How Quickly Can Social Norms Change?

I have always believed that people are extraordinarily stubborn, that far too often they do not change their attitudes in response to reasoned arguments, and that efforts to get people to become more enlightened are doomed to fail. On the other hand, evidence of progress in social attitudes is all around us. (Bear baiting, anyone?) Upon reflection, therefore, I realize that I have a similarly deep intuitive sense that people's attitudes can be changed both by reasoned arguments and -- perhaps more powerfully -- by social pressure, as changes in attitudes take on a certain momentum.

In an exchange last week, Jamison Colburn (here) and Michael Dorf (here) disagreed strongly about the likelihood of changes in social attitudes regarding veganism, a disagreement which was ultimately revealed to be a difference of opinion about when and how social attitudes can change. In this post, I'll offer a few examples to suggest that Prof. Colburn's hypothesis is only weakly supported by a broad range of evidence.

One of the key questions about veganism is whether it is difficult or easy to be a vegan. In one of my posts over the summer discussing my conversion to veganism, I suggested that it was too difficult to be a vegan in the U.S. today. ("[T]he U.S. economy makes it difficult -- but by no means prohibitive -- to be a vegan.") Four months on, I am happy to report that the learning curve does not take long to climb. The biggest issue for me was simply changing certain mental defaults: not buying M&M's or buttered popcorn at the movies, ordering soy lattes instead of skim lattes, etc. There are still some rather basic policies that could make it easier to be a vegan and that would have the effect of making people less intimidated by the prospect of checking the ingredients in prepared foods, but the good news is that there is now rarely a day when I need to think consciously about these decisions.

The question, however, is not whether people can change their minds, but whether there are identifiable types of ingrained attitudes that are easier to change than others. In a comment on Mike's post, Jamie clarified his "actual point: the closer you get to practical certainty on suffering, the more likely people are to hear you out and decide afresh." Part of the difficulty in assessing this argument lies in whether "practical certainty" means that suffering is "statitistically certain" or rather "certain in the minds of real people" (i.e., salient). Let's think through a few examples of extremely rapid changes in social attitudes that might shed light on this question.

- Domestic Violence: I recently watched a rerun of the 60's sitcom "The Dick Van Dyke Show." The story revolved around a woman who was drawn to a man because he was a mean drunk, bringing out her "maternal" side. The final line of the episode had one character saying to another: "You know what we should do? Go home and hit our wives." Raucous laughter, upbeat theme music, roll credits. It goes without saying that this is shocking to us today. In fact, it would have been shocking only 10-15 years after the show was aired, because of a rapid and widespread public acceptance of a new norm condemning violence against women, changing laws about marital rape, etc. (This fight is still depressingly not yet won, but the changes in attitudes are nothing short of amazing across much of our society.) Is this change in attitudes because of "practical certainty on suffering"? There is no question that the victims of domestic violence are identifiable and that the suffering is certain, but I find it hard to believe that this is the key to the change. The key seems to lie in one's attitudes about whose suffering counts at all as a matter of public concern. Still, this example offers at least some support for Jamie's thesis.

-- Alcohol Use and Drunk Driving: In the late 1980's, I tried to order an iced tea at a bar near Boston. The bartender literally berated me for wasting his time; then he dropped a tea bag in a class of iced water and charged me a dollar. Today, that kind of attitude would cost the guy his job. It took only a few years after that before social attitudes about drinking -- and especially drinking and driving -- changed. Before then, drunk driving was a matter of bravado and joking. ("I was so drunk last night that I was driving home 'by Braille.'") Today, bars and liquor companies sponsor designated driver programs, etc. Is this explained by "practical certainty on suffering"? Again, there is no doubt that people suffer when a drunk driver causes an accident. We are now, however, one step removed, because the now-displaced attitudes about drunk driving were that "I can drive drunk without hurting anyone." Driving drunk may have a statistical certainty of causing suffering, but one cannot explain changes in public attitudes about the harms of drunk driving by reference to this certainty. It might now seem obvious that people equate drunk driving with certain death, but that was definitely not true at the time that the attitudes were changing.

- Smoking: Perhaps the most astonishing change in social attitudes in the last 25 years or so has to do with smoking. When I quit smoking in 1985, smoking was so widely accepted that a non-smoking host was affirmatively expected to have ashtrays in her home to accommodate smokers. Asking a non-smoker not to smoke in one's car elicited a sarcastic retort. Within only a few years, it was a given among the large majority of the American population that smoking is a sign of bad manners at best. Every airport and airplane is smoke-free. More and more cities are adopting laws banning smoking in bars, restaurants, etc.

The change in social attitudes about smoking has been, pardon the pun, breath-taking. Is this because of "practical certainty of suffering"? Again, there is something to this, but this story seems to fit best ex post. There was a lot of resistance to the very idea of second-hand smoke being a health hazard. The driving force in this social change seems to have been more a matter of deciding who had the right to force other people to do what they wanted. This may have been caused by concerns about suffering, but from my perspective it seemed to be more about attitudes toward public cleanliness. Smoking came to be seen as ugly, not dangerous (which people had known even before the surgeon general's report in the 60's).

-- The Environment: Is there a better example of a changed social attitude than the environmental movement? In the late 60's and 70's, it was a big deal to convince people that littering was harmful. Now, widespread recycling is the norm in many areas of the country, people buy and lease hybrid cars that cost more than non-hybrids, and politicians run on green platforms. Even conglomerates regularly run green campaigns. Is this because of the practical certainty of suffering? It's hard to see how. Even those of us who strongly support stronger environmental policies admit that we do not know whether and how much these policies will help. There is at least some possibility that it's already too late, yet people seem willing -- surprisingly so, from a narrow utility-maximizing perspective -- to sacrifice in the name of environmental responsibility. The most impressive change in social attitudes in the last few decades, therefore, is the one that is least directly tied to certain suffering.

Which brings us back to veganism. (I am leaving out other large but less than complete sea changes in social attitudes about homosexuality, gay marriage, etc.) It is true that the step from vegetarianism to veganism involves a recognition of suffering that is not obvious (the necessary connection to torture and killing in the production of veal, the "beaking" of chickens, etc.) The suffering from meat-eating itself, however, is deliberately hidden from our view. The difference is not between the practical certainty that suffering is connected to meat eating and less practical certainty that suffering is connected to dairy products. If, on the other hand, one were to say that practical certainty means "salient certainty," then we're back to the would-be drunk drivers who feel absolutely certain that they will not cause suffering. The step from vegetarianism to veganism, therefore, is not about practical certainty of suffering but of knowledge of that literal certainty.

The big issue is, as Mike characterized it, whether the following statement is true: "That it’s hard to persuade people to change their behavior because they have different perspectives and different life experiences." Change is always difficult. The evidence of the largest changes in social attitudes over the last few decades, however, strongly suggests that social persuasion is a lot more possible than we think. I look forward to the day when meat (and dairy) eating joins bear baiting as a cynical aside -- something so obviously grotesque that we can no longer believe that people ever did it.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan