HLS Library Book Talk | Cass Sunstein, “How Change Happens”

HLS Library Book Talk | Cass Sunstein, “How Change Happens”

afternoon, everyone. So nice to see you all. I’m Jocelyn Kennedy. I’m the Executive Director of
the Harvard Law School Library. I want to welcome you to
this afternoon’s book talk. Before we start, I want to
thank the dean’s office, who’s generously provided
our lunch today. So please continue eating while
Professor Sunstein is speaking. Copies of today’s book are
on sale outside of the room, so feel free to stop
by and pick one up. I also want to let you know that
today’s talk and the question and answer session
are being recorded. It will appear on the law
school’s YouTube channel sometime next week. So you’re on notice that,
if you ask a question, you’re being recorded. It’s my pleasure to
introduce the author of How Change Happens,
which is a question I ask myself all the time,
so I’m excited to hear from Professor Sunstein. He is the Robert Walmsley
University Professor here at Harvard and the
founder and director of the Program on Behavioral
Economics and Public Policy, also here at Harvard Law School. From 2009 to 2012, he
served as administrator of the White House Office of
Information and Regulatory Affairs. He’s published numerous
articles and books, including Risk and Reason, Why Societies
Need Dissent, Laws of Fear, Beyond the
Precautionary Principle, Nudge, Improving Decisions About
Health, Wealth, and Happiness, and Conspiracies and
other Dangerous Ideas. He’s currently working on
a ton of different things. One of which, is group
decision making and projects related to the idea of liberty. It’s my pleasure to
introduce Professor Sunstein. Thank you so much. CASS SUNSTEIN: OK, so, the title
I wanted to give for this book was Why Societies Go Whoosh– W-H-O-O-S-H. But the
publisher said no, that would be too
obscure and undignified. This is also 25
years in the making. So a long, long time
ago, I did a first draft of what is now chapter
3, which is about how law changes social norms. But I kind of got stuck for
the 1990s and the 2000s. I got a little distracted. And this basically
emerged recently. And I’ll tell you a
bit of research that helped orient its emergence. In Saudi Arabia,
there’s a custom that wives don’t work
unless husbands say it’s OK. That’s the custom. The vast majority, the
overwhelming majority of young Saudi men think it’s
fine if their wives work. It’s also the case that
Saudi men overwhelmingly believe that other Saudi
men think it’s unacceptable if their wives work. So the private view of young
Saudi men is it’s fine, maybe it’s good. The perception of
young Saudi men is that people like them think
it’s not good and not fine. There’s an opportunity there. So, in the relevant
research, the experimenters told young Saudi men that
actually guys like you think it’s fine if wives are
working outside of the home. Guess what happened? As a result, the number
of Saudi women applying for jobs in the relevant
group increased dramatically four months later. OK, I’m going to be using
that as a clue to the answer to the question about
how change happens. What I want to give some
particular attention to is why change often seems
to come out of nowhere. The Civil Rights
movement of the 1960s– completely unanticipated. The fact that Brexit worked– not completely unanticipated,
and it hasn’t quite worked yet, but the fact that it succeeded
was widely not expected. The rise of feminism in
various parts of the world has different moments in
history came as a shock to many people who
embraced feminism. The rise of fascism
in the 1930s, including the success
of Hitler and Mussolini, who knew that could happen? We’re in the midst of an
assortment of social movements, some of them we can glimpse,
some are barely on the horizon. And one thing that’s
highly likely, is that the best
prognosticators today are going to get it wrong. I’m going to start with some
pretty simple remarks about why the unexpected nature
of social success, including
transformative success, is not as baffling
as it appears to be. And I’m going to apply this
to #MeToo on the ground that it’s of interest in
itself, and #MeToo tells us something more general
about social change in numerous fields. So here’s a way to get clear
on the mystery that motivates the obsession I’ve had. Tocqueville is probably the
greatest sociologist ever, at least one of the candidates. If they gave it all-time
greatest sociologist award, Tocqueville would be
on the short list. He reported that no one foresaw
the French Revolution, nobody. Lenin was stunned by
the speed and success of the Russian Revolution– Lenin. If anyone was an
architect, it was Lenin. He had no idea. The Iranian Revolution of
1979 was unanticipated, including by the participants. The idea that the country
could turn around, as Iran did, that was not expected. The Arab Spring
was unanticipated by the best analysts in the
United Kingdom and the United States. I saw this up
close because I was in the White House at the time. And when things happened
in the Arab Spring, the leading experts were amazed. They didn’t see it coming. OK, it’s common in
social science circles to refer to two
things, demonstration effects and contagion effects. But that might be like
trying to explain sleep by its dormative qualities. I’m sorry, explain
the success of opium by its dormative qualities. Opium induces sleep–
you don’t know that. Evidently, it’s so. Opium is said by some pranksters
to induce sleep because it has dormative properties. That’s not an explanation. That’s a restatement. To say that the success
of social movements is a product of demonstration
and contagion effects is like an explanation
by noun, rather than an explanation of a phenomena. It doesn’t tell you anything. OK, I’m going to
try to make progress by referring to three things– preference
falsification, diverse thresholds, and
interdependencies. Elaboration will come,
but for starters, everyone on the planet,
including everyone in this room has some desires, and beliefs,
and experiences in our heads that we have told
either no one or only our closest family and friends. The fact is that we will
silence ourselves about some of the things we want. It may involve Harvard. It may involve Massachusetts. It may involve the
United Nations. It may involve
the United States. We shut up, or
worse, we misstate what we actually think. That’s preference falsification. The second point involving
diverse thresholds, is that, for some people– and you know them, don’t you– injustice, and they’re there. I had a friend in the Middle
East a number of years ago, where we witnessed, he and
I, a father beating up a child. It was probably his child. And it was on the street and
he was just punching him. And my friend, who
was Irish, and had a temper, and about
five-foot seven, he just ran up to that guy and
said, stop hitting that child. Now, that was a low threshold. He didn’t need anyone to
support him before he did that. He was there. I followed him
and supported him, but he had a low threshold. I had a slightly
higher threshold. Some people with
respect to injustice have very high thresholds. With respect to the third part,
interdependencies, most of us are really reactive to what
other people say and do. If one person is
doing something– embracing let’s say,
a Green New Deal or calling for animal rights,
we might think, crazy person. But if a thousand are embracing
an idea or a movement, we might think, why didn’t I– why haven’t I
joined them already? If you put together
preference falsification, diverse thresholds,
and interdependencies, the difficulty of
anticipating social change, and even large scale
social transformations, becomes much less puzzling. Now what I’m going to do– I have told you the text. And like any self
respecting law professor, the text is much shorter
than the footnotes. And here come the footnotes. Ready? They’re not going
to be in small font. Footnote one– with 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 are some
words from the best book I’ve ever read on Nazism. And it’s the best book because
it’s not only revealing, it’s also cheerful. So you can read
it without crying. And it’s written
by a journalist who went back to Germany
in the 1950s, and spoke to former
Nazis, and found, 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
Carl, 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, and it’s profound. He’s suggesting that
the existence or absence of opposition is contingent
on what’s permissible, what social norms are. To that extent, Carl 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. And if they’re
silent, it’s very hard to know what they’re thinking. The law matters if people
lack freedom of speech and if dissent is punished. But social norms are often
the villain of the piece, if there’s a villain, in
the sense that they mean that people might be ostracized,
or shunned, or punished in some way if they say
what they really think. I gave you some
words from the 1950s. Here are some words from
basically yesterday from Syria. When you meet
somebody coming out of Syria for the
first time, you start to hear the same sentences– that everything is OK in Syria. Syria is a great country. The economy is doing great. It will take him 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. That is too scary. After all that time
even outside Syria, you feel that
someone is listening, someone is recording. OK, the Syrian
computer programmer, in that case, is the
same as the former Nazi, is the same as the
young Syrian men who are saying something
even to their spouses which is different from what was
actually inside their minds. Second moving part
is diverse threshold. 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
are going to be marginalized. They’ll look foolhardy,
extreme, or possibly nuts. That’s the technical term. MIT press didn’t let me
put that in the book. Other people are
going to require some social support, like me,
in the Middle Eastern country. I supported my friend, but
I needed him to go first. People like this won’t move
unless someone else does, but if someone else does,
they’ll prefer to join too. Call them the ones. Others require
more than a little. They need two people. So they are the twos. 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. OK, 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 70s
and they might have thought that they were infinites. Consider the astonished words– now we’re talking actually about
a large part of the dynamics of the American Revolution. John Adams wrote with
amazement, “Idolatry to monarchs and servility to
aristocratical pride, was never so totally eradicated
from so many minds in so short a time.” I have a friendly
amendment to Adams. I don’t think he
has it quite right. It’s not as if
there was idolatry and servility eradicated. It’s that people who were
silent about their resentment and distress weren’t
silent anymore. So it seemed like
a ratification; it was, instead, a
kind of unleashing. Thomas Paine put it I
think more precisely, he said, “Our style
and manner of thinking have undergone a revolution
more extraordinary than the political
revolution of a country.” Now for Paine to say
that in the midst of the American
Revolution, that’s drama. More extraordinary,
is what’s happened to our manner of thinking. “We see with other eyes,
we hear with other ears, and think with other thoughts
than those we formerly used.” I think Paine is also
speaking of preference falsification undone. His language doesn’t
quite get at that, but any reading of the
American Revolution shows that’s what’s happening. Preference falsification
and diverse thresholds are turning in a
direction of movement, because the zeros, and the ones,
and the twos started to act. OK, last moving part
is interdependencies. Everything depends on who
is seen to have done what and exactly when. So 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. And if that’s what happens,
we’re going to see a movement, and it’s going to succeed. But 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. Those are my three moving parts. I have to add one
fourth component, which helps explain why social
inflammation sometimes occurs. And that is rooted
in what I learned from a failed academic
project from a few years ago. The failed academic project
was a group decision making. And in our work we found
out how outraged individuals are about corporate wrongdoing. And in trying to
study jury behavior, we put individuals into
computer generated juries. We had a bunch of jurors. We created statistical juries. And we took the median judgment
of the statistical juries as the likely predictor
of what the jury would do. Critics of our paper– only seven people
read the paper, so there weren’t
a lot of critics. But of the seven,
four pointed out that maybe the jury wouldn’t end
up where the average or median juror was. That there was something
artificial about our study. So we followed it with a
very large mock jury study involving actual
deliberating juries, hoping to prove
that we were right, that the median was
the best predictor. We were wrong. People in deliberating
groups, if they’re mad, end much madder than
the median individual. People in deliberating groups,
if they’re feeling lenient, are more lenient than
the median individual. Groups end up going to a
more extreme point in line with their pre
deliberation tendencies. Having found that
with respect to juries making punitive
judgments, punitive damage judgments about
corporate misbehavior, we followed up with a
study of political beliefs. And the most currently salient
example is climate change. If you’ve got a
group of people a bit concerned about climate
change and think there should be a international
agreement, after they talked to each other, they are
terrified about climate change and think we should sign an
international agreement right now. If you have a
group of people who aren’t worried
about climate change and think maybe
it’s a hoax, even if the distribution
of views is varied and some people think
it’s probably a problem, international agreements
may be a good idea, after they talked to
each other they think the whole thing is ridiculous. It’s made up by
environmentalists elite, forget about it. And this is real
people in Colorado actually, who went whoosh to the
right and whoosh to the left, depending on their pre
deliberation tendency. And that can fortify
the three moving parts that I’ve emphasized. OK, here’s the attempted
resolution of the mystery of unpredictable movement. First, it’s really hard to know
what people’s preferences are. They can’t be observed. Second, people’s thresholds
are even harder to ascertain. Even if we know people are
really upset about something, to know what their thresholds
for action is is really tough. Even if we could solve
those two problems, it’s very hard to know
in advance the nature of social interactions. Now, I’m going to give
kind of the weak version of the unpredictability
claim, and then a somewhat stronger version. The weak version I’m going
to give with some confidence. The stronger version
is tentative. The weak version is that it’s
just an empirical challenge that we’re not close to
being able to surmount. The stronger version is
it’s conceptually impossible and humanity’s never going
to be able to solve this. Here’s a gesture toward
defending the stronger version. With Google searches,
we can find out something about people’s
private preferences. If people are
Googling a lot, let’s say, MIT press
books published in April 2019, we have some
reason to believe that, even though they’re kind of
embarrassed to say they’re interested in MIT press
books in 2019, that’s not the coolest thing, that
they’re actually interested. I’m trying to give
you an example that’s not as salacious as the
examples that principally provide the data
for figuring out what people really care about. There’s a book on this. And it’s not as ridiculous
and a little more off-color than the MIT press book. OK, so even if we could find
from Google searches something about what people
really care about, involving politics
or products, we wouldn’t know what
their thresholds are. And even if we could
know both of those, we wouldn’t know who
interacts with whom, when. And that’s very hard, I
think impossible to know, because it depends
on accidents often. We might know that
probabilistically some movement is more likely than
it would otherwise seem if we could observe
people’s private preferences, but we won’t know whether
it’s going to happen or not. Because we won’t know who’s
going to interact with whom and when. No one has that
kind of prescience. There’s probably a Black
Mirror episode in production right now, which is
intended as a response to my more ambitious claim,
where it’s predictable, but I don’t believe it. OK, here’s an up-shot. It’s often tempting in hindsight
to say that some movement or reform was consistent
with history’s arc or was the product of
some cultural disposition. But it’s more often
true that it’s a product of some small random
or serendipitous factor, of who did what, when, of
who heard what, when, or whether a butterfly flapped
its wings at the right moment. History is only run once, so
it’s very hard to prove this. History doesn’t allow for
randomized controlled trials. But when we think that practice,
or status quo, or regime A fell, we often think
it was bound to fall. It really wasn’t. It happened to fall. The same is true if it doesn’t. It happened not to fall. And there’s an amazing Spanish
Netflix show called something– If I Hadn’t Met Her or
If I Hadn’t Met You, which is profoundly
about exactly this. Counterfactual histories are
not observed outside of Netflix and science fiction,
but they illuminate the power of serendipitous
or seemingly random factors. OK, having said this
about social movements, it must be added that if we
have clarity about preference falsification– about
diverse thresholds and social
interactions– we have some good clues about
how to start or stop a social movement. The Chinese
government is actually quite alert to some of this. Such that, the recent data
with which, to its credit, the Chinese government has
cooperated in the provision of. Gary King, Harvard
political scientist finds that the Chinese
government on social media is not censoring disagreement
and dissent, not a lot. If you want to say
negative things, that’s fine, as a
first approximation. But if someone says we have
a protest movement that’s meeting Thursday on
this street and there are a lot of people
coming, that’s not welcome and that may find
itself taken down. And that’s clever in
terms of the prevention of social disruption. That if there is advertisement
about a large movement at a time certain, then group
polarization may kick in, then preference
falsification may be undone, and then we may have the
kind of social interaction that can get things moving. OK, this is a bare
bones picture, and let’s introduce just
a few supplemental points. Here are some words
from a woman– basically also the day
before yesterday, not old– from North Korea– “It never occurred to
me that I could or would want to do anything about it. It was just how things are.” That’s an arresting comment. And the most arresting
word is want. It never occurred to me
that I could or would want to do anything about it. Now, what makes
that word important? Is that this isn’t like the
Syria tale or the former Nazi. This is a story about
preferences that have adapted to the status quo. Her wants were affected by
where she found herself. In some cases,
people’s preferences are adaptive to background
conditions, which means they do not have
a voice in their head saying this isn’t good. There’s very puzzling data from
subjective well-being studies, which finds basically
that women’s happiness relative to men has been
going down since the 1970s and absolutely. So in the period in which
women’s equality has been on the rise, women
subjective well-being has been decreasing. That’s a paradox. One explanation
for the paradox is that the well-being data
from conditions of let’s say, more serious
inequality, is a product of adaptive preferences. If you live under
circumstances of inequality, you may be not rebelling
because the inequality seems part of life’s furniture. OK, if we’re dealing
with preferences that are adaptive or
partially adaptive, then it’s inadequate to talk
about preference falsification. That idea is too simple. OK, second point– the word
preference falsification is under descriptive. Often what we’re
talking about is people’s experiences and
values, not their preferences. Sure, they’re concealing or
falsifying what they prefer, but they’re also concealing
their deepest moral beliefs, and most searing of all, what
actually happened to them. They’re either silent about
it or they’re lying about it. And I’m acutely aware
that the incidence of sexual abuse in the United
States of children and adults is such that the number of
people in this room who’ve experienced it or who’ve
experienced in their family, is a lot higher than zero. And that’s a case study in
preference falsification being inadequate. We’re talking about
silence, about experience, or about moral convictions. That’s worse, that’s fake news. We also have to note
that, if the goal of those who are in
favor of the status quo– and it may be a great
status quo or a bad one– is to maintain itself,
there are a lot of options. You can allow dissent
in a disagreement until it becomes too visible. It might be an outlet. You might make concessions,
hoping to retain the existing arrangement by doing that. You might bring out guns. You might try persuasion. Or you might actually take
advantage of what we know about the four mechanisms– where the fourth, the
kind of supplemental one, is group polarization– to try to stop things
before it gets out of hand. OK, I want a concretize this
by talking about #MeToo. And my hope is, that
whatever social movement you’re interested in or
excited by, or alarmed by, this will be– involve mechanisms that are
completely adaptable to it. And if they’re not completely
adaptable to what you’re interested in or alarmed
by tell me about it, because that will suggest the
incompleteness of the account. OK, with respect to sexual
harassment and sexual assault, preference falsification,
needless to say, has been pervasive. Victims have often said it
all was or is well when not or they’ve silenced themselves. As noted, that’s not enough. Because what many women
and many, but fewer, men, did not reveal what
they kept private was a set of experiences
alongside evaluative judgments about those experiences. So experience falsification
is really the engine here. Second, different
women had and have different thresholds for
disclosing their experiences and their judgments. And I’m using women
here deliberately, acutely aware that
many men, including many men in this room– I hope not many, but at
least some men in this room have experienced something
like what I’m describing. But because the disproportionate
number is women, it might efface something
not to say that. OK, some women are
ones, others are twos, others are 10s, and others
or 100s or infinites. The infinites are
especially interesting. They might have some kind of
loyalty to the perpetrator. They might not want
their lives disrupted. They might cherish
their privacy. Some might have no clarity
on what their thresholds are, and they, and we, will
learn only ex-post. Here are some words from
Beverly Young Nelson, who accused Republican Senate
candidate Roy Moore of having assaulted her in 1977. And she’s very precise on
what made her speak out. “I thought I was
his only victim. I would probably have taken
what he did to me to my grave, had it not been for the
courage of four other women who were willing to speak out
about their experiences. Their courage inspired
me to overcome my fear.” Third, social interactions
are crucial to #MeToo. #MeToo has benefited from
the visibility of those who spoke out and the
multiple interactions made possible by social media. Taylor Swift was
a contributor here with her lawsuit against
unwanted touching, but Alyssa Milano was
the largest instigator. Within 24 hours of
her initial tweet– and I find this almost
impossible to believe, but it’s so– within 24 hours of her initial
tweet asking for #MeToo to be said, for those
who had such experiences, 45% of all Facebook users
in the United States had friends in their network
who’d posted #MeToo– within 24 hours, not
a lot less than half. Once the ones and the twos spoke
out, the threes and the fours we’re safer, or emboldened. OK, this account is
also very bare bones and I think we want to emphasize
just a couple of points for present purposes. One of the not very recent,
but relatively recent electric findings in
behavioral sciences points to the power of
descriptive social norms. So I’ll give you an example. Do you all know about Twitter? It’s one of the new
social media platforms? Have you heard of Twitter? Or not yet? Do you think I’ve lost my mind? OK, so, on Twitter,
There’s a guy I follow, who’s a behavioral finance
guy, who wrote a book called, I think, Behavioral Finance. It’s a good book. But as its title
suggests, it’s not challenging Stephen
King for number one on the bestseller list. So he tweets very frequently,
my book is doing better than expectations, thank you
for the support, which is, I think literally true and smart. He’s suggesting that his
book is selling well, and is probably doing
better than expectations, which were zero. He’s not going to lie
and say he’s doing great, but he says that. Now, what he’s doing is invoking
a descriptive social norm to the effect that people
are buying his book. And we know that if people
think that people are recycling, or doctors think
that they are not giving antibiotic prescriptions
as much as they thought, or that people are paying
their taxes in numbers that are really high, we can increase
the volume of people who engage in the relevant behavior. That is, invoking
the descriptive norm often creates a
self-fulfilling prophecy, for better or for worse. That’s an old finding. The new finding, which
is not widely known, but I think is as
electrifying, is if you don’t have a great
existing social norm, point to an emerging social norm. Say people are
increasingly doing acts or acts within your
group is the current trend. The reference to the
dynamic social norm often fuels behavior. And #MeToo has benefited
from both of those. OK, we have to note that,
with respect to #MeToo, we’re not speaking only of
revelation of preferences and experiences, but also
about the transformation of preferences, and
beliefs, and values. I’m going to tell you something
a little bit personal here. And this isn’t very
characteristic, but I find what
we’re now describing both relevant to politics and
law, and kind of powerfully relevant to personal life. And here’s my example. A long time ago, when
feminism was just starting in legal circles,
I was interested in it, and started writing a bit about
it, editing a book about it. And I told my mother, who’s no
longer alive that– she asked, what are you working
on, and I told her. And she thought that
was not a good idea. Said, you’re a
constitutional law guy, don’t work on the
Administrative Procedure Act? She was a very
supportive mother. She said why are
you working on this? That’s crazy stuff. And I said, well, there’s some
really good work being done. And she said, stick with the
Administrative Procedure Act. And, finally, I told her what
Catherine McKinnon, and Martha Minow, and others were working
on, and went at some length about my reading. And she said with three words
that she’d never said before and she never said after. She paused, and she said
with indescribable emotion, she said, God bless you. And what I thought was,
in those three words was an assortment of
personal experiences she herself had had that she
never told anybody about. Yes? And with those words,
she was signaling. Which is to say that #MeToo,
as in many social movements, is not just about the revelation
of preferences, beliefs, and values, it’s also
about their transformation. Most obviously, in this case,
on the part of perpetrators, but equally relevantly
on the part of victims. Any social movement doesn’t just
unleash pre-existing values, it casts a new light on
existing experiences. It produces fresh ones. Part of the point
of civil rights movements of multiple
different kinds, right and left, and one of
their greatest achievements, and I hope if there’s
anything you remember from these remarks,
it’s this, is to transform a sense of
embarrassment and shame into a sense of dignity. OK, final words–
recall in this light, the testimony of a computer
programmer recently from Syria. When you first meet
somebody coming out of Syria for the
first time, you start to hear the same sentences– that everything is OK. It will take like six
months, up to one year, for them to become a
normal human being again, to say what they
think, what they feel. Then they might
start whispering. They won’t speak loudly. But eventually they might. Thanks. [APPLAUSE] So for a 340 page book,
this was like 30 minutes. So questions, comments? What I’ve noticed,
just looking at you, it’s increasingly
probable that you’re going to be raising your hand,
because increasing numbers are raising your hands. Just if you look at
parts of the room where you are
aren’t, the numbers of people raising their hands
is getting higher and higher. AUDIENCE: You spoke a
little bit about how people’s preferences change
based on their circumstances. I’m wondering if you have any
thoughts about whether there are thresholds are also
susceptible to change and also what might be some
ways that we might try to change thresholds, because that seems
like lowering that threshold might be a strategy for
accelerating change, if that’s something
you’re interested in. CASS SUNSTEIN: So what
a great question OK, suppose you have people who have
an extremely firm conviction that chocolate ice cream
is better than vanilla ice cream, which is true. And the threshold for them
ordering– liking vanilla more than chocolate, that’s
going to be really hard. Now, if they like vanilla
more than chocolate, but just, they think it’s
embarrassing, as it is, to say that you like
vanilla more than chocolate, then a certain level of social
support will get them there. But if they– I’m thinking, this is a question
I don’t have clarity on. It depends on– you’d think it
would depend on the intensity of their conviction. So if people kind of softly
think that eating meat is fine, but they’re not sure,
it’s not like they have a voice in their head
thinking eating meat is bad, but they softly
think it’s fine, they might be able to be
changed, because it’s not a deep conviction. And so, with many movements
involving products, and politics, and
food, people do change their preferences
through experience and learning without having an
intense original conviction. To change an intense
one is very tough. There have to be something like
a person who has a narrative, or an experience
that has vividness that would create that. AUDIENCE: Mr.
Sunstein, do you think we could apply your theory
to small and very specific ambience? I was thinking about
the Supreme Court, when they change their precedents,
it starts with a zero, then comes a one,
and then a two. Do you think you
could consider it, we could consider it
inside the Supreme Court? CASS SUNSTEIN:
It’s a great point, and I think it’s
so, within a court of let’s say seven people– make it up to make it
not parochial America. Whether you would
vote for something will often depend, or
at least will sometimes depend on how many people
are willing to go first. And if it involves
overruling a precedent, you might go along
only if you hear other people doing
that because you don’t want to be on your own. And there’s a
prisoner’s dilemma here, where some coordination,
maybe conversation behind closed doors,
has to happen. Because, otherwise, people’s
individual calculus is let’s say, don’t overrule
the precedent. And if we could do a
little modeling here, if we were able to do that– me not, but many people
in the room can– where we could do a model of the
prisoner’s dilemma game, where you’d go for overruling
a precedent only once you get a threshold of support. And probably some
of the justices have felt something
like that, where they would go for it only
if they had a majority, or if they had a supermajority,
or if they had a unanimity. So to be an isolated
dissenter on certain issues is socially punished. And this is undoubtedly
true in Congress also. So whether members of Congress
will go in a direction, let’s say, that’s against
the current majority, poses a prisoner’s dilemma
for individual members. So, I’ll tell you
a story, shall I, of group dynamics and
government bodies. So, when I was up for
confirmation by the US Senate, a Senator put a hold
on my nomination, which is not a friendly thing to do. It means not just I’m
going to vote against you, but I’m not going to
allow you have a vote, I’m going to forbid the vote. And the Senate rules
at that time did that. And so the White House tried
to get a meeting between me and my not friend and it took
a long time for the meeting to be arranged. He said no, I hate
the guy too much. And then I met the Senator. And he was as charming
as he could be. He said, you know what we
need for the job you’ve been appointed for,
we need someone who’s written about
government regulation and administrative
law, we need someone who is a little
over 6 feet tall, who has a hair loss issue. We need someone–
a law professor, we need someone who knows law. We need someone who’s spent
time at Chicago and Harvard. That’s exactly what we need. And I said, I have
a brother like that. And he responded, you’re
going to be great. I’m completely for you. And then he paused
and he said, of course I’m going to vote against you. I loved him. He was honest. But that was a case of,
within a multi member body, he needed to vote against me. If he had, at that time– I’m embarrassed to say, the
strong majority of Republicans was against me– and if he had been with the
very few Republicans who were for me, he would
have been in deep– do you know English well
enough to know the four letter word that follows deep? He would have been in deep that. He couldn’t. But he was for the nominee. And so if he had social support,
he would have been there. And so, we don’t know
a whole lot, because I have a private conversation. Private conversations are,
by definition, private. So they’re not known. But in governmental bodies,
undoubtedly this kind of thing happens a fair bit. I know what some of
you are thinking about, because we have electrodes
attached to your minds, thanks to Harvard. I bet some of you are thinking
about current Congress, where for some Republicans
to oppose the president is extremely challenging. But for a lot of them to
wouldn’t be challenging. But how do they get there? And some Democrats would reject
the party orthodoxy, let’s say, but that’s really hard,
unless a lot of them do. Do you want more stories? AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. Probably that’s the most
easier question ever. You mentioned a book
about national socialism, and you didn’t say
the name of the book. CASS SUNSTEIN: Oh, about Nazism. AUDIENCE: Yeah. CASS SUNSTEIN: The book said,
They Thought They Were Free. And the reason it did help
inspire completion of this book is that it describes
the rise of Nazism in two ways, that
other books on Nazism– not that I’ve read many, but
other books of the Nazisims don’t emphasize. One is that, ordinary people
are going about their lives, even if terrible
things are happening. They’re focused on their
friends, and family, and economic
situations and romance. They’re not focused on
what’s happening over there, unless it hits them. And the other thing is
that the author’s friends, until the war, Hitler
did great for them. The economy got better. They got vacations. Thing things were good. They remember that as the
best years of their lives. And both of these are– you know, to say these people
should be in jail or something, or we should cast terrible
aspersions on them, I think would be cruel. And so he went– he
said he came back thinking he’d uncovered
humanity, which scared him. But it was also, he liked them. And the opposition
comment, what’s kind of the play
in the book that makes it intriguing, is
what people are saying to the American journalist,
whether that’s fully true, is extremely
unclear, just as what they were saying to their fellow
Nazis, that’s very unclear. So what actually was in their
mind is an enduring mystery. AUDIENCE: I thank you
for the great talk. I have a question about
the theoretical framework that you’re throwing out here. So puzzling over the paradox
you mentioned about the women’s reported subjective well-being
from the 1970s going down at the same time that
women’s liberation has gained great traction,
and they’re trying to resolve that
paradox via saying, well, maybe they’re very
context constrained, the limitations of their
wants, and all that stuff. But I guess, by appealing
to an internalized misogyny before 1970, I don’t
understand how the framework itself doesn’t become in
danger of being unfalsifiable. And so I guess
I’m wondering, how do you avoid a Procrustean
bed argument that keeps your framework above water. CASS SUNSTEIN:
It’s a good point. So there are few things one
could say about the hypothesis, which is that the low levels– relatively higher levels of
subjective well-being in 1970 were a product of
adaptive preferences. One is that there is
another explanation, which is falsifiable and
turns out to be true. So it might be that, if we
looked at the data, that the– and this isn’t a huge
difference, by the way. It’s not like women’s
well-being is collapsing and men’s is growing. It’s just getting
somewhat lower. Relative is better
than absolutely. It might be that it’s a
product of an increased domain of stress, so that women
are in the workforce, as well as taking care of the family. And so what the data
is picking up on is more freedom
along one dimension, but it’s slightly lower levels
of subjective well-being. And if that turned
out to be true, meaning that in the population
where the effect is observed, this is what’s happening. And in other
populations of women, let’s say, this isn’t happening. They aren’t both working
outside the home, or they aren’t principally
in charge of the home as well as working. So that could be
established to be true. And there are other
explanations that could work. It might be that the subjective
well-being measures aren’t reliable as measures
of well-being because people are calibrating
the scale to where they are. And if you are in
certain circumstances, it’s not that you’re– if a disabled person says I’m
a 7 on a scale of 0 to 10, might be given my life, I’m
a 7, but if my legs worked, compared to people whose legs
worked, I’d give myself a 4. So that would be
another hypothesis and we could test that. The adaptive
preference phenomenon, it’s an extremely
interesting question, whether in principle
it’s falsifiable or not. If it isn’t, it would
suggest we should be humble about invoking it. But there are some
things that aren’t falsifiable that are true. Darwinism, it’s very
challenging to falsify, and so we should be
uncertain whether it’s so. But it might be so. What is interesting, I think,
about many social movements is that participants
in them sometimes say they had a
voice in their head that was unleashed
by the movement. And sometimes say, like
the North Korean woman, I had no idea I could
want something else. And that’s self
report seems sincere. Now, it would be
surprising if she didn’t have at least some
voice at some point in her head saying this isn’t great. It is an excellent question,
the falsifyability. The adaptive
preference literature is mostly political theoretical
rather than empirical. And probably these should meet. It’s pretty interesting. Tocqueville kind of started it,
talking about under conditions of acute deprivation,
people might be just fine in terms
of what they want. And this is more an
observation of self reports. One more question, should we use
a nudge or economic incentives? I think the law
school’s promised to give, with some
probability, I don’t know what, a lot of
money to the person who asks the next question. It’s over 1 over
100,000, isn’t it? And it might be as high as 90%. OK, should we thank you? Thank you for coming. [APPLAUSE]

2 thoughts on “HLS Library Book Talk | Cass Sunstein, “How Change Happens”

  1. "Transform a sense of embarrassment and shame into a sense of dignity."

    I have a storytelling process called Speaking Up, just for doing this! It's how I nurture individuals in finding their purpose in life. We ask ourselves, in order, and taking plenty of time on each question:

    What are my

    1. Greatest loves (people/places/things) I want to honor?

    2. Greatest losses, where I failed to honor someone/thing?

    3. Dreams for creating and exploring awesomeness in the universe?

    4. Needs for achieving those dreams? (High quality food, water, air, warmth, light, information, and outlets for expressing the body's excess matter and energy)

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