Consider some examples of social movements that led to rapid change: the French Revolution, Russian revolution/ collapse of Soviet Union, the Iranian revolution, the civil rights movements of the 1960s, the rise of environmentalist movement in the 1960s, Brexit, #MeToo, gay marriage, and others. Robert Wiblin and Keiran Harris at the "80,000 Hours" website have a podcast interview: "Prof. Cass Sunstein on how social change happens, and why it’s so often abrupt & unpredictable" (June 17, 2019). A transcript is also available.
Sunstein develops a theory based on "preference falsification, diverse thresholds and interdependencies." The basic notion is that many people might disagree with the status quo and be willing to change from the status quo, but they aren't willing to come out in public and say so ("preference falsification"). However, some people are willing to speak up if a few other people do so, and others are willing to speak up if many other people do so ("diverse thresholds"). Thus, a situation may arise where a few people speak up, which leads to others speaking up ("interdependencencies"), which trigger a social change.
Here's Sunstein on preference falsification:
[W]ith respect to preference falsification, people might say they like an existing status quo when they really don’t or they might change the subject when the status quo is raised, or they might hear a little voice in their head which they turn off. Here’s some words from the best book I’ve ever read on Nazism. It’s the best book because it’s not only revealing, it’s also cheerful. You can read it without crying. It’s written by a journalist who went back to Germany in the 1950s and spoke to former Nazis and found that to his at least mild surprise, he liked everyone.
They were all good people. One of them said this when asked about opposition: the former Nazi named Karl said, “Opposition? How would anybody know? How would anybody know what somebody else opposes or doesn’t oppose? That a man says he opposes or doesn’t oppose depends on the circumstances, where and when, and to whom, and just how he says it and even then, you must still guess why he says what he says.” Now, that’s offhand remarks by someone who wasn’t a social theorist, but who lived under Nazism. Its profound. He’s suggesting that the existence or absence of opposition is contingent on what’s permissible, what social norms are. To that extent, Karl is referring to the fact that in Germany, as in every society, people live in a state of pluralistic ignorance, which means we don’t know what is in other people’s heads. People might seem content with the status quo, or miserable about it, when in fact what they’re thinking inside, if you could see a thought bubble, would be very different. If they’re silent, it’s very hard to know what they’re thinking. ...
On diverse thresholds:
Some people require no support at all before they will say what they think or join a movement. They might be courageous, foolhardy or just deeply committed. We can call them, and this isn’t pejorative, the ‘zeros’ in the sense that they need nothing to join a movement of one or another kind. It could be white nationalism. It could be Nazism. It could be a liberation movement. If no one joins them, they’re going to be marginalized. They’ll look foolhardy, extreme, or possibly nuts. That’s the technical term. ... Other people are going to require some social support ... I supported my friend, but I needed him to go first. People like this won’t move unless someone else does. If someone else does, they’ll prefer to join, too. Call them the ‘ones.’ Others require more than a little; they need two people ...
The ‘twos’ are followed by people who, not shockingly, have numbers assigned to them all the way up to ‘hundreds’ and ‘thousands’, including, eventually, the ‘infinites’ defined as people who, for one or another reason, won’t challenge the status quo no matter what. Okay, here’s the kicker. It’s extremely difficult to observe people’s internal preferences in light of preference falsification. It’s even harder to get at people’s thresholds and we ourselves probably don’t know what our thresholds are. In the Iranian Revolution, people who participated in the revolt were amazed that they did. Some of them turned out to be ‘fours’ and they had no idea. Others turned out to be ‘seventies’ and they might have thought that they were ‘infinites’.
Everything depends on who is seen to have what… done what and exactly when. Diverse thresholds are one thing; whether people are going to move depends on whether the zeros go first and are seen to have told that father to stop hitting his kid, whether the ones are seen to have joined a movement, let’s say, for #MeToo; and then the twos and the threes, and the fours. If that’s what happens, we’re going to see a movement and it’s going to succeed. Everything depends on the distribution of action and the thresholds. If there are no zeros or if no one sees any of them, no rebellion’s going to occur. If there are a few ones, the status quo is going to be safe. If most people are tens, or hundreds or thousands, the same is true even if there are plenty of twos and threes, and fours. Okay, those are my three moving parts.
Perhaps the most obvious examples of these kinds of changes are fairly extreme cases like the fall of the Soviet Union. But does this framework about change also apply in fairly free societies, like the United States or nations of western Europe, where the official constraints on disagreeing with the status quo are quite constrained? Sunstein argues:
Yes. I think a lot, even in the United States and the United Kingdom, and France, and Canada, countries that do have either formal freedom or formal freedom plus cultures of, let’s say, welcoming dissent, I think still a lot. I’ll give a few examples; the movement for same-sex marriage, clearly, it’s the case that the closet was a devastation for the movement for that. As the closet started to open up, then something started to move. It’s much bigger than that, though, that heterosexuals who were fine with same-sex marriage or who were fine with equality or even wanted it, they were closeted, too. The existence of a shifting norm unleashed people like my mother, heterosexual, but my mother talked as if she was homophobic until at a certain point, she said, “That’s ridiculous.” She always had a voice in her head saying, “That’s ridiculous.” That happened to many millions of people in free countries. I think John Stuart Mill was on this point, that we often underestimate the extent to which conformity pressures are squelching behavior even in quite free nations. ...
Yeah, so one big part of the movement for gay marriage is the unleashing through the softening of social norms of gays and lesbians to say, “I love this person. I want to marry him. You’re not allowing me?” The other thing that happened was that many heterosexuals who went around laughing in a homophobic way or thinking, “Same-sex marriage? That’s ridiculous,” but while in their head, they didn’t really think that. They shifted. As you say, you’re quite right that a number of people didn’t think about it much or thought of the ban on same-sex marriage as just part of life’s furniture and as the possibility opened up, they started considering it. What I want to focus on, because I think it’s particularly intriguing for extremely rapid social change, is when a dam breaks and many social movements, large and small, are exercises in dam breaking, where a social norm operated as a tax on behavior, so that you couldn’t do it without facing something like a fine. Then the tax diminishes, or what was once a tax becomes a subsidy, so you’re better off if you say what you think.
Along a different line, I was interested in Sunstein's comments about his time spent in goverment, and about the differing skills and mindsets of what succeeds in academia and what succeeds in government:
I think academics often do best if they let their minds go to all sorts of places. I had a good friend in government who told me after two years, this is a very good academic and a very good public servant who said, “Get out.” And he said, “Government ruined me. I can’t think academically anymore, and it’s going to ruin you, get out.” I stayed a little while longer than he wanted, but I never forgot his words. ...
Many academics I saw go into the Obama government, who were terrible at it, because they were really good at coming up with creative ideas, but the idea either couldn’t or shouldn’t be implemented, and they weren’t good at doing the solid work of turning a good policy into reality. I tried early on to have my ears big and my mouth small so that I would just learn from people who knew how to do government. The people in government often whom I greatly admired, they wouldn’t be good academics. They’re not writers, and they’re not ‘idea’ people. They’re amazing at figuring out how to pull levers to do something which actually is helpful. It’s a really different skill set.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.