What are the challenges of social and cultural change? How are real changes made?
In the 1980s, most Americans didn’t know what a designated driver was. Now the practice is commonplace. Over the years, more and more people have sought to conserve water and energy. The book Switch discusses how these and other social and cultural changes happen, providing practical ways that we can effect change.
Read more to learn about social and cultural change.
Practical Ways to Effect Social and Cultural Change
These ideas cover two areas: seeking out success stories (finding out what’s already working) and using the influence of others.
Seek Out Success Stories
Often, when we want to make change, our rational selves focus immediately on the problems and possible solutions. Instead, we should be seeking out success stories that can inform decisions or be emulated—essentially, look for what’s already working, and do more of that.
Seeking out success stories can be applied in the context of personal change, organizational change, and social and cultural change. Social and cultural change comes with two particular challenges:
- As just one person, you’re unlikely to influence a wide audience—especially if you’re an outsider to the society you aim to change.
- Social changes often try to address multifaceted problems that most people don’t have the resources to solve.
Seeking out success stories can pinpoint local solutions that don’t have to be on the same scale as the problem.
Jerry Sternin faced a heartbreaking challenge of bringing about social and cultural change. He was tasked with ending child malnutrition in Vietnam in six months, on a tight budget. He had a lot of information about the problems that exacerbated malnutrition—poor sanitation, high levels of poverty, lack of clean water, and so on. However, this information was useless to him, as he didn’t have the time or the money to solve all these deep-rooted problems.
Instead, he sought out healthy children. Local mothers were tasked with weighing the children in their villages and taking note of any particularly big or strong children. These exceptionally well-nourished children revealed that a successful solution was already in place and being used by local mothers.
He studied the practices of the well-fed children’s mothers, considering how they were different from other mothers’. He came away with three key findings:
- They fed their children four times a day instead of two, spreading the same amount of food across the day.
- They fed their children differently—they hand-fed smaller children instead of letting them try to do it themselves. Crucially, this ensured that their children ate even when they weren’t feeling well—a child feeling ill from malnutrition is likely to eat less, not more.
- They mixed their children’s rice with sweet potato greens and shrimp and crab from the rice paddies. This was unusual—shrimp and crab were seen as “adult food,” and sweet potato greens were a “low-class food” that was somewhat shameful to use.
With these findings, he created a program where locals shared food-making duties for their villages’ children, using the recipes of the success-story mothers. He showed mothers across Vietnam that they already had the means to make their children healthier—they just had to make it standard practice. The villagers were receptive—the solution was local, not an “outsider” idea, and was practical and sustainable within the context of the villagers’ lives. The new cooking practices stuck. Six months later, 65% of the children were better nourished.
Use the Influence of Others
An interesting aspect of humans’ social nature is the way that we figure out how to behave—when you’re not sure how to react to a situation, you’ll naturally look for cues in the behavior of those around you. This means that behavior is contagious between people. If all your friends are smokers, you’re more likely to become a smoker than if your circle consisted of mostly non-smokers.
When pushing for change—particularly social and cultural change—it’s crucial that your environment sends change-supporting social signals that will prompt contagious change-supporting behaviors.
When you’re making personal changes, you can increase your environment’s change-supporting signals simply by surrounding yourself with people who behave the way you want to and distancing yourself from situations and people who encourage “bad” behaviors.
- For example, if you’re trying to cut down on drinking, it makes sense to spend less time at the bar or with your drinking buddies. Instead, reach out to friends who always seem to have fun plans that don’t involve alcohol.
Trying to create change in others, on the other hand, can get complicated. This is true especially in regard to social and cultural change. Most people don’t like being told what to do or who they should spend time with. Instead of dictating how people should act, focus on highlighting and multiplying change-supporting behaviors until they become prominent social signals that others will look to for guidance. There are three methods to accomplish this.
Method 1: Publicize Good (and Bad) Behavior
Get people on board with changes by broadcasting just how many people are performing change-supporting behaviors. People take this information as a social signal that indicates what they should be doing—and they feel ashamed when their actions fall short of this standard.
- For example, one hotel wanted to convince their guests to reuse their towels more than once to save water and energy. They tried putting signs in the bathrooms asking guests to reuse towels to be more eco-friendly—these signs proved useless. However, when they changed the signs to say, “The majority of guests reuse their towels at least once during their stay,” guests were 26% more likely to reuse their towels.
Likewise, you can broadcast bad behaviors to effect social and cultural change. This sparks change in people by creating discomfort—first, because they’re reminded that they’re behaving contrary to what’s expected of them, and second because everyone now knows they’re not doing what they should.
- For example, an editor who wants a faster turnaround on articles can create a spreadsheet that’s shared with all writers, so everyone can see others’ progress. A lagging writer will see that everyone else is getting their work in on time and that their late work is the odd one out—they’ll quickly speed up.
Method 2: Give Shape to Ideas People Already Agree With
At times, your proposed change will be an idea that everyone already agrees with—you just have to attach social signals to it in order to make it a widespread practice. In these cases, it’s necessary to give the idea a concrete shape that can be publicized and incorporated into common knowledge and opinion.
Example: Designated Drivers
In the 1980s, the concept of choosing a designated driver to safely get everyone home after drinking was popular in Scandinavian countries, but virtually unknown in the U.S. Jay Winsten, a public health professor at Harvard, wanted to see this practice adopted across the country. He knew that there wouldn’t be any pushback against the idea—the need for a safe ride home already in the back of many people’s minds, and the solution would be easy to adopt.
He gave shape to the designated driver idea by repeatedly exposing people to it. He got more than 160 TV programs’ producers and writers to write designated drivers into their scripts—by giving characters a line where they’d mention choosing a driver, adding a designated driver poster in the background of a bar scene, and so on.
- Just three years after he launched the campaign, 90% of Americans knew about designated drivers, and many of them had either been one or used one themselves. Additionally, alcohol-related car crashes decreased by 6,000 between 1988 and 1992.
Method 3: Get Change-Supporters Together
Cultural changes—such as in society or organizations—can be particularly difficult because they disrupt the “way things are,” which is often closely intertwined with people’s identities. For example:
- People in privileged positions push back against societal calls for equality—such as feminism or the Civil Rights Movement—which they feel attack them and their values or diminish their power.
- Ambitious, career-driven employees might measure their self-worth in terms of their productivity and late nights spent at the office.
As one person against a deep-rooted culture, you’re not in a position of change-making power. Instead, put your efforts toward helping change-supporters find one another and cultivate a new identity and culture. In doing so, they’ll feel more emboldened to speak up for change—thus sending out social signals to a larger audience, who in turn will send social signals to an even larger audience.
Here’s how this could work in an office setting: Tasked with improving the work-life balance in your corporate office, you propose a four-day work week. This calls for your employees to become more collaborative and efficient. You can help change the culture by creating opportunities or spaces where pro-change team members can validate one another.
Managing Conflicting Identities
When team members feel validated in their decision to adopt a pro-change identity, they’re more confident in speaking to their colleagues about their support, and sending out influential pro-change social signals. Naturally, this may create opportunities for conflict between pro-change and anti-change team members.
It’s tempting to shut down any friction that stems from your suggestion for change—you’re trying to get everyone feeling positively toward your ideas, after all. However, these conflicts can be valuable opportunities for pushing pro-change team members together.
Imagine you had a pro-change employee in conflict with an anti-change employee because the anti-change employee is constantly making snide comments about her work ethic.
- Scenario A: You say, “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. Can you each please respect the other’s choice and leave it at that?” They keep their opinions to themselves, but eventually your pro-change employees—in the minority—feel pressured to keep up with their colleagues. Your work environment doesn’t see much of a change.
- Scenario B: You say, “Maria, perhaps you’d prefer to work with Sean (pro-change) on this project. I think you two will be better aligned in your values.” Maria and Sean regularly discuss the perks of the shorter week. The support makes them feel confident praising the new system to their colleagues, even those who are anti-change. Eventually, the pro-change identity spreads throughout the office and everyone gets on board with your four-day week.
The challenges to social and cultural change are real, but we can be encouraged with these practical ideas to bring about change—and the success stories that show us that change is possible.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Switch summary :
- Why some changes succeed while others fail
- Actionable advice for creating changes that not only succeed but stick
- The three essential elements for successful change