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The Science of Social Change

The Science of Social Change

by Susan Rosenthal

Facts can motivate people, but not always in the ways we want.

I attended a lecture by Dr Helen Caldicott, whose mission is to educate the public about the dangers of nuclear power. As Caldicott neared the end of her speech, a young woman cried out in terror, “We’re all going to die! We’re all going to die!” as her friends led her from the lecture hall.

Facts can anger people into action. They can also shock them into despair and dissociation.

In medicine, it is generally understood that giving people facts and frightening them with consequences rarely changes their behavior. Everyone knows that smoking damages your health. Everyone knows that fast food clogs your arteries. Everyone knows that lack of exercise shortens your life. Yet people continue to smoke, eat fast food and fail to exercise.

The knowledge that they are harming themselves does not empower most people; it provides them with further evidence of their powerlessness.

Shock doesn’t work

The shock-them-into-change strategy doesn’t work in medicine. Yet many activists continue to embrace it as their strategy of choice. When telling people how bad things are proves ineffective, the shock factor is jacked up as if yelling louder will make the difference. When that fails, pessimism generally follows and the bulk of humanity is written off as stupid or uncaring.

In fact, most people know what’s going on in the world. They may not know all the details but they know the basics – that the world is run for the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else. Most Americans know that Washington invaded Iraq on false pretences, and they want the war to end. Nevertheless, the president remains in office, and the war continues.

If the truth could set us free, we would be free by now. However, capitalism is structured to keep most people feeling powerless most of the time, regardless of what they know and despite the fact that they are the majority .

The capitalist class is so tiny in numbers that they would drown if we all spat at them at the same time. However, accomplishing this feat would require:

a) agreement about who should be spit on

b) agreement about who should not be spit on

c) agreement that spitting is the preferred action

d) sufficient numbers to organize and participate in the spitting

The people in power employ all possible measures to prevent this level of clarity and organization, so that most people don’t know who are their enemies, who are their friends, what should be done, and who should do it. What’s why knowing what is wrong with society is not the same as being able to change it.

How does change happen?

Researchers have investigated the factors that change human behavior in medicine, in prisons and in the workplace. Regardless of the setting, three elements are consistently identified, which are most effective when combined. I have applied them to the problem of social change.

1. Social support. People need organization to counter their feelings of self-blame and powerlessness, to create strategies for change and to act on them. In supportive organizations, we learn that we are not so different from others. By pulling together, we give each other strength and hope.

To discover how organization counteracts powerlessness, psychologists at the University of Sussex interviewed participants in “traditional marches, fox-hunt sabotages, anti-capitalist street parties, environmental direct actions, and industrial mass pickets.” The factors that contributed to a heightened sense of power included being part of something bigger than yourself and feeling a sense of unity and mutual support.

Solidarity is a powerful antidote to pessimism. Activists reported a deep sense of happiness while involved in collective protests. The researchers concluded that

“people should get more involved in campaigns, struggles and social movements, not only in the wider interest of social change, but also for their own personal good.”

2. Presenting problems as solvable. To change their behavior, people need to see themselves and the world differently, in ways that make change seem possible. For example, explaining how the attack on immigrants is part of a divide-and-rule strategy to raise profits highlights the power of the capitalist class. Explaining that a divide-and-rule strategy is necessary because capitalists could never rule a united working class highlights the power of ordinary people. The facts are the same but the feeling is more hopeful, and feelings motivate actions.

Howard Zinn is so widely loved because he believes in us and invites us to believe in ourselves and each other. The title of his latest book, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, says it all. Michael Moore’s film, SiCKO, has made a huge impact, not only because it reveals the horrors of the American medical system, but because it shows them to be neither necessary nor inevitable.

3. Repetition. When the level of struggle is high, people seem to change overnight in a kind of explosive chain reaction. At all other times, the dominant ideas are those that maintain the status quo. Changing those ideas requires patient and repeated encouragement. It’s like boiling water.

You put the kettle on the stove and turn up the heat, but nothing seems to happen. Do you remove the kettle in disgust at the failure of heat to boil water? Of course not!

We know that heat increases the speed of water molecules, a process that can’t be observed directly. When enough heat has been applied and the molecules are moving fast enough, a change of state occurs and water transforms into steam.

Boiling water is a predictable, mechanical process. Changing people is more complicated because we cannot predict when a change of mind will occur. Nor can we know all the factors that will be required for that transformation. We must have patience. Just because nothing seems to be happening doesn’t mean that people aren’t boiling under the surface.

The bottom line is that shocking people with facts can deepen feelings of powerlessness.

To counter pessimism and passivity, we must apply the science of social change. We need to build large, activist organizations that can raise people’s confidence that this is not the world we deserve and that, together, we have the power to change it.

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- who has written 168 posts on SusanRosenthal.com – Socialism is the Best Medicine.


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2 Comments For This Post

  1. Ruben Says:

    August 23/07

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. I think this is correct. And I believe a great change will come in the years ahead, because the world is going into crisis. A new society will be born. I know it. A great change will come.

    A lot of people, I think, will feel extremely hopeless in the coming years. They will think “it’s the end of the world”. But it’s merely the end of one world and the beginning of another. That is the one thing people should know about these times, that there is hope, and that the future looks real bright.

  2. E Says:

    August 26/07

    I am a Registered Nurse on the negotiating team for my union.

    We are in a very difficult contract dispute with the hospital which is trying to break the union – and seems to be succeeding. We had a vote this week asking nurses to authorize the bargaining team to set a strike date if there is no movement at the bargaining table.

    I spent hours and hours talking to my coworkers all this week and last week and on the day of the vote my husband printed up your article and gave it to me to read. It was quite inspirational and stopped me from getting too discouraged. I remained positive as I talked to many nurses who came to the vote still undecided.

    We did get 66% of the RNs to allow us to set the strike date but it was very difficult process (we would have preferred a higher number, of course). I have experienced quite a few cold shoulders and nasty comments since from my colleagues who don’t agree and don’t even think we need a union at all.

    It’s scary to think that nurses are so complacent. They don’t seem to realize that their salaries and benefits are higher because of the union. We could lose the union if they don’t wake up – the union busting is very subtle and the hospital has lots of money to conduct their campaign

    Keep up the writing. Thank you

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