A change of mind: A more effective approach to shaping attitudes towards social and economic issues

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Research suggests that, perhaps instinctively, people tend to prefer stability and the status quo to transformation and new ideas, even when they are personally disadvantaged as a result. The tacit approval of inequality despite its proven negative impact on society is a good example. Patrick Haack, Assistant Professor at HEC Lausanne and Jost Sieweke, Assistant Professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam investigate why we think and behave this way. In doing so they provide persuasive new insights on how to change prevailing attitudes and behavior.

5 min read

Patrick Haack is a professor of Business Ethics. His research interests include social judgment formation, practice adoption, and the study of institutionalization and legitimation.

Social and economic inequality is an increasingly popular topic of discussion. As the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” widens – the wealth of some sixty individuals is as great as that of the poorest half of the planet’s population – there is a growing realization that current economic systems do not work for all sections of society. The negative impact of inequality is becoming clear, including poor health, unhappiness, and slow economic growth.

Yet despite this knowledge, and even though research suggests we live in a world where justice and fairness matters, little is being done to redress the balance. Popular protests are conspicuously absent. Indeed the mystery seems less how we have arrived at this point, but more why so many people appear to find inequality acceptable, including the millions who are personally disadvantaged.

It is a mystery that academics Patrick Haack and Jost Sieweke go some way to solving in their paper The Legitimacy of Inequality which takes a fresh look at the shaping of people’s attitudes towards social and economic systems.

The shaping of attitudes

Haack and Sieweke draw on existing socio-psychological theory to identify two mechanisms – adaptation and replacement – that they believe help to explain how and if a social system becomes accepted as legitimate.

With adaptation the authors suggest that individuals alter their values and standards to align with what they believe to be “the established and valid norms of society”.

Factors that contribute towards the perception of validity include the perceived inevitability that a system will prevail and the strength and extent of collective approval. An individual exposed to inequality will, eventually, view that inequality as acceptable, especially if the inequality is endorsed by authority figures – politicians, experts, media, judiciary – and represented as social fact. With this view, perceptions of “what is” shape perceptions of “what ought to be”.

The process of adaptation takes place over time. The longer an individual has experienced one system, the longer it takes to adapt and consent to a different system that is inconsistent with their established beliefs. The longer an individual’s exposure to a system based on equality, the longer they will take to accept a system where inequality is inherent.

Another mechanism involved in the acceptance of a new social system is replacement, suggest the authors. Here attitudes and beliefs about the status quo shift as younger generations replace older generations. Older generations with more experience of equality take longer to accept inequality. Whereas younger generations, who know no different, more readily accept inequality, shifting collective attitudes towards an acceptance of inequality over time.

Testing the theory

To test their ideas the authors take advantage of the unique circumstances that existed after World War II when Germany divided into two entities with very different social, economic and political systems. In socialist East Germany (GDR) egalitarian norms prevailed, with notions of equality and the equal division of opportunities and resources underpinning the way of life. In West Germany (FRG), however, inequality was viewed as an inevitable byproduct of competitive capitalism. A price paid for economic growth and democratic freedom.

This division persisted until the late 1980s and the fall of the Berlin Wall. After the reunification of Germany in 1990, formerly socialist East Germany was assimilated into West Germany. A previously isolated group of East Germans, steeped in socialist ideology, were exposed to the inequalities prevalent in the West German capitalist system.

Biennial survey data on the values and attitudes of Germans, covering 1991 to 2014, afforded Haack and Sieweke the opportunity to assess changes in attitudes towards equality over time.

The data supported the authors’ hypotheses. Negative attitudes towards inequality among former inhabitants of East Germany diminished over time following reunification. Although the longer that an East German had spent in the GDR, the longer they tended to take adapting to prevailing social and economic beliefs in West Germany. Younger individuals, who had spent fewer years in East Germany, adapted more easily.

The evidence also confirmed the idea of replacement. Levels of acceptance of inequality in the overall population grew as younger generations from East German families replaced older generations. Overall, though, the research showed that the “adaptation effect” on attitudes was four times as strong as the “replacement effect”.

Strategies for changing minds

Haack and Sieweke’s research has very important implications for any individual or organization engaged in changing attitudes and behaviors, including policymakers, pressure groups and business practitioners, for example. That might involve a government seeking to change the attitudes of its citizens, or executives attempting to engineer and embed corporate culture transformation.

The authors show that the greater the exposure to a (perceived or actual) prevailing system, the more likely an individual is to adapt to the situation by accepting that system. Consequently, and counter-intuitively, attempting to bring about changes in attitude by educating individuals about the flaws or drawbacks of a system may backfire and help legitimize that system. For example, informing – warning –people about growing levels of inequality may, by implying the prevalence and inevitability of inequality, hasten adaptation.

Instead, to encourage a perspective that conflicts with the status quo it is better to strengthen that viewpoint by creating the impression that acceptance of the desired perspective is widely shared and approved. The more authoritative the support the better. The authors cite the example of the UK government promoting gender equality in the boardroom using a statistic that 94 per cent of companies had at least one woman on their board, in preference to the fact that only 17 per cent of board members were women. Contrast this with constant warnings that global warming is unlikely to stay below two degrees an approach that is likely to help legitimize global warming, reducing citizen action against climate change.

An additional strategy is to create the impression that new practices are natural and inevitable or extremely likely to occur. Equally, associating new practices with a sense of longstanding tradition or permanence, as opposed to linking them to the idea of transformation or change, is likely to promote adaptation. For example, introducing equality policies (actual changes in social situation) and launching media campaigns portraying a decline in inequality (changes in perception of social reality), both help reduce approval of inequality.

The strategies suggested by Haack and Sieweke’s work may not reflect the prevailing approach to shaping attitudes and changing minds. However, the more you consider their findings, the more compelling they become.


Related research paper: Haack, P. & Sieweke, J. (2017). The Legitimacy of Inequality: Integrating the Perspectives of System Justification and Social Judgment. Journal of Management Studies.


Featured image by Štěpán Kápl / Fotolia

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