The Science of Change: How it Happens and How it Doesn’t

Facts can motivate people, but not always in the ways we want. I attended a lecture by Dr Helen Caldicott, whose life mission is to educate the public about the dangers of nuclear power. As Caldicott neared the end of her speech, a young woman cried out in terror, “We’re all going to die! We’re all going to die!” as her friends led her from the lecture hall.

Facts can anger people into action and also shock them into despair and dissociation.

In medicine, it is generally understood that facts and frightening consequences rarely change human behavior. Everyone knows that smoking damages your health. Everyone knows that fast food clogs your arteries. Everyone knows that lack of exercise shortens your life. Yet people continue to smoke, eat fast food and fail to exercise.

The knowledge that they are harming themselves does not empower most people; it provides them with further evidence of their powerlessness.

The shock-them-into-change strategy doesn’t work in medicine. Yet social and political activists continue to embrace it as their strategy of choice. When telling people how bad things are proves ineffective, the shock factor is jacked up as if yelling louder will make the difference. When that fails, pessimism generally follows and the bulk of humanity is wrongly dismissed as stupid or uncaring.

In fact, most people know what’s going on in the world. They may not know all the details but they know the basics, that the world is run for the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else. Most Americans know that Washington invaded Iraq on false pretenses and they want the war to end. Nevertheless, the president remains in office, and the war continues.

If the truth could set us free, we would be free by now. However, as Noam Chomsky and others have pointed out, society is structured to keep most people feeling powerless most of the time, regardless of what they know.

How do people change?

Many researchers have investigated the factors that change human behavior in medicine, in prisons and in the workplace. Regardless of the setting, three elements are consistently identified, which are most effective when combined. I have applied them to the problem of social change.

Social support. People need support from others to overcome feelings of powerlessness, to create strategies for change and to act on them. In the context of supportive relationships, we learn that we are neither crazy nor powerless. By pulling together, we give each other hope and strength.

To find out how organization counteracts powerlessness, psychologists at the University of Sussex interviewed participants in “traditional marches, fox-hunt sabotages, anti-capitalist street parties, environmental direct actions, and industrial mass pickets.” The factors that contributed to a heightened sense of power included: being part of something bigger than yourself; increased hope of change; and a sense of unity and mutual support within the group.

Solidarity is a powerful antidote to pessimism. Activists reported a deep sense of happiness while involved in collective protests. Simply recalling their experiences caused them to smile. The researchers concluded that “people should get more involved in campaigns, struggles and social movements, not only in the wider interest of social change, but also for their own personal good.”

Presenting problems as solvable. To change their behavior, people need to see themselves and the world differently, in ways that make change seem possible. For example, explaining that the attack on immigrants is part of a divide-and-rule strategy to raise profits highlights the power of the capitalist class. In contrast, explaining that a divide-and-rule strategy is necessary because the capitalists could never rule a united working class highlights the power of ordinary people. The facts are the same but the feeling is more hopeful, and feelings motivate actions.

Howard Zinn is so widely loved because he believes in us and invites us to believe in ourselves and each other. The title of his latest book, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, says it all. Michael Moore’s film, Sicko, has made a huge impact, not only because it reveals the horrors of the American medical system, but because it shows them to be neither necessary nor inevitable.

Repetition. When the level of struggle is high, people seem to change overnight in a kind of explosive chain reaction. At all other times, the dominant ideas are those that maintain the status quo. Changing those ideas requires patient and repeated encouragement. It’s like boiling water.

You put the kettle on the stove and turn up the heat, but nothing seems to happen. Do you remove the kettle in disgust at the failure of heat to boil water? Of course not! We know that heat increases the speed of water molecules, a process that we cannot see directly. When enough heat has been applied and the molecules are moving fast enough, a change of state will occur. Liquid transforms into gas.

Boiling water is a predictable, mechanical process. Changing people is more complicated, because we cannot predict when a change of mind will occur. Nor can we know all the factors that will be required for that transformation. We must have patience. Just because nothing seems to be happening doesn’t mean that people aren’t boiling under the surface.

The bottom line is that shocking people with facts can deepen feelings of powerlessness. To counter pessimism and passivity, we must apply the science of social change. We need to build activist organizations that can raise people’s confidence that this is not the world we deserve but the one we have inherited and are collectively responsible for changing.

Susan Rosenthal is a life-long socialist, retired physician, union member, and the author of POWER and Powerlessness (2006). Sick and Sicker: Essays on Class, Health and Health Care (2010), and Rebel Minds: Class War, Mass Suffering, and the Urgent Need for Socialism (2019). She can be reached at: Read other articles by Susan.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Robert B. Livingston said on August 21st, 2007 at 12:19pm #

    It is unfortunate that one woman left the Caldicott lecture in shock, but I suspect it confirmed for all the others there that education about nuclear power is of critical and emotional importance.

    If only a few people could be similarly shocked by Chomsky’s mealy-mouthed pretense of being the voice of change while denying high-placed complicity with the Kennedy assassination or 9/11.

  2. Tim Hollis said on August 21st, 2007 at 5:39pm #

    I often wonder if a focusing element will emerge to connect those of us able to read the writing on the wall. It will definitely require disobediant political action and a unitive consensus of aims to effect a change. At least we are alive and well (for the time being) on the web and it’s probably our best hope.

  3. Ajit said on August 21st, 2007 at 9:53pm #

    The Kennedy Assassination Cult is the 911 Truth Movement of last generation. I always wonder what makes otherwise radical people worry so much about a mass murderer like JFK. Instead of worrying about who killed JFK they should worry about the hapless people he killed in vietnam and latin america. The way these idiots behave anyone would be thinking JFK was a cross between Jesus Christ and Buddha instead of what he was, a class A Mass Murderer.

  4. John Bambey said on August 23rd, 2007 at 3:43pm #

    To Ajit and others who think like him. (1) you may think you are politically knowledgeable, yet if you collect all your information simply by rating your sources veracity by the degree that they follow your own prejudices, you are no better than those who proudly display Bush /Cheney signs and maybe even less informed. (2) Kennedy was killed by the Cubans working for the CIA, that is beyond any rational doubt but there is extremely strong evidence that the Hit was sanctioned at the highest levels, Certainly at a higher level than E Howard Hunt. (3) Facts are impartial they do not take sides, political conclusions, like scientific ones, should be drawn after the facts – all the facts – are gathered, not before. -jjb