be activists who are trying to effect change in this world. What advice would you give to somebody who wants to cause that kind of tipping point to happen?

Let me tell you about someone I follow on Twitter who has a book that is on behavioral finance. That's not a hot topic. But he tweets, "People are buying and enjoying my book. Thank you for the support." That's really smart. He's establishing, I hope truthfully, the existence of some popularity for his own particular cause, which is his excellent but not very popular book.

So, there's a lesson there, which is if you want to spur a movement, to give strong signals either of the current surprising popularity of the movement, or, if you don't have that, of the growing popularity of the movement, that can often be extremely helpful because it licenses people to join and it may un-license people to stigmatize.

So if you think of the anti-smoking movement or the seatbelt buckling movement, neither of these is radical stuff, but they're both really important. They've saved a lot of lives. The idea that you should be allowed to tell smokers who are in your room, "Please stop, it's offensive or making me sick," or tell someone in your family, "Please stop smoking, you're endangering your life," or tell someone, "Buckle your seatbelt," that became possible once the movements for seatbelts and the movements against cigarette smoking were signaled by those who supported those movements as something that had a lot of members.

President Trump has been pretty ingenious at signaling that his movement has a lot of members, even at a time when it didn't much. So to emphasize that this is a growing movement, this is a popular movement, there's real room here, there's oxygen, that is often a very astute method of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And there's the negative side of this. I mean, the focus in your book is mostly on good things, like restricting smoking and enforcing seatbelts. But what we've seen in this country happen recently is a rise of white nationalism, through a similar dynamic. You're beginning to see a lot more people say blatantly racist things that they would have felt were taboo in previous years. When we see something like that happen, when we see change happening in that negative way, is there a way to get our taboos back?

It's a great question. And we've seen, with respect to racism and sexism, flows one way or the other, and in some ways the flow is not ideal right now. What has to happen is that people who are in favor of, let's say, the norm of mutual respect, or of treating people decently -- I'm not using the word tolerance because it's not the best word, it suggests there's something wrong -- have to emphasize it and not be shy about that. So to stigmatize certain actions like assault, that's a good thing to do. And to stigmatize people who are fomenting hatred is also a good thing to do.

Now, if the people who are showing let's say a tendency to racist talk or are on the cusp, then to stigmatize them might be a little impersonal. More to engage them and appeal to the better angels of their nature. Abraham Lincoln was a genius at that, Lyndon Johnson was pretty good and President Obama, in modern times, is an all-star.

Speaking about stigmatization and other kinds of negative enforcement, one thing that you write about it in this book but you're already famous for is your idea of nudges. Shaping behavior with not particularly abrupt mandates or bans, or even stigma. I should ask you what the nudge theory is and the basics, because I suspect a lot of our viewers or readers don't necessarily know.

So if you want to affect behavior, you can prohibit something or you can subsidize it or you can tax it or you can mandate something. You can also do a nudge, which is something that completely preserves freedom of choice. So a GPS device is a nudge. You can say, "I want to go to Brooklyn rather than Manhattan," and the GPS device won't fight you on that. And the GPS device takes you on a route that you think is not pretty, or which is likely to run into traffic, in your opinion, you can say, "I don't like the advice." So it preserves freedom of choice.

Many governments, and when I was in the White House we did a lot of this, do things like a GPS device. So, if you go to a restaurant you can see the calorie count. And if you want the cheeseburger, go for it, but you're being nudged in favor of a healthier option. Or if you're getting sunscreen, let's say, and while it's going to be good for tanning it's not going to reduce the risk of cancer, there's something right on the can which will give you clarity on that. And that will nudge you to choose something that will reduce the risk of cancer.

There are other more aggressive nudges. For example, automatic enrollment in a pension plan. The United States, partly because of private employers, partly because of the government, has seen an explosion of automatic enrollment, and that is a nudge. You can say, "I don't want to be in that stupid plan." You have freedom of choice. But the plan is massively increasing the number of people who are going have more comfortable retirements.

And with respect to -- this is I think the most poignant nudge I know, poignant in a good way -- poor children in the United States are eligible for free school lunches and breakfasts. But their parents don't sign them up, for any number of reasons. It might be that an envelope from the government is not exactly welcome. It might be they're really busy handling a lot of problems and how do you deal with this bureaucracy.

So, what we did, and this is something the Republicans have not shifted away from, is to say that the kids are automatically in. Unless they are not eligible, so long as the school district knows, they're automatically in. And that means approximately 9 million to 11 million kids in a given year are getting access to free meals, and that can change their families' days and weeks and years and maybe even the kids' futures.

We can do a lot more of that. And these are not mandates. If the family doesn't want the kid to have that meal, maybe they want them to bring some meal that is tastier. Or if it conflicts with some religious conviction, they can completely do that. So nudges are freedom-preserving interventions that sometimes can get millions of people to have safer, longer or less expensive lives.

Obviously there are limits to this idea. We're seeing, with the vaccination issue right now, a lot of criticism that there are not strong enough mandates. When do we know that it's time to shift to a mandate instead of a nudge?

It's a great question. If people are doing something that hurts other people, probably you want to prohibit them from doing that. So the problem of climate change is not one that can be adequately handled through fuel-economy labels on cars and energy-efficiency labels. Those help, but they can't do enough. You need to have mandates and fuel economy standards and energy efficiency standards in addition, to protect others.

If it's a case where someone is making a decision that's going to hurt their future self, like they're not saving for retirement, then you might think the Social Security system is a good idea even though it's mandatory. Or you might think that if people are risking their future because they're getting addicted to cigarettes, then you might think that health warnings are not enough and a stiff cigarette tax is a good way of discouraging people from starting and encouraging people to stop. Where people are making decisions that hurt their future self, that's a good one.

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