Many people are trying to make society change for the better. The real challenge is how to get good solutions to scale up for big changes. New research suggests that social change may be due to the relationship between beneficial behaviors and politics.
The research, conducted by the University of Maine, the University of Maine in Augusta, the University of Vermont and the University of Laval in Quebec, Canada, sought to understand how society can bring about great, transformative social change, especially the kind of social change needed to address growing problems with climate change.
The researchers studied behaviors that benefit groups, but are not spread without political support, such as a costly measure to mitigate the effects of climate change. They created a mathematical model using an innovative combination of epidemiological and evolutionary techniques, which simulates a society where agents live in groups and assume the beneficial behavior of peers – behavior that, given the right conditions, can spread virally, but not if it institutional costs are too high.
The model takes into account factors such as the presence of adopters and non-adopters in a group; the spread of behavior, both within the group and globally; the strength of institutions that support the behavior and facilitate its dissemination; and the costs of these institutions.
“Our model is unique because it combines behavior change and policy change in a single system, and encourages us to think about social change in a richer way. Large-scale social change is not just politics or behavior, but the emergence of a new self-reinforcing system that combines both.This allows us to ask new questions, such as “how would a new pattern of behavior and politics spread?”, says Timothy Waring, associate professor of social-ecological systems modeling at the University of Maine and co-author of the study.
The results showed that both behavioral change and policy change are required to achieve large-scale social change – and that they must take place together. Although none of them can get the job done on their own, policy changes are particularly critical.
The researchers found that the favorable behavior can sometimes spread too far. In some cases, the spread of behavior outside of supportive policy groups may reduce its perceived success and slow down the spread of the policy, thereby limiting overall beneficial social change.
The simulation suggests that projects involving both bottom-up and viral spread of behavior and top-down policy change may be the best type of solution for major sustainability issues such as climate change as they serve as an example and can be spread between groups to influence major change.
“For example, let’s say a state wants to spread participation in a new organic composting law that would benefit cities,” Waring said. “For the system to work, the waste collected must be purely organic material. But contributing to pure organic waste requires effort on the part of households, so the behavior does not take off by itself. This is a common problem for policy implementation. But if cities experiment with systems to support and disseminate behavior, the successful urban programs can be disseminated between cities along with household grants, resulting in effective, large-scale change. “
Laurent Hébert-Dufresne, lead author of the study and associate professor at the University of Vermont, says: “Our model can help find out how to balance the effects from the bottom up and up and down and down so that new solutions can be scaled. For example, can help to determine when we should promote composting behavior across the country to normalize it and when we should instead focus on a locally well-funded pilot project to demonstrate the potential benefits of composting. “
Waring said that in future research, the team aims to apply these types of models to all sorts of beneficial social changes, especially the challenge of tackling climate change.
The study was published in Royal Society Open Science March 23, 2022. The research is part of track 2 of UMaine’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) project.