Individual Change or Societal Change. Which Ensures Durable Shifts in Attitudes and Behaviors?

August 5, 2020

America is experiencing an important awakening around racial justice. Many are coming to understand that silence and inaction around racism make us complicit in its effects on our neighbors, friends, and colleagues. 

This awakening is driving some people to begin correcting individual biases and attitudes that drive othering, exclusion, and oppression of people of color. It is also pushing us to change the systems and institutions that perpetuate racism and discrimination at all levels.

Yet, it remains to be seen whether these efforts will result in durable and lasting systems change that improves the lives of Black Americans and other discriminated classes in America.

Insights from behavioral science allow us to understand the impact and durability of individual and societal level shifts.

Individual Change

Many people have begun the process to understand and challenge their biases and stereotypes. This is essential work to correct individual attitudes and behaviors towards others.

That process involves questioning our stereotypes (preconceived ideas about others that drive attitudes), our attitudes (the seemingly settled ways of thinking or feeling about someone or something), and our biases (deeply held and often unconscious views of others which influence decisions around who we include and who we leave out). These stereotypes, attitudes and biases develop in our mind over time, unconsciously, and are shaped by the media and culture we consume and our personal experiences.  Our brains use all of these inputs to create patterns and shortcuts to help us organize information and make decisions.  But these patterns can also manifest as stereotypes and prejudices, especially when we are engaged in fast thinking.

Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist, Daniel Kahneman coined the term fast thinking to describe our automatic, unconscious, emotional, and instinctive ways of thinking like snap judgments and stereotypes. An overreliance on fast thinking can mean biases and prejudice guide our behavior. By contrast, Kahneman defines slow thinking as deliberative or rational thinking. This is the thinking we do when we unravel, question, and understand our own biases, or challenge the stereotypes and biases we hold. Slow thinking is the only way to ensure we are not setting ourselves up to treat people unfairly.

Let’s use the example of a police officer with negative attitudes towards the Black community. His attitude is likely driven by biases and stereotypes he’s accumulated over a lifetime. They fuel his behavior towards members of the Black community and that can easily translate into unfair, aggressive and violent behaviors.

Now, there are two main ways for him to change his behavior towards the Black community.

The first involves individual transformation. He may correct his attitude by doing some slow thinking and examining critically how his biases and stereotypes are pushing him into poor snap judgments or dangerous fast thinking.

The second is through conformity to a new social norm where he works to align his behavior with a changing standard of behavior set down by his department or other city leadership about how police officers are to treat members of the Black community. 

Social Norms

Social psychology teaches us that humans work hard to adhere to the norms or perceived normal behaviors of the groups of which we are members.  Thus, social norms can be effective tools for behavior change because when humans perceive new norms, they generally shift their own actions in order to fit in. Positive norm shifts can ignite a virtuous cycle where individuals conform to the new, improved norm - even when their own personal attitudes have not yet shifted.

Does it matter what triggers the behavior changes in the police officer as long as it improves outcomes and the lived experience of the Black community? It does.

Improved behavior resulting from a norm change without underlying changes in personal attitudes is unstable and suboptimal.  Why?  Because norms can shift back and forth over time. 

Let’s look at the example of the norm-shaping behavior known as “political correctness.” For many years, people in America conformed to a norm where they avoided verbalizing their attitudes and biases against members of discriminated classes.

However, in the past several years, we’ve seen a rejection of this social norm by many. This backlash likely comes from those who never really changed their attitudes or checked their biases at all. They were simply conforming to a norm. However, as other members of their in-group rejected the norm, they felt less obliged to comply and reverted back to old behaviors.

Thus, an improved norm around how police officers treat the Black community would push a lot of officers to change their actions in order to conform. However, if the norm switched back, so might they.

Our work to create a society that is truly inclusive, equitable, and pluralistic does not end when observable behaviors change. The work of changing individual attitudes and biases has to be part of the overall change process if we are to see durable shifts and improvements in how we treat each other. In essence, a combination of norm shifts and individual attitudinal shifts are our best bet to achieve long-term change.