How can leaders respond to changing social attitudes?

It’s about knowing when to nudge

In the last few decades we have seen enormous changes in social attitudes in countries around the world. They have had a big impact in sectors as diverse as tobacco, hospitality, car-making and entertainment. While smoking in public places was widespread 30 years ago, it is unlawful or unacceptable in many industrialized countries today. And consider the sudden emergence of the #MeToo movement, which has caught the leaders of the entertainment industry – among others – by surprise. In How Change Happens, Cass Sunstein uses psychological and social science research to explain how public opinion can change so quickly.

He argues that some practices or customs become outdated but continue to be the norm simply because it appears that people continue to believe in them. Take the example of same-sex marriage in the UK. At first, the law bars it, sanctioned by custom. Hardly anyone complains, for fear of standing out, or offending their neighbours – until, that is, something happens, and it becomes clear that many people were actually in favour of same-sex marriage, or weren’t much bothered either way. There is a “cascade effect” and the law is changed. 

Sunstein is perhaps best known for his work popularizing the idea of ‘nudges’, small interventions to change public behaviour, and he explores how far leaders can engineer change by using nudges which trigger cascades. One successful application of nudge theory has been the sharp drop in the use of single-use plastic bags in the UK, achieved after the law was changed to make customers pay a small charge for bags hitherto provided by retailers for free. The five pence charge was too small to directly compel behavioural change, but it gently pushed people in a direction they already favoured. Use of plastic bags at the big supermarkets has plummeted 90% since the policy was introduced in late 2015.

Sunstein’s key finding is that such cascades cannot be forced. Nudges fail if people are strongly attached to the status quo: they only work if the majority secretly back the change, or don’t care. The difficulty facing leaders seeking to change behaviour is that nobody knows in advance which attitudes, customs or practices have ceased to be strongly supported.

Sunstein is also interested in the psychology of groups, particularly how groups of like-minded people tend to develop more extreme views if they meet regularly to discuss an issue. We are all aware that social media encourages people to express extreme positions; this can influence changes in public attitudes, but rather than the whole of society adjusting its understanding of a social issue or practice, attitudes polarize into opposed groups, ever more certain that their view is right. In the UK, this appears to have happened over Brexit; in the US, politics has become increasingly divisive over a period of many years.

Yet for all the relevance of the topic, in the end this reader was left feeling short-changed. Sunstein explores in detail some of the mechanics of how people’s decision-making and behaviour may be influenced, but ultimately provides little insight as to why those unvoiced secret opinions evolve; nor does he examine what social changes are coming next. 

As with a tidal wave, we can see the water surging – but it seems we can do little except keep out of the way or attempt to ride it.  

How Change Happens, Cass R Sunstein, MIT Press, 2019

— Piers Cain is a management consultant