Why You Stink At Creating Social Change

Our world is filled with signs yelling at people to clean up their messes, follow the rules, etc. and yet almost no one abides by them. Why are signs like these so ineffective and how does this illustrate how bad we are at creating social change? In this piece Nathan Palmer addresses both those questions and cautions against falling in the rational actor trap and falling for the fundamental attribution error.

“PLEASE DON’T PUT SODA BOTTLES IN THE FREEZER!!! THEY EXPLODE!!!” Signs like this are plastered across the break room refrigerators all over the world. They always make me laugh. I wonder what effect the person who wrote the sign thought it would have:

  • Sheila walks into the break room warm soda in hand. Gripping the freezer door handle Sheila reads the warning and says to herself, “wait, soda bottles will explode in the freezer? I had no idea. Boy am I glad I got this timely message just before I made a mistake. I’ll put this in the refrigerator.”

Signs like this are everywhere. There’s a sign in the dirty bathroom that says, “it’s your responsibility to clean up after yourself!!!” Go to the dog park and you’ll see, “Clean up after your dog!” on a sign surrounded by piles of dog poop. When the lights go out at the movie theater a “please shut off your cell phone” sign is partially visible over all the illuminated cell phones in the crowd.

All of these messages have a few things in common. First they are hung in a communal space. Second they tell readers something they probably already know. And finally, the signs are fantastically ineffective at creating social change. Signs like these illustrate one of the reasons we all stink at creating social change.

Many folks who attempt to change a community’s behavior often fall into the trap of assuming the people they are trying to change are uneducated about the situation. Everyone knows pop bottles explode in the freezer and you should pick up your dog’s dooky, but these educational signs presume that ignorance is the crux of the problem. I’ve taught students about how to create social change for years and when I ask them what can be done about the issue, they almost always recommend an awareness raising campaign. Why do we assume ignorance in these situations? Two reasons, the assumption of rationality and the fundamental attribution error.

The Rational Actor Trap

When we set out to create change we often incorrectly assume that everyone is a rational actor trying to make choices that are best for them. While we use the word rationality all the time, many of us struggle to actually define it, so allow me. Rationality is the idea that people try to achieve their goals in the most efficient way possible. Sociologists like Max Weber have argued that rationality is the key cultural idea that supports almost everything we do in modern society. College students go to school to earn credits to earn a degree to get a job to earn a living to be able to support a family or a lifestyle they want; this is a chain of rational behaviors. In the United States and increasingly the rest of the world, we assume that everyone is a rational actor trying to maximize the good things in their life and minimize the bad[1].

Novices to the social change business fall into what I call the rational actor trap. That is, if you assume that everyone is rational and you see people doing things that you think are irrational (or even stupid), then it’s only logical to assume they must be ignorant about the consequences of their actions. I mean, why would people do something that was bad for them or self-defeating? To that question, I’d return a few in kind: Have you ever eaten food that you knew was unhealthy? Have you ever waited to write a paper until the night before it was due? Have you ever texted while driving? I’m guessing the answer is yes to at least one of these. So let me ask you, were you unaware that these behaviors are bad for you?

The Fundamental Attribution Error & Social Change

Chances are the last time you did something that was unwise, unhealthy, dangerous, or illegal you did so because of the set of circumstances you found yourself in. Maybe you waited to the last minute to start that paper because you had a big test to study for in another class. Those texts you read while driving? They might have been from a friend who was in crisis about a breakup. I’m not trying to excuse anyone’s behavior, I’m just saying that when you did what you did, you had your reasons. You’re not a bad person, you were just caught up in some unfortunate circumstances.

When we reflect on our own behavior we take into consideration the circumstances we were in at the time. However, when we think about the behaviors of others we rarely take into consideration their circumstances[2] and instead attribute their behaviors to who they are as a person. This is what’s known as the fundamental attribution error (i.e. we attribute an individual’s behavior to who they are fundamentally as a person).

Because of the fundamental attribution error, we are all prone to assume that to create change we have to change people. However, most of the time what we need to do is change the circumstances that the people find themselves in.

The next time you find yourself with a permanent marker in your hand writing a passive aggressive sign, stop. If you want to really create change, start by assuming that the people you’re trying to change know as much (if not more) about the situation than you do. Then take a look at the circumstances they are in and try to change those.

P.S. If you want people to stop blowing up pop bottles in the freezer, leave a basket of kitchen timers and a note inviting the reader to use one so they don’t forget about their soon to be icy cold beverage.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Let’s say you wanted to reduce either drunk driving or smoking; two things that almost everyone knows are either unhealthy or illegal. Pick one of these issues and propose actions you could personally take in your community to create change. (Note: Assume that an awareness/education campaign is unnecessary).
  2. Up until last week New York City had signs all over the city that warned drivers of the $350 fine for honking your horn in the city. Yes, you heard me right, it’s against the law to honk your horn in NYC. Read this news story about the plan to take down the signs and the concerns about an increase in noise pollution. If you were the mayor of NYC, what would you do to decrease excessive horn honking? Your answer should reflect the best practices discussed in post above.
  3. Childhood obesity has received a lot of attention in the United States. Listen/read this NPR story about recent data on the circumstances parents find themselves in that lead to unhealthy child outcomes. Are the parents educated about the issue and do they know what to do to fend of childhood obesity? If so, why do they feel stuck?
  4. What are the other issues that lead people to do things that they know are unhealthy, unwise, or otherwise seemingly against their interest? For this question assume that people are aware that the behavior is sub-optimal. It might help to think about some of the common poor choices people make everyday.

  1. Heck, an entire academic disciplines are built on the idea that we are purely rational people (I’m looking at you economics), but that doesn’t make it true… but that’s a discussion for another day.  ↩

  2. Because we rarely know what another person’s circumstances are. Especially if the other person lives in a far off place or in a culture much different than our own.  ↩