How Change Happens, with Cass Sunstein

Apr 23, 2019

From the French Revolution to the Arab Spring to #MeToo, how does social change happen? In a book that was 25 years in the making, Cass Sunstein unpacks this puzzle by exploring the interplay of three decisive factors. Don't miss this insightful talk. It may change how you view the world.

JOANNE MYERS: Good evening, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for joining us.

It is my great pleasure to welcome back to this podium one of our country's most influential legal scholars, Cass Sunstein. Cass will be discussing his latest work, entitled How Change Happens. As we have always benefited from Cass's profound ideas and lucid explanations, I am confident that his presentation this evening will be no exception. His book will be available for you to purchase at the end of the program.

Throughout one's life there are times when we want society to change and other times when social change is actually needed. While social and political changes can have dramatic impact on our lives, bringing it about can be challenging, and even mysterious, yet it can happen and does. But the question is, how?

In How Change Happens Cass expands on three of his earlier books: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness,, and The Cost-Benefit Revolution. This time around he weaves threads from diverse traditions in behavioral science, law, psychology, and other fields to explain how seemingly small disruptions can often produce shifts in thinking, which in turn can provide momentum for social and political movements to take off. He highlights the crucial and complex role that social norms play in providing order and predictability in society. Although norms will guide the behavior of its members in any given situation, the level of change and whether change has a profound effect on a society depends on a complex interplay of actors, actions, and organizations.

Norms, as our speaker writes, cannot be changed on their own, it takes a movement. Some of the questions that Cass addresses are: What are the substantive political and social changes that cause a movement to take off? In other words, how can we shift from the unspeakable and even the unthinkable to conventional wisdom and vice versa? What role do public or private institutions play in shifting behavior? What can we as individuals do to harness the power of social movements, and, once unleashed, what can we do to control them?

For those of you who have been agonizing over the status quo and searching for ways to change the current state of affairs, hearing what Cass has to say may provide the insight you've been searching for. To speed that along, please join me in giving a warm welcome to our speaker, Cass Sunstein. We are very grateful that he's here.

CASS SUNSTEIN: I'm delighted to be here for many reasons. This is an amazing organization, and Joanne is a longtime friend. That's fantastic and enough reason to be thrilled to be here.

Also, this book took 25 years, which is really a long time, and I'll tell you how I got unstuck.

Not very long ago, I found myself in a conversation with one of the great quarterbacks of the National Football League (NFL). Because it was a private conversation, I'm not going to disclose who it was, but it's one of the living greats. I asked him a question that I'd always wondered about professional athletes. I said: "In the last two minutes, if your team is down by five points and everything depends on you—the whole game, the season, it's up to you, it's all on your shoulders, you're the quarterback—are you having fun? Are you enjoying it?"

It was a group of about eight or nine people, and he responded: "Absolutely. I'm loving that. That's what I've been trained to do. That's my element. If everything depends on me, and it's the last two minutes, that's what I live for. It's fantastic!"

I played a little sport called squash in college, and we were national champions, and I had a little experience with sports, nothing like an NFL quarterback. But I took him aside, just the two of us, right after that, and I said: "You know, your answer kind of surprises me. Really?"

He said: "No, not really. I hate that. The pressure's terrible. It's awful. Those are the worst moments of my career. I perform well, but I hate it."

That was interesting.

The second thing that got me unstuck is actually the same story, but it involves social movements rather than sports. An experiment not long ago was conducted in Saudi Arabia in which young men, who by custom are allowed to decide whether their wives enter the workforce, were asked whether they think it's okay if their wives enter the workforce, and they said: "Yes, completely. I have no problem with that."

Then they were asked what they thought other young men like them in Saudi Arabia thought, and their answer was: "People like me are not okay with their wives working. Most young men think it's completely unacceptable."

Then the young men in Saudi Arabia were informed—and here's the experiment—"Actually, most people like you think it's fine. The norm is to find it acceptable." The ultimate finding is that after that was disclosed there was a tremendous jump four months later in the number of women who applied to join the labor force.

I say that's the same story because in both of them the young men in Saudi Arabia were saying something privately which they were not willing to say publicly until they were told that actually what they think privately is consistent with what most people think. My quarterback friend would not say publicly that he hates the last two minutes until I kind of raised my eyebrow and said, "You know, it's awful, right?" And he said, "Yeah, it's awful."

This is a clue to my effort to answer the question why does social change happen, and why is it so often unanticipated. You might think of your preferred recent examples—Brexit, the #MeToo movement, the massive movement for clean air in the United States in the 1970s, the rise of civil rights in the 1960s, the anti-war movement then, or contemporary analogues. These are unanticipated movements that seemed to come out of thin air.

To vindicate the premise of that proposition, "coming out of thin air," consider a few facts: Lenin was stunned by the success and speed of the Russian Revolution. That's Lenin. If anyone was an architect, it was he. He had no idea it could succeed.

For me a list of the greatest social theorists in the history of humanity, there's a good argument that Alexis de Tocqueville belongs on the list. Tocqueville is the authoritative contemporaneous reporter on the French Revolution. He said: "No one foresaw the French Revolution. No one."

More recently, the Iranian Revolution of the late 20th century was widely unanticipated, including by the participants. If you look at the interviews of people who made it happen, they thought: This is gonna fail. We're all going to be in jail. And it worked.

The Arab Spring, more recently still, was not anticipated by the best analysts in the United Kingdom and the United States, and I take this a little bit personally because I was in the White House at the time. I saw it in real time. The analysts in the United States of what's happening in the world, they are really good, and they had no idea that the Arab Spring would happen.

I'm going to try to unpack this puzzle by referring to three factors. I'm going to tell you what they are, and then I'm going to explore them in some detail.

The first is, like the NFL quarterback and like the Saudi husbands, all of us say publicly something that's different sometimes from what's actually inside our minds. We falsify our preferences some of the time, either by shutting up, not telling people, or by saying something that's actually inconsistent with what we think, and if a human being doesn't do that at least once every week, that proud person is probably uncivil or has some kind of issue. It's built into the human species. So my first moving part is preference falsification.

My second is diverse thresholds. I'm going to try to make this point with a tale from the Middle East from a few years ago.

I was standing on a street corner in a tough neighborhood with an Irish-American law professor, and we spotted a dad hammering his six-year-old boy, like with fists. My Irish-American friend went like an Olympic sprinter from where we were to that dad and said, "Stop hitting your son." His threshold for responding to injustice was very low. I was right behind him. I was not someone with that kind of low threshold. I had a somewhat higher threshold. I don't know what I would have done if he hadn't made a beeline there, but as it happened he was there first.

Some people have really low thresholds—injustice, and they're there. Some people need a lot of social support. That's diverse thresholds.

The third point is interdependencies. Most of us are really reactive to what other people say and do. If one person is doing something, we might think, Crazy person. If a hundred are, we might think, Why didn't I join them yet?

If you put together preference falsification, diverse thresholds, and social interactions, the difficulty of anticipating, for example, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, #MeToo, Brexit, the success of President Obama and President Trump—who would've thought there would be a president named Obama? Who would've thought Donald Trump would become president? The likelihood of these things before the fact seemed extremely low. If you put the three factors together, we have some clues about how this happens.

Now I'm going to elaborate the three ideas by way of giving an account.

People might say that they like their workplace, they like their city, they like their subway, and they like their country when they actually don't. They might shut up rather than misstating what their values are. If that's so, their friends and neighbors and possibly even their spouses might have an incomplete idea about what they actually think. What this means is that all of us live in a world of pluralistic ignorance in which we don't know the preferences and beliefs of others. We know a lot, but we don't have complete knowledge.

In an oppressive society the problem is especially severe, but it's also true in a free society. Here are some words from my favorite book about Nazism, and there isn't a lot of competition there because there's only one book I like about Nazism, and the reason I like this book—there are lots of great books, but there's only one I like. The other ones you can't like, you just admire. This one you can like because it's deeply human. [Editor's note: Sunstein is referring to They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45, by Milton Mayer.]

It's a journalist who in the 1950s went from America to Germany to find out what happened: How did that social change become possible? He met with a group of former Nazis in a town, and he became friends with 10 of them, and he remarks with puzzlement: "I like them. I couldn't help it. And you would like them, too. They're good people. Former Nazis. And they're good people."

Here's one of them speaking in response to the question: "Didn't you oppose Hitler? What did ordinary people think? Wasn't there opposition?"

His answer was: "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 then you must still guess why he says what he says."

That's magnificent, isn't it? It's just offhand comments, and what makes it magnificent is the former Nazi is extremely alert to the dependence of people on existing social norms in terms of whether they will say they oppose or don't oppose, and he's signaling the absence of stated opposition doesn't tell you a whole lot, it's context-dependent.

The law or existing norms can draw a big wedge—think of my quarterback or the Saudi husbands—between what people will say publicly and what's actually in their minds. In terrible circumstances they put their life on the line if they say what they think. Even in ordinary circumstances they might be shunned, they might be disliked a little bit, their employment prospects might be compromised.

The words from the former Nazi are from the 1950s. Here are some words from a computer programmer from Syria basically yesterday, very, very recent: "When you meet somebody coming out of Syria for the first time, you start to hear the same sentences: 'Everything is okay inside Syria. Syria is a great country. The economy is doing great.' It'll take him like six months, up to one year, to become a normal human being, to say what he thinks, what he feels. Then he might start whispering. He won't speak loudly. That's too scary. After all that time, even outside Syria, you feel that someone is listening, someone is recording."

What's important in that statement is that it suggests the possibility of a successful social movement in circumstances in which people are willing ultimately to whisper something that is deeply in their minds and which can become statements or actions if. We have to finish the sentence "If—" but the idea is the circumstances are right if we have widespread disjunction between what people are saying and doing and what's actually in their minds.

I'm speaking actually here in part about the American Revolution, when under conditions of British rule there were lots of people who were unhappy and felt unjustly treated, but they needed something to be able to speak and do something about that.

Second point: Remember diverse thresholds? Some people, like my Irish-American friend, are rebels by nature. They might be brave, they might be morally committed, they might be foolish. Let's call them the Zeroes, not in a pejorative sense, but in the sense that they need nothing in order to act.

Zeroes often turn out to be isolated. No one has their back, in which case they might look like radicals or extremists. Others, like me in this case, require a little social support. They—we—won't move unless someone else does, but if someone else does, we're there. Call them the Ones.

If this sounds reminiscent of social movements, a recent one is #MeToo, which has exactly this form. We needed the Zeroes to move, then the Ones, and then you could have a flood.

Others require more than a little. Let's call them creatively—we're going to be really mathematical here—the Twos. They'll do nothing unless they see the Zeroes and the Ones, but if they see the Zeroes and the Ones, they'll rebel, too. The Twos are followed by people of all sorts of different numbers, up to Thousands and eventually Infinites, understood as people who aren't going to move, no matter what.

Here's the kicker. It's very hard to know what people's thresholds are, in part because each of us probably lacks full understanding of what our thresholds are.

Think of an issue you care about, if you'd be so kind. You may not know—I'm thinking of an issue I care about right now. I'm not an Infinite, I'm not a Zero. But whether one is a One or a Two or a Five or a Ten or a Hundred, even introspection doesn't answer that question.

Here are some words from John Adams, writing with amazement about what happened in what became the United States of America: "Idolatry to monarchs and servility to aristocratical pride was never so totally eradicated from so many minds in so short a time." That's a startled statement.

Thomas Paine put the same point in a different way: "Our style and manner of thinking have undergone a revolution more extraordinary than the political revolution of a country." Pause over that one, would you? This is a political revolution that shook the world. He's saying no, our "style and manner of thinking," that's the more extraordinary revolution: "We see with other eyes, we hear with other ears, and think with other thoughts than those we formerly used."

I have a friendly amendment to Adams and Paine. I want to suggest they don't have it quite right—and I suggest that humbly—because looking at the period it's not as if people heard with other ears and saw with other eyes, it's that an inner voice which had been silenced was raised because there was a permission slip by virtue of the Zeroes and the Ones. It's not that people started thinking about human dignity and equality when they hadn't before, it's that they had, but they'd self-silenced.

Interdependencies point to the fact that the behavior of the Ones and the Twos and the Threes depends crucially on who is seen to have done what and when. The conditions are ripe for a successful social movement—call it the Clean Air Act, Martin Luther King, the election of John F. Kennedy, the election of someone in 2020—if the Zeroes go first, then the Ones see them, then the Twos, then the Threes, then the Fours. Then the movement's golden.

But under imaginable assumptions it's not going to happen because there are no Zeroes, or if there are, nobody sees them, or there are few Ones, which means the status quo or the regime is safe.

These are my three points: Preference falsification, diverse thresholds, and interdependencies.

I have to add just one more because it's very important for successful movements, and I saw it in real time inadvertently in an experiment I was involved in a number of years ago. We got people who are kind of worried about climate change. They are left-of-center people, and on average they're worried about climate change. But they are not uniform: some of them very worried, some of them a little bit worried. They all are pretty favorable toward an international agreement, but they aren't "environmentalist."

They talked to each other for a period of about half an hour, and after that they re-recorded their private, anonymous views about climate change. What do you think the effect would be of a half-an-hour discussion among these people? The answer is: They went Woosh! to the left. After talking to each other, they thought, Climate change is a catastrophic problem, and we should sign an international agreement yesterday, and every one of them thought that. The interactions among like-minded people created more unity, more confidence, and more extremism.

We did the same thing, my co-authors and I, with conservatives on climate change, who were not that worried. They were diverse. Some thought an international agreement was a good idea, some thought it was a terrible idea. But basically they were a distribution of people.

After talking to each other, the conservatives went Woosh! to the right. They became convinced that an international agreement was a horrific idea and that climate change was a hoax. That's not where they started. They became more unified, more extreme, and more confident.

That little experiment complements my points about preference falsification, diverse thresholds, and interdependencies, suggesting when like-minded people get together they can end up in a more extreme point in line with their pre-deliberation tendencies, and that helps explain what makes social movements take off. Now I hope the puzzle with which I began is starting to dissolve. That is, we can see why large social movements are often impossible to predict.

First, we don't know what people's preferences are. By hypothesis, they can't be observed. They're inside people's heads.

Second, we don't know what people's thresholds are. Even if we knew what people want, what they would need to have happen in order for them to join a movement, to give money, to rebel, to support a candidate, that's not observable. They can't themselves even tell us typically.

Third—and this is the crucial, decisive point—it's really hard to anticipate social interactions, to know who's going to say what to whom and exactly when. Even if we knew what people's preferences are and what their thresholds are, we wouldn't know what the social interactions are going to be. That suggests that even if new technologies, for example Google, make it possible to identify private preferences by seeing people's online behavior, we still won't be able to predict revolutions.

There's a great book called Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, which is designed to show what people have in their heads as compared to what they will say publicly, and it has a lot of revelations in the same family as the Saudi husband story and the quarterback story.

I'll tell you something that will interest some people in this room: Guys really like older women. The Google searches just demonstrate it, guys like older women. The data is very clear. Put to one side that.

Whether guys and women like someone left of center or whether they're very concerned about climate change is more knowable than ever before in the history of humanity because you can see what people are searching, and that gives important clues. If we know that, we know something about whether the conditions are right for social change because we'll know whether people have in their heads something that's different from what's observed. But we won't know enough to know whether it's actually going to work because no one has the prescience to know who's going to say what to whom and when.

If this seems a little abstract, I'll give you some data I discovered late in the writing of this book, which shows that the Chinese government is very alert to this. An American empirical political scientist with the assistance of the Chinese government in cooperation studied how China reacts to dissent and movement-ish statements on Chinese social media. What he found was if people say, "Our government isn't good in China, we should be changing things, it should be doing something differently," that's not taken down. There's a lot of freedom to express dissatisfaction. It may be the system will be affected by positive statements in response. That might be done, but the statements will not be taken down.

On the other hand, if someone says, "We're going to have a meeting in Beijing on this street at 8:00 pm at night, and there's a lot of people coming, please come, too," they'll take that down.

That's smart. That suggests that the conditions for a successful movement will be facilitated by a meeting of that kind, preference falsification is endangered, thresholds—the Ones and Twos are going to be there as well as the Zeroes, how about you, Threes and Fours?—and we're going to see potentially social interactions which will fuel something like the climate change experiment.

I have a cautious version of what I believe to be true, and then I have a less cautious version.

The cautious version of what I believe to be true is that until roughly 2035 we're not going to be able to solve this problem. It's empirically just extremely challenging to figure out what people's preferences are, what their thresholds are, and what their interactions will be, but in 2035 we're going to be able to figure that out because our capacity to collect data on what people are thinking—this may be scary, this may be the TV show Black Mirror, it may be the new Twilight Zone, but our capacities will be there. But it's far off. That's the weak version.

The more ambitious version I want to state tentatively is that it's never going to happen, we're never going to be able to anticipate this because so much depends on who does what when, who hears what when, and whether some kind of butterfly flaps its wings at the right moment. This suggests that when something changes we often think, The zeitgeist was going that way, it's the arc of history, there's something about culture. That's like an optical illusion.

When things change it's often the product of a small, random, or serendipitous factor, something like Alyssa Milano says at a crucial time, "Tweet #MeToo," after which 45 percent of Facebook users in the United States, within 24 hours 45 percent have a friend in their network who said #MeToo.

She did that. She might not have. She might have been busy or something, but she made that happen.

That means when a practice or a regime falls we're tempted to think, It was bound to fall. Not so. It happened to fall. The same is true if it doesn't fall. If it doesn't fall, it happened not to fall. History is only run once, so we can't observe the others, but if the basic account is right, it's so.

Here's my basic framework, but I'm going to suggest there are two things that it misses that are quite important. The first is signaled by a woman—this is also basically yesterday—in North Korea. This is not history, this is now. "It never occurred to me," she says, "that I could or would want to do anything about it. It was just how things are."

Pause, would you, over that? "It never occurred to me that I could or would want to do anything about it. It was just how things are."

My story's inadequate to that statement. She's not like the Saudis or the quarterback. She's saying her wants were themselves determined by how things are.

I'm going to tell you a little story that I hadn't thought about for a long, long time until I was putting these remarks together, which is that in the 1980s feminism in law started becoming important, and I got interested in it. I was talking to my mother, and she said: "What are you reading? What are you working on?"

I said, "Something on feminism."

She said: "Why do you want to work on that for? You're a constitutional law person. You're wasting your time with that nonsense."

I said, "It's interesting."

She said: "You're doing environmental law and administrative law. No. Please."

I said, "It's interesting."

She said, "What's interesting about it?"

Then I kind of explained what I'd been reading. She had a long pause—and my mother didn't pause, this was not someone who took deep breaths—and she said three words to me that she never said before and she never said since, and she said them with considerable emotion, which I'm not going to be able to capture. It was more complicated than tearing up. She said, "God bless you."

In that statement she was giving me a signal. She was born in 1917. She was very smart. She was very pretty. She had encountered a lot of stuff in her life that she probably told no one except maybe my father about, and my just offhand description of what I was reading signaled something that she was able to communicate to me very briefly without telling any stories.

My mother's story is not quite one of the North Korean woman because she had something in her head which wanted to do something about it, but it's not in a different universe from the North Korean woman who says: "It never occurred to me that I could or would want to do anything about it. It was just how things are."

What I'm suggesting is that people's preferences and values are often a product of background circumstances, which means that they aren't falsifying their preferences, so that's not the right account. It's that what they want is a product of their circumstances.

Think of dirty air under circumstances in which that's all you know. You don't think, I want a Clean Air Act, you think, I'm coughing. So this has to be added to my story of preferences that have adapted to the status quo.

The only other point is the word "preference" in preference falsification is not descriptive enough, and in some ways it's misleading. It's better to speak of people's beliefs and moral commitments and experiences. Under an oppressive regime people might believe that terrible injustices are committed or that their moral commitments are jeopardized.

Sure, they're falsifying what they prefer, but that's hardly an adequate account of what's happening. They're falsifying or being silent about their deepest convictions, and worst of all—but it's an opportunity—they're concealing or falsifying their experience, what actually happened to them.

I'm extremely alert to the fact that it's statistically inevitable that the number of people in this room who have been subject to sexual harassment or sexual abuse is not zero, and the likelihood that a woman is subject to those things is higher than the likelihood that a man is, but it would be shocking and I think not credible to think there is no man in this room who has been subject to something like that. That's a problem and it's an opportunity. It suggests that people have been often silent, not about preferences but about experiences. Talk about fake news.

My little pitch is that a social movement worth celebrating doesn't only un-falsify people's preferences and unleash them to say what they actually think. It also casts a fresh light on the past. It doesn't just elicit preexisting judgement, it produces new ones.

Maybe the largest achievement of social movements worth celebrating—and the American Revolution is one, the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King's and my old boss, Thurgood Marshall's, is certainly another—is to converge, and if there's anything you remember from these remarks I hope it's this, it's to convert a sense of embarrassment and possibly shame into a sense of dignity.

Closing, recall, if you would, in this light I hope a somewhat different light the statement from the Syrian computer programmer: "When you meet somebody coming out of Syria for the first time, you start to hear the same sentences: 'Everything is okay. Syria is great.' It'll take like six months up to one year to become a normal human being, to say what he thinks, what he feels. Then they might start whispering. They won't speak loudly, but eventually they might."



QUESTION: My name is Tony Bloom. I live in London, and I'm a member of this institute.

CASS SUNSTEIN: A member of the—

JOANNE MYERS: Carnegie Council.

CASS SUNSTEIN: Oh, that's wonderful.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Bloom]: By kind favor of Joanne.

My question is this, and it comes to your point about saying things that we don't really believe or saying things that change and we stick to old ideas, just don't move away from them.

I was curious about something you once wrote about 10 years ago in the Yale Law Review and what you said was that if there was an ambiguity in federal law, that it shouldn't be decided by the predilections or the aspirations of the judges, but it should rather depend on the predilections and the aspirations of the president. Do you still hold those views?

CASS SUNSTEIN: Yes. This is really technical stuff, exciting to me. A case called Chevron v. the Natural Resources Defense Council, decided in 1984, holds where there's an ambiguity in federal law the Executive Branch gets to sort it out so long as the interpretation is reasonable.

I think that's a sound principle. If you have some word like "diagnosis" or "source" or "moiety," do you want a judge to be staring at a dictionary, which is going to be indeterminant, or do you want someone who has either accountability or technical expertise to resolve the question?

I wrote this long before the Obama administration, and my view on this count isn't controversial. It has been accepted by in one or another way every member of the Supreme Court since 1984. It's under a little pressure now from both the right and the left, but I think the principle's sound. That's really technical stuff.

QUESTION: I was just wondering how this affects juries, because what you just described is a Zero who can have an enormous amount of influence on other people, and having sat on a jury myself I observed how one or two strong personalities who were very articulate completely turned around the views of the rest of them.

CASS SUNSTEIN: I'd suggest the old Henry Fonda movie has a human reality to it. There's something that is an important finding in social psychology. It's the confidence heuristic, which is in a group of people if one person is really confident, he or she tends to have sway in the group even if he or she has no idea what he or she is talking about. In a jury if you have a very confident person who says guilty or not guilty, that person can initiate a cascade.

If you think of the diverse thresholds thing, how do cascades come about such that Taylor Swift, who is admittedly fantastic, gets the popularity she deserves, or Harry Potter, or let's say John F. Kennedy? All of these I'm very enthusiastic about, but they had people who were great admirers, in Kennedy's case his dad, who was rich as well as a great admirer, and who was like the strong juror. Then, if the confident great admirer says something, then you can eventually create a president or a Grammy Award winner or something like that.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you, Cass.


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