Cass Sunstein on "How Change Happens": Hope that a better society is possible

Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein on how social movements that create broad social change become possible

By Amanda Marcotte

Published April 27, 2019 12:00PM (EDT)

Cass Sunstein (Getty/Jamie McCarthy)
Cass Sunstein (Getty/Jamie McCarthy)

At the heart of all politics and activism is the concept of change. People agitate, organize and vote because they believe that they can affect change in the world — or, in some cases, reverse changes that have already happened. But the process of change can be a bit mysterious. How does it happen? How can people make it happen?

In his new book, "How Change Happens," Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein tackles these larger issues, looking at a history of social change and analyzing it for lessons that could be useful for those who seek to make changes to the status quo. He sat down with me recently on "Salon Talks" to discuss the way social movements get started and why what used to be considered common sense or can sometimes transform with surprising speed.

Watch my "Salon Talks" conversation with Cass Sunstein here. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

This is a huge topic in a lot of ways, how does change happen. And I think it's an issue that's on the forefront of a lot of people's minds these days. When Barack Obama was elected he ran on a platform of "hope and change," and then we saw Donald Trump be elected in reaction to that. The sense, I think, is growing in a lot of quarters that change may not be possible. Your book delivers the opposite message: Change is possible and there's reason for hope. 

Sure. Under President Obama, whether you love him or not, we had the most important social legislation since the 1960s. That's the Affordable Care Act. We had the most important financial regulation since the 1930s. That's Dodd-Frank. We had the most aggressive environmental movement probably ever in the sense of clean air, particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen oxide and more.

And that doesn't even mention climate, and a great deal has been done on climate. And that doesn't even refer to what was done on civil rights, with respect to sex equality and sexual orientation discrimination, where the change is remarkable that we lived through. And that doesn't even mention what happens with effect to tobacco, where we had the most aggressive anti-tobacco basically in the nation's history.

Now, a lot of this is contested, and so it doesn't seem like we had a sea change -- but, gosh we did. And whether you like President Trump or not, and I gather you're not a huge fan, he has changed significant things. So, whether it's hope or the opposite, he hasn't been a status quo president by any means.

That's a good point: Change can go in all sorts of directions. You seem to posit that we are in an era of a lot of social upheaval. And one movement that you single out is the Me Too movement, which was a fairly dramatic shift in the way the public thinks about and reacts to sexual harassment. How does what happened there fit into your theory of change?

OK. So with MeToo, it was a recent example of where people living under circumstances of, let's say, injustice or oppression or horror have often been quiet about what happened to them or about what they actually hope will happen in the future, and they need a kind of permission slip or a green light. And we all have in our minds, with respect to at least one issue, maybe 12 issues, a sense that things aren't as they should be. But whether we give voice to them depends on whether there's a green light or not.

The American Revolution which created our country was basically a green light emerging as people said, "Independence is a good idea." In the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Rosa Parks was in some ways a heroic but ordinary person. Not someone who sought the limelight. She was not ordinary in her soul but ordinary in the sense that she didn't have public office or a big pulpit. But she created a permission slip for lots of people to defy segregation. And Martin Luther King, of course, was the organizing thinker and voice behind a lot of disclosure of what people actually thought should happen and about what people experienced that wasn't good, or that was worse than not good.

And under MeToo, what happened was a lot of women who had somewhere between bad and horrific experiences were authorized really by the courage of others to say, "Me too." We're not where we should be with respect to sexual violence and sexual harassment. But there are a lot of people, men as well as women -- though mostly women -- who are not going to be subject to stuff because the movement has been so vocal and norm-shifting.

Well, I think that's very interesting. Something that was once maybe not a taboo but close to it suddenly is no longer a taboo. How does that happen? What is the catalyst that causes a situation where once people felt they couldn't say anything and now they feel like they can?

So we all live in accordance with norms that we either don't like but just accept, or in some cases that we despise, but we have to accept because they're norms. It might about what you wear, it might be about who you can date, it might be about your workplace. What has to happen for the change to occur is the norm has to be under some pressure, either because someone courageous has said the norm's not good, which means that the second person who says that doesn't seem like a crazy person or a rebel but seems brave rather than reckless. And then once there are two, a third person can say, "This isn't good. I agree with that."

And once there are three, and you can think of three as a metaphor for 300 or 3,000, then you can have something very large like the environmental movement which worked in large part in this way, where there were people breathing dirty air in New York or Los Angeles or Massachusetts and they thought, "What can we do about it?" Or, "If we say something about it, we'll look like we're radical, anti-business people."

But once the norm in favor of combating pollution started to get energized, and the norm in favor of shutting up people who objected to it started to soften, then you could have a tipping point, where the original norm was, "You can't say this," and then the norm became, "You have to say this."

A lot of people who would pick up your book, I would assume, would be activists who are trying to effect change in this world. What advice would you give to somebody who wants to cause that kind of tipping point to happen?

Let me tell you about someone I follow on Twitter who has a book that is on behavioral finance. That's not a hot topic. But he tweets, "People are buying and enjoying my book. Thank you for the support." That's really smart. He's establishing, I hope truthfully, the existence of some popularity for his own particular cause, which is his excellent but not very popular book.

So, there's a lesson there, which is if you want to spur a movement, to give strong signals either of the current surprising popularity of the movement, or, if you don't have that, of the growing popularity of the movement, that can often be extremely helpful because it licenses people to join and it may un-license people to stigmatize.

So if you think of the anti-smoking movement or the seatbelt buckling movement, neither of these is radical stuff, but they're both really important. They've saved a lot of lives. The idea that you should be allowed to tell smokers who are in your room, "Please stop, it's offensive or making me sick," or tell someone in your family, "Please stop smoking, you're endangering your life," or tell someone, "Buckle your seatbelt," that became possible once the movements for seatbelts and the movements against cigarette smoking were signaled by those who supported those movements as something that had a lot of members.

President Trump has been pretty ingenious at signaling that his movement has a lot of members, even at a time when it didn't much. So to emphasize that this is a growing movement, this is a popular movement, there's real room here, there's oxygen, that is often a very astute method of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And there's the negative side of this. I mean, the focus in your book is mostly on good things, like restricting smoking and enforcing seatbelts. But what we've seen in this country happen recently is a rise of white nationalism, through a similar dynamic. You're beginning to see a lot more people say blatantly racist things that they would have felt were taboo in previous years. When we see something like that happen, when we see change happening in that negative way, is there a way to get our taboos back?

It's a great question. And we've seen, with respect to racism and sexism, flows one way or the other, and in some ways the flow is not ideal right now. What has to happen is that people who are in favor of, let's say, the norm of mutual respect, or of treating people decently -- I'm not using the word tolerance because it's not the best word, it suggests there's something wrong -- have to emphasize it and not be shy about that. So to stigmatize certain actions like assault, that's a good thing to do. And to stigmatize people who are fomenting hatred is also a good thing to do.

Now, if the people who are showing let's say a tendency to racist talk or are on the cusp, then to stigmatize them might be a little impersonal. More to engage them and appeal to the better angels of their nature. Abraham Lincoln was a genius at that, Lyndon Johnson was pretty good and President Obama, in modern times, is an all-star.

Speaking about stigmatization and other kinds of negative enforcement, one thing that you write about it in this book but you're already famous for is your idea of nudges. Shaping behavior with not particularly abrupt mandates or bans, or even stigma. I should ask you what the nudge theory is and the basics, because I suspect a lot of our viewers or readers don't necessarily know.

So if you want to affect behavior, you can prohibit something or you can subsidize it or you can tax it or you can mandate something. You can also do a nudge, which is something that completely preserves freedom of choice. So a GPS device is a nudge. You can say, "I want to go to Brooklyn rather than Manhattan," and the GPS device won't fight you on that. And the GPS device takes you on a route that you think is not pretty, or which is likely to run into traffic, in your opinion, you can say, "I don't like the advice." So it preserves freedom of choice.

Many governments, and when I was in the White House we did a lot of this, do things like a GPS device. So, if you go to a restaurant you can see the calorie count. And if you want the cheeseburger, go for it, but you're being nudged in favor of a healthier option. Or if you're getting sunscreen, let's say, and while it's going to be good for tanning it's not going to reduce the risk of cancer, there's something right on the can which will give you clarity on that. And that will nudge you to choose something that will reduce the risk of cancer.

There are other more aggressive nudges. For example, automatic enrollment in a pension plan. The United States, partly because of private employers, partly because of the government, has seen an explosion of automatic enrollment, and that is a nudge. You can say, "I don't want to be in that stupid plan." You have freedom of choice. But the plan is massively increasing the number of people who are going have more comfortable retirements.

And with respect to -- this is I think the most poignant nudge I know, poignant in a good way -- poor children in the United States are eligible for free school lunches and breakfasts. But their parents don't sign them up, for any number of reasons. It might be that an envelope from the government is not exactly welcome. It might be they're really busy handling a lot of problems and how do you deal with this bureaucracy.

So, what we did, and this is something the Republicans have not shifted away from, is to say that the kids are automatically in. Unless they are not eligible, so long as the school district knows, they're automatically in. And that means approximately 9 million to 11 million kids in a given year are getting access to free meals, and that can change their families' days and weeks and years and maybe even the kids' futures.

We can do a lot more of that. And these are not mandates. If the family doesn't want the kid to have that meal, maybe they want them to bring some meal that is tastier. Or if it conflicts with some religious conviction, they can completely do that. So nudges are freedom-preserving interventions that sometimes can get millions of people to have safer, longer or less expensive lives.

Obviously there are limits to this idea. We're seeing, with the vaccination issue right now, a lot of criticism that there are not strong enough mandates. When do we know that it's time to shift to a mandate instead of a nudge?

It's a great question. If people are doing something that hurts other people, probably you want to prohibit them from doing that. So the problem of climate change is not one that can be adequately handled through fuel-economy labels on cars and energy-efficiency labels. Those help, but they can't do enough. You need to have mandates and fuel economy standards and energy efficiency standards in addition, to protect others.

If it's a case where someone is making a decision that's going to hurt their future self, like they're not saving for retirement, then you might think the Social Security system is a good idea even though it's mandatory. Or you might think that if people are risking their future because they're getting addicted to cigarettes, then you might think that health warnings are not enough and a stiff cigarette tax is a good way of discouraging people from starting and encouraging people to stop. Where people are making decisions that hurt their future self, that's a good one.

Generally with parents dealing with their kids, mandates are not the best idea. But in the case of vaccination it's very delicate, because if parents are making decisions that endanger their own children's health, or which mean that their own children are gonna risk other people's health, then a discussion of something beyond a nudge is a good discussion to have.

The decline in smoking in America was a process of a number of different government policies that were influential. With the kind of widespread ban of indoor smoking, where do you put that on the scale? That didn't stop people from smoking, they could still smoke if they wanted to, just in fewer places. Is that a mandate or is it more of a nudge?

It's a mandate. We have plenty of nudges. On a pack, there's a warning there. And the government has a lot of educational campaigns that are nudges. Insofar as you can't smoke in certain places, that's a ban. Now, because over 400,000 Americans die every year from smoking -- and it's worth pausing over that figure. That's not just a statistic, that's human beings that are leaving families as well as their own time on the planet prematurely. Each one of those is a tragedy and a horror, so we should do more, including nudges.

So when I was in the government we issued a regulation that would have graphic health warnings on the pack. On technical grounds, the federal courts struck that down. I regret that decision. I think that was a mistaken decision. But whether or not it's mistaken, the government is legally obliged to come up now with new graphic warnings and the Trump administration hasn't done what the law requires it to do. There's every reason to think that that would help. Would it save 400,000 people? No. If it saves 10,000, that's phenomenal. If it saves 1,000, that's good.

To have a higher cigarette tax would be a really good idea. That would discourage people from starting, especially poor people. So it would have a distributive good impact as well as a public health impact. And current smokers, it would encourage them to quit. So to increase significantly the cigarette tax, I'm generally cautious about cigarette taxes, and about taxes insofar as they don't affect people who have plenty of money, and a lot of smokers don't have money. But this is a good tax not to be cautious about.

With the money, we can retire the deficit. Not the whole deficit, a little piece of the deficit. We can use it to reduce the deficit, or we can give the money who people who need it or we can give it for our national defense or whatever.

I remember when you first started taking this idea out, one of the criticisms of nudges as a policy idea, there was an almost paranoia about it. I think in our society there's a fear of being subtly manipulated, that it's somehow robbing you of your freedom. That's gotten worse, I think, in the age of social media, because we know that Facebook and Twitter are using algorithms to manipulate people's behavior. How do we think about nudges in the context of that fear of being manipulated?

I think we need something like a Bill of Rights for nudging when we're talking about the government. And nudges are less powerful than mandates and bans, because a lot of people go their own way. Nonetheless, we need a Bill of Rights for nudging. Something like, they have to be consistent with the interests and values of the people to whom they're applied. So people, unless they're conspiracy theorists they tend not to object to the fact that the GPS is telling them how to get where they want to go. If you have a medicine that has nudges against excessive use, that's not scary manipulation, it's in the interest of the chooser. It has to be consistent with the interests and values of choosers.

It had better be transparent rather than hidden. So no secret nudges, nothing that is covert. The word manipulation I think signals that people are being tricked, but something like a reminder by text message that if you don't pay your telephone bill soon you're going to face a late fee, or a reminder you have a doctor's appointment next week, that's not manipulative. That's not exploiting weakness or tricking you.

So, we would have to go one by one. And I think in terms of what democratic governments have done, the nudges have been subject to public scrutiny. There's something called My Plate, which is something that's a plate that's half fruit and vegetables and basically is designed to help promote healthy eating. You can say, "I don't want that. I want it to be all meat or all potatoes." You're allowed to do that. It's hard to see that as manipulative or covert.

So long as there's transparency, so long as no right is being violated, so long as there's public scrutiny, the risks I think are relatively low.

For private sector nudging, you're making a great point, where you can have a company whose self-interest is more eyeballs or more sales. And if it's using, let's say, behavioral techniques to promote that, we might be worried that it's crossing the line that separates maybe a fair market behavior and deception. Manipulation is probably closer to deception than fair market behavior. That's something that the Federal Trade Commission and the ordinary consumers should both worry about.

When it is something like Facebook, where they are just changing the algorithm, I mean, you chose to be on Facebook, you know that they're doing it on certain levels and you obviously clicked all the little buttons that said they were allowed to collect data on you. How do we think about fighting back against this? Because I think it's increasingly clear to us as a country that that's dangerous.

I think Mark Zuckerberg, and many people were surprised by this, called for federal government regulation of social media. You don't see a lot of people calling for government regulation of themselves. One thing that is in his text is that the private sector here has so much power that to expect them to do what needs to be done -- I think he's acknowledging, "Maybe we can't."

So, to have a demand for a privacy-protective regulation is completely fair. To demand transparency, which might be so that consumers don't get 12 incomprehensible pages but clarity. Maybe to have default rules where automatically your privacy is protected unless you relinquish it with a clear and transparent statement. And also to make sure that something like the newsfeed where you can be algorithmed into -- I think algorithmed needs to be a verb -- you can be algorithmed into an echo chamber where you're just seeing louder and louder and maybe uglier versions of what you thought, to at least have transparency about what the newsfeed is doing and why, and to have a mandate -- not that the Washington Post has to be there or the New York Times, that would be a free speech violation -- but mandates such that people have clarity on what's coming in their newsfeed and why. And maybe options for redoing your newsfeed with simple, usable strategies. That's certainly a thinkable idea.

One way we're at a threshold is that the large TV networks of decades past needed some sort of regulatory structure, partly because it was not manageable otherwise. Now you don't have the limited spectrum problem for social media, but you have something which is closely analogous, a growth in power and the coming in of self-regulation. So this is coming, and Zuckerberg is getting ahead of it and applause to him for that.

Yeah, it's one of those cases where you realize regulation is just about leveling the playing field.

It can be. Certainly for highway safety, where the question might be how do we have regulation such that we can use the highway without killing each other? Or getting cars so that if you have a car that's really small and weak, you have a little crunch with a car that's big and strong, and then you die. So a lot of what the regulation does is it fortifies cars such that we can coordinate with each other, and if things go wrong the likelihood that someone's gonna die is lower.

On the subject of change, there have been a number of good changes that you write about that have happened. The MeToo movement, the gay rights movement, health and safety and all these other things. What do you see right now that might be on the verge of tipping into a real social change moment?

I'm going to answer, but I'm going to explain why I'm going to answer cautiously. One thing I think we've learned from the last 150 years is that change is often extremely unpredictable for two reasons. First, we don't know what is inside people's heads. Even Google doesn't know. Google knows more, but it doesn't know what's inside people's heads. And second, a lot of successful change depends on people interacting with each other at the right time and in the right way, and that's very hard to foresee.

Who would know in advance, for example, that Taylor Swift would bring a lawsuit for unwanted touching? Even if you knew that Taylor Swift would object to that, that lawsuit was not expected.

Having said that, there are two things and I'm gonna play it safe with one and then I'm gonna say something a little riskier with another.

Where to play it safe is that there are a lot of people that are concerned about both economic deprivation and economic spreads, who have been, even under President Obama, relatively quiet about that. President Obama in my view did some great things, but many people reasonably think a lot more needs to be done in a wealthy country to help the economic distress of the people at the bottom and the economic challenges faced by people who, if not at the bottom, find every day really tough.

And on the Democratic side there's been more noise about that than in recent memory. That's tapping into a widespread voice in people's heads that they haven't themselves given any airtime to. So, that's probably going to get louder and louder. We might see a surge of movement against economic inequality and deprivation of the sort we haven't seen in a long time. I think I'm not taking a big risk there.

I'm going to take a risk with another one, which is animal welfare. There are a number of people who are greatly concerned about mistreatment of cats and dogs and horses, and even of animals raised for food. This is in some ways related to the climate change problem, but I'm trying to separate it from that, where people think to say, "I care about animal welfare" is a little bit to marginalize myself. But there's that voice there, partly because people love their cat or love their dog, and the fact that they love their cat or dog means that they're open to think about other living creatures, who are no less capable of pain than human beings are, and which are subject to unnecessary cruelty in many cases.

Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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