How the world changes

by Cass R Sunstein

Social change happens when ideas turn into cascades. How might that happen for animal welfare?

The 1959-1964 American television series The Twilight Zone, hosted by Rod Serling, delivered some of the most brilliant and evocative television of all time. Mainly science fiction, with elements of the paranormal and surreal, its stand-alone dramas had, and still have, a great deal to tell us about suffering, welfare, empathy, dignity and discrimination, not least when it comes to the treatment of animals. One of the best-known episodes, To serve man, which aired in 1959, featured a seemingly benign race, the Kanamits, who land on earth, visit the United Nations (UN) and offer humanity an assortment of technological and other wonders sufficient to produce prosperity and peace. By accident, a Kanamit happens to leave a book behind at the UN, and human cryptographers manage to translate the title: To serve man. Sounds benign enough.

The Kanamits, in due course, invite human beings to visit their home planet, which they describe as a paradise. But as one cryptographer climbs onto the boarding stairs to the interplanetary ship, his colleague runs out, crying, 'Mr Chambers, don't get on that ship! The rest of the book, To serve man, it's... it's a cookbook!' What, the episode requires viewers to ask, would it be like to be raised for food?

In a less well-known episode from 1960, People are alike all over, astronauts leave Earth for Mars, hoping to encounter alien, perhaps even human, life. An optimist named Marcusson insists that 'people are alike all over' - and by 'people,' he means to include humanoids, such as Martians. Following a crash-landing on Mars that kills Marcusson, his fellow astronaut, Conrad, does indeed discover Martians, and they seem warm, friendly and greatly concerned with his comfort. His hosts escort him to his new home, where he soon learns he cannot get out: he is a caged exhibit in an alien zoo. In front of his door, a sign reads: 'Earth creature in his native habitat'. Conrad grips the bars of his cage and exclaims, 'Marcusson! Marcusson, you were right! You were right. People are alike...people are alike everywhere!'

In their mistreatment of animals and in their frequent cruelty, people are indeed 'alike everywhere'. Yet people also love animals; they take them into their families and treat them with kindness and generosity. I have two Labrador retrievers, Snow and Finley, and it would be a great understatement to say that we have taken them into our family; they are members of our family. Both are sleeping next to me on our living-room couch, touching their backs to each other, as I write.

Human beings' capacity for empathy and identification, as exemplified by those two episodes of The Twilight Zone, has helped to spur movements for social change - including for the prevention of cruelty, the reduction of suffering, the promotion of animal rights and the safeguarding of animal welfare. Such movements have produced extraordinary achievements. But for all that has been accomplished in terms of helping dogs and cats, horses and cows, lions and tigers and bears, those achievements seem modest from the standpoint of what might have been done, or might yet be done. Could we do more? Much more?

These questions lead to larger ones. Why does social change happen? Why is it so hard to anticipate? Why does it often seem to come out of nowhere? Might we yet see a large-scale movement in favour of improving the lives of non-human animals - a movement that attracts more support than anything we have seen to date? And what would it take for that to happen?

Lenin was apparently stunned by the success and speed of the Russian Revolution; Tocqueville reported that no one foresaw the French Revolution. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was unanticipated and the Arab Spring unexpected by many of the leading analysts in the US, the UK and elsewhere. Puzzlingly, revolutions and large-scale changes seem to come in waves, spreading rapidly within and across countries for reasons that remain obscure. It is tempting, and not unhelpful, to speak of contagion effects. But what exactly does that mean? In what sense is revolution, revolt or a movement 'contagious'? Might a movement on behalf of animal welfare turn out to fall into the `contagious' category?

Some of the most illuminating work exploring these ideas suggests that, under the right circumstances, we see cascade effects. These tend to start when individuals aren't quite sure what to think. For this reason, they are attentive to information contained in the statements and actions of others. If, for example, Anthony does not know whether he should eat meat, he might be moved towards vegetarianism if Barbara seems to think he shouldn't eat meat. If Anthony and Barbara both choose to become vegetarians, Charles may decide to do so as well, at least if he doesn't have strong contrary inclinations. If Anthony, Barbara and Charles all believe that eating meat is wrong, Doris will need a good deal of confidence to reject their shared conclusion. This process can produce information cascades, whereby large groups of people eventually end up believing something simply because other people seem to believe it too. In some times and places, widespread vegetarianism has indeed been a product of information cascades. I will introduce complications in due course, but it is possible to identify four factors in the dynamics of real-world cascades, and to see how they might lead to a radical shift in attitudes to, and action on, animal welfare.

The first of these factors, known as preference falsification, can be found when people conceal or fail to reveal their true preferences. People might behave as if they are comfortable with the status quo - slavery, an authoritarian government, Communism, gender inequality, cruelty to animals - when in reality they question or even despise it. They may self-silence, so that their friends and neighbours have no idea what they really think. To that extent, we all live in a world of pluralistic ignorance, knowing less than we might about the preferences and beliefs of others. Under regimes that are oppressive (in one respect or another) preference falsification is common. Even under free regimes, learning what others think can be exceedingly difficult, because prevailing social norms can create a wedge between private and public preferences. We might not know, for example, that women are dissatisfied with how they are treated at work, that employees in general feel disrespected by their bosses, or that people think that animals are being abused and wish it were otherwise.

Much of the time, people fear challenging social norms; they believe they will be ostracised, in some sense, if they reveal their distress, anger, indignation or dissatisfaction. Perhaps they will be shunned. Perhaps powerful people will punish them. Perhaps their employment prospects will be compromised. As a result, people might not merely silence themselves; they might claim to be happy with the status quo when they're not. Efforts to protect animal welfare have often been deterred in this way by the intense pressure of social norms - but when such norms start to dissolve, cascades might be possible. Preference falsification, and its undoing, often plays a role in cascades that lead to unanticipated social transformations.

The second factor in creating social cascades consists of diverse thresholds, referring to the different levels of social support that different people require to rebel or say what they truly think. Some people require no support at all; they are rebels by nature. They may be courageous, committed or foolhardy. Call them `the zeros'. They need no one else's backing to cry out: 'This is wrong', or to take action. They may turn out to be isolated; perhaps no one will join them, in which case they might look extreme, foolhardy, even crazy. In the domain of animal rights and animal welfare, history contains numerous examples of such isolated and ridiculed figures.

Others may require a little support. They won't move unless someone else does, but if someone else does rebel, they are prepared to do so too. Call them `the ones'. Others might require more than a little: they are `the twos'. The twos will do nothing unless they see the zeros and the ones; but if they do, they'll rebel as well. The twos are followed by the threes, and the fours, and the tens, and the hundreds, thousands, all the way up to the infinites (defined as people who will not oppose the status quo, no matter what).

Cascade effects are often the result of processes of this kind, whether the issue involves smoking, buying Taylor Swift CDs, buckling one's seat belt, eating organic foods, supporting Brexit, joining a labour union or becoming vegan.

Many cascades involve information: people join in because of what they learn. Other cascades involve reputation: people join in because of how they want to be seen. People will join both information cascades and reputation cascades in the right circumstances. In the context of animal welfare, reputational influences can be exceedingly important: people fear the disapproval of others.

The third factor in cascades consists of interdependencies, reflecting the fact that the behaviour of the ones, the twos, the threes, and so forth will depend crucially on who, if anyone, is seen to have done what. Suppose the various citizens are in a kind of temporal queue: the zeros go first, then the ones, then the twos, then the threes and so forth; or perhaps vice-versa; or perhaps it is all random. A rebellion could occur, but only given the right distribution of thresholds and the right kind of visibility. If the ones see the zeros, they will rebel, and if the twos see the ones, they too will rebel, and if the threes see the twos, they will join them. If the conditions are just right, almost everyone will rebel. I will turn to the implications of this for animal welfare shortly, but the basic point should be clear:  
for change to occur, the conditions must be just right. Suppose that there are no zeros or that no one sees any zeros: no rebellion or movement will occur. If there are only a few ones, the status quo is likely to be safe. If most people are tens or hundreds or thousands, the same is true even if there are some ones, twos, threes, fours and so forth.

The fourth factor in cascades, group polarisation, refers to the fact that when like-minded people get together, they tend to become more confident, unified and extreme. People who are opposed to labour unions, for example, are likely, after talking to each other, to be still more opposed; people who tend to a particular civil rights movement are likely, after discussion, to support that movement with even more enthusiasm; people who believe that climate change is a serious problem are likely, after discussion, to insist on severe measures to reduce its risks. Many social movements are energised and take off only because like-minded people frequently speak to one another.

Group polarisation occurs for two main reasons, both of which should now be familiar. The first involves information: if most members of a group tend to care about animal welfare, they will hear more arguments in favour of protecting animal welfare and fewer against, and, as a result, they will become more confident about and committed to the issue. The second involves reputation: if most members of a group tend to care about animal welfare, they will be influenced by the commitment of others in their group and will tend to want to go along with it.

We should now be able to see why large-scale changes may be impossible to predict. First, we don't know what people's preferences are, because they may be suppressed and cannot be observed. Second, we don't know what people's thresholds are. They, too, are unobservable. Third, we can't anticipate social interactions - who will say or do what and when. It is important to emphasise this third point: even if we could identify people's preferences and specify their thresholds, we still wouldn't be able to know, in advance, the nature of their social interactions, and we may not know, in advance, whether like-minded people will be able to get together, and how often, with exactly what consequences.

All this suggests that even if new technologies were to make it increasingly possible to identify private preferences - for example, if data collection from online behaviour suggested keen or growing interest in animal welfare - we still couldn't predict revolutions or large-scale changes. To be sure, we would know something important. Change is more likely if people secretly abhor the status quo; but knowing that they do would not be sufficient. To predict what will happen, we need to know about people's thresholds as well. Obtaining that knowledge would inevitably be difficult, perhaps impossible. Even then, we would need to know who interacts with whom, who sees whom and when. No one has that kind of prescience. But the answers to those questions may well determine outcomes.

I hope this explains not only why large-scale changes are unpredictable but also why they are often a product of seemingly small, random or serendipitous factors. We might think that a practice was bound to change, but it really was not. It happened to change. The same would be true if it remained the same: it happened not to change.

This is a very simple account, of course. It needs to be complicated. For example, people's preferences may be adaptive to the status quo; that is to say, their desires and beliefs about what is good or right might depend on what they see around them. If they take a situation as normal, they might also find it normative - in other words, they might see it as just fine. Consider these words from a woman in North Korea: 'It never occurred to me that I could or would want to do anything about it. It was just how things are'. The most important word here is 'want'.

North Korea is an extreme case. But it is revealing. Often people are aware that something is wrong or bad or horrific but their awareness comes in the form of a small voice in the background. Preference falsification is an oversimplification, in other words, because people's preferences may well be an artefact of the status quo. They may be falsified, or adaptive to the status quo, or partially adaptive - and which it is depends on both individuals and the context in which they find themselves. It is not a question that can be answered in the abstract.

Animal welfare

In the light of all this, what are the implications for the possibility of significant change in approaches to animal welfare?

Begin with preference falsification. Those who care about animal welfare and are inclined to want to say or do something about it often silence themselves. They know that if they speak or act, they may incur social disapproval or worse. In some cases, they hear a voice in their head saying, 'this is wrong' or 'this is cruel' or 'history will judge this is a horror' - but they silence this instinct because of social norms. Alternatively, they might not really hear the voice, perhaps because they are busy with other matters or because hearing it, and attending to it, could create some serious trouble.

I will confess here that I am, in part, a case in point. When President Barack Obama nominated me to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in 2009 - an important position in the US government - I had to be confirmed by the US Senate. The confirmation process took many months and turned out to be surreal, a kind of personal nightmare (complete with a credible death threat). One reason for this was that I was said to be an 'animal rights zealot' and 'a rabid supporter of animal rights', who would issue regulations forbidding meat-eating and banning fishing and hunting. Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee vaguely threatened me (with gunfire) if I ever visited his home state. The talk show host Glenn Beck described me as 'the most dangerous man in America' and also as the 'most evil [man]'.

The sheer level of vitriol and volume of rage had an effect. When I have written and spoken about animal welfare since my time in the Obama administration, I have done so with a degree of trepidation, even fear - and I cannot deny that I have written and spoken about that topic less than I would have if I had not had the experience I have just described.

I might be forgiven, perhaps, for telling this personal story, given that countless people, all over the planet, care greatly about the welfare of animals and abhor cruelty and abuse but do and say less than they might, for one reason: they are not sure that it's worth the personal trouble.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing On the question of thresholds, some people are zeros with respect to animal welfare, in the sense that they will speak out or act even if no one else does. Others are ones, in the sense that they need someone to follow, but only one other person. Others are twos, tens, hundreds or thousands. For whatever reason, some may be infinites.elit. Nam a felis quis nulla mollis interdum eu a risus.

Many of us may not be sure what our thresholds are. We learn it only after the fact. Consider the question of whether to be a vegetarian, where people clearly have different thresholds. Some decide independently to become vegetarian; others are persuadable if someone else goes first - perhaps a family member or a close friend. And (the crucial point) many who think it preposterous to become a vegetarian when they see no one else who is a vegetarian might think it reasonable, even obligatory, to become vegetarian if they were to see a lot of people deciding not to eat meat.

Social interactions are crucial to the movement for animal welfare. Who is seeing whom? When? Who is talking to whom? Are visible people speaking and acting in ways that support animal welfare? Are they credible and with whom? The threes and fours might be silencing themselves because the ones and the twos are silent too. But if the ones and the twos spoke, or acted, the threes and the fours would feel emboldened to join them and thus create a cascade, proving that people are not in truth 'the same all over'.

In many times and places, believers in animal rights, animal welfare, or both have created communities of like-minded people. These communities can be highly effective. They increase commitment to a belief that might have been held tentatively. They increase confidence, unity and extremism (where 'extremism' is meant to be merely descriptive). They make their belief a part of their identity.

It is important to note, and to reiterate, that this is a bare-bones, highly stylised account of social movements and omits a great deal. There is, for example, the crucial role of salience. The power of Peter Singer's book Animal liberation came in large part from making the invisible visible. The suffering of animals might be hidden, or it might not be. The words and deeds of people who speak or act in favour of animals may be salient, or they may not be. Some twos are different from other twos, and the same is true for threes and fours, because they might be famous people; they might be trusted people; they might be 'surprising validators', whose support for animal welfare is genuinely unexpected and influential for that very reason. What these people say and how they behave may be especially salient.

In addition, descriptive social norms, capturing what people actually do, matter a great deal. Other things being equal, people are more likely to change their behaviour to comply with a new norm if they believe that most other people are compliant; they are correspondingly less likely to do so if they believe most others are noncompliant. A prominent study found that visitors to a national park who saw signs informing them that many past visitors had stolen petrified wood from the park were more likely to steal petrified wood than visitors who saw signs informing them that the vast majority of visitors had left the wood in the park. 

Emerging or dynamic social norms also matter. If people learn not that most people are doing X, but that people are increasingly doing X, they might well start to do it too. If more and more people in a community are refusing to eat meat, informing people that this is happening might create a cascade effect, perhaps because people see what is possible, perhaps because they see that it's right, perhaps because they don't want to be on the wrong side of history.

There is a final point. The movement for animal welfare is not simply about the revelation of preferences, experiences and beliefs. It is also about their transformation. Any social movement helps to change preferences, beliefs and values - for example, by revealing what it might be like to be raised for food or kept in a zoo. We come to see a 'cookbook' as something not mundane but chilling, firing the human imagination, triggering empathy and inspiring a sense of commonality on the part of human beings with other living creatures. A movement develops, powered by the belief that people ought not to be the same everywhere.

In short, movements for social change don't merely elicit and give a green light to pre-existing judgments. They produce fresh ones. With respect to animal welfare, we are currently seeing a great deal of that. We are likely to see much more.

Cass R Sunstein

Cass R Sunstein is currently the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard. He is the founder and director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard Law School. In 2018, he received the Holberg Prize from the government of Norway, sometimes described as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for law and the humanities.