An abstract mathematical idealization may hold the answer to how societies can scale good solutions into behavioral change, according to a new cross-disciplinary study involving many fields of science.
The study led by a University of Vermont researcher was originally designed to figure out what kinds of behavioral shifts are needed for societies to adopt policies that would help confront climate change and pandemic infections. The resulting model suggests that social change may depend on the relationship between policies and beneficial behaviors.
Laurent Hebert-Dufresne, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Vermont's Complex Systems Center, was modeling the COVID pandemic, working on the mathematics of how to forecast disease spread and interventions against such events when he teamed up with other scientists. Some of them study cultural evolution and social change, while others are ecologists and researchers who study food system adaptations to climate change. The team asked the question, “How do we spread behaviors and policies that are going to limit the impact of climate change?” says Hebert-Dufresne, the lead author.
While there are a lot of good solutions already devised to make society change for the better, scaling those solutions into major change is “a collective societal challenge,” in Hebert-Dufresne’s words. Why that is and how to overcome that challenge is what the research group wanted to figure out.
They found that the best way to tip the scales — that is, to make change happen more quickly over a large group of disparate communities — is centered in the relationship between beneficial actions and the policies designed to promote behavioral shifts. As part of their mathematical model, they built a simulated society where positive peer behaviors could spread virally under the right conditions, meaning that institutional costs weren’t too high and that institutions supported the behavior to facilitate its spread. These factors might play out with a composting program, for example, where a local entity provides some education and supportive infrastructure, but individuals must choose to participate. If a program is successful, with significant participation, the effort might influence neighboring communities.
Similar dynamics play out in our daily lives related to climate change and the pandemic, two problems that affect a lot of people. One major challenge with most beneficial fixes is that they require buy-in from many individuals. “Often these solutions are sort of individually costly,” says Hebert-Dufresne. One example of a response to the pandemic would be limiting disease spread by wearing masks all the time; but that comes with many costs, starting with a financial burden of buying masks, followed by a potential wave of social and personal inconveniences. “Some people would say that they pay a cost to their freedom. What matters is perceived costs. And so there's an individual perceived cost for all those behaviors,” Hebert-Dufresne adds.
The mathematical model they built used an innovative combination of evolutionary and epidemiological techniques and asked what stimulates a society to adopt the beneficial behaviors of their peers and what behaviors can spread virally without the burden of institutional costs that are too high. The researchers say the model is unique because it combines behavioral change and policy change in a single system rather than focusing solely on policy or behavior.
The study suggests that to achieve large-scale social improvement, behavioral change and policy change need to work in tandem. And further, the most successful projects — the ones that result in major positive changes — include the viral spread of bottom-up behavioral shifts and top-down policy changes. “There's individuals and there's groups and we both have to make decisions,” says Hebert-Dufresne. “Our model can help figure out how to balance bottom-up and top-down effects so that new solutions can scale.”
The team’s next step is to apply their models to all sorts of beneficial social change, with a high priority on climate change to determine how to best promote behavioral changes and normalize climate change policies.