How to Make a Better World—By Changing Individuals or Systems?

david_myers
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Credit: Kitsap County, WashingtonCredit: Kitsap County, Washington

If only folks would smoke less, eat healthier, vote more, achieve more, invest for their future, protect the climate, reduce gun violence, drive safely, and accept diversity. What a happier and healthier world that would be!

Psychology mostly offers person-focused answers that reflect Western cultural individualism: Make individuals fearful of smoking. Persuade folks to exercise more and consume less. Remind citizens to vote. Help underachieving students adopt a growth mindset. Nudge employee retirement savings. Offer homeowners feedback on their carbon footprints. Change violence-inclined hearts. Conduct safe-driving campaigns. Mandate employee implicit bias training.

Psychologists Nick Chater (University of Warwick) and George Lowenstein (Carnegie Mellon) understand the appeal of changing individuals’ thoughts and actions. They have studied the subtle power of “nudges”—of framing choices that gently induce people to make healthy, productive decisions. Compared with individuals who must choose to opt-in to a retirement savings plan, more people elect the retirement plan when enrolled by default, unless they choose to opt-out. Moreover, few object because everyone remains free to choose.

So what’s not to like about this “libertarian paternalism”? Shouldn’t we applaud these efforts to persuade individuals to make healthy, smart choices that enhance their lives and protect their environments?

Such individual-focused (“i-frame”) efforts have their place, note Chater and Lowenstein in several papers including a new review. But, they report, efforts to better the world by “bettering” individuals face three problems.

1. Ineffectual impact. Individual-change efforts often are ineffective. Chater and Lowenstein offer one analysis of 126 nudge trials with 23 million people, which found just a 1.4 percent average impact. In most cases, a nudge provides only a small budge. Likewise, note Case Western Reserve University psychologist Brooke Macnamara and her colleagues, proponents overstate “weak evidence” that achievement rises after training in growth mindsets and gritty persistence. Even 10 years of deliberate practice is no guarantee of expert performance, they contend.

2. System-focused (s-frame) changes have greater impact. Some examples:

  • Weight control. Despite varied weight-loss strategies, the U.S. obesity rate has tripled since the early 1960s. Individual willpower has been no match for modern high-calorie fast food and exercise-replacing technologies and transportation. What’s more effective are systemic factors—subsidies for healthy food, sugar taxes, and environments designed to support walking and biking.
  • Climate change. Efforts to motivate individual climate support with smart meters, carbon footprint calculators, and extreme weather warnings help a wee bit. But systemic carbon pricing, green building codes, electric vehicle subsidies, and decarbonized power generation accomplish much more.
  • Voting. Reminding individuals to vote helps. But what helps more is systemic support of voting with nearby polling places, short voting lines, and easy mail-in voting.
  • Lessening gun violence. In response to a Maine mass shooting leaving 18 dead and dozens wounded, newly elected U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson offered an i-frame: “The problem is the human heart—it’s not guns.” If only Americans, like folks in Britain (where gun deaths are rare), had purer hearts! If only we could transplant British hearts into American bodies? Or offer mental health treatments to evil-hearted Americans? Alas, the U.S./U.K. gun violence divide is a difference not of human nature but of gun-enabling versus gun-restricting contexts.
  • Reducing opioid addiction. Chater and Lowenstein quote Purdue Pharmaceutical’s Richard Sackler advocating an opioid epidemic i-frame solution: “We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem.” The epidemic—more than 80,000 U.S. opioid deaths in 2021—arose from easier access to painkilling drugs, for which the s-frame solution is litigation against opioid-promoting pharma companies and more restricted medical access.
  • Minimizing implicit bias. The evidence is clear: Implicit biases are real. Yet efforts to date in implicit bias training for individuals have accomplished little. As my social psychologist colleague Charles Green explains, Working for racial justice in your organization [requires] addressing unequal power distribution and creating opportunity for all. It is structural, not personal.”

3. “I-frame interventions may draw attention and support from crucial s-frame changes.” A great lesson of social psychology is the “fundamental attribution error”—our inclination to attribute responsibility to individual (i-frame) rather than situational (s-frame) influences. Moreover, i-frame understandings can “crowd out” s-frame understandings, say Chater and Lowenstein: When people consider individual green energy nudges, they become less supportive of alternative green policies such as a carbon taxes. Psychologists’ enthusiasm for i-frame efforts has therefore unwittingly “reduced the impetus for system reform.”

No wonder, the researchers argue, “that public relations specialists representing corporate interests have effectively deflected pressure for systemic change by reframing social problems in i-frame terms.” Much as gun manufacturers blame the finger not the trigger, so companies that sell unhealthy foods, fossil fuels, and plastics offer ads that hold individuals responsible for healthy behaviors and environmental protection.

In response to Chater and Lowenstein, famed nudge advocates Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein each argue that both individual and systemic change matter. “Almost every policy problem has multiple causes,” notes Thaler. “I know of no behavioral economist, policy maker, or journalist who is on the record saying that nudges are a panacea, nor the appropriate tool to address every policy problem.” “Some nudges have quite large impacts,” adds Sunstein, though “for countless problems, nudges are hardly enough. They cannot eliminate poverty, unemployment, and corruption.”

And the good news is that when society combines i-frame persuasion with s-frame reforms, real change can happen. From 1954 to 2023 the U.S. smoking rate plummeted from 45 to 12 percent thanks to i-frame cancer education and gruesome cigarette pack images, and also to s-frame cigarette tax increases, clean indoor air laws, tobacco litigation, and enforcement of age restricted sales.

Or consider Edmonton, Canada, which combined a safe-driving campaign with traffic system changes “protected bike lanes, connected sidewalks and high-visibility crosswalks, and ample room for people walking, biking and riding transit, as well as lowering speeds with traffic calming measures, such as road diets, speed humps, leading pedestrian intervals and retiming signal progressions for safer speeds.” The result: A six-year traffic-death decline of 50 percent. Without such system interventions, Dallas, with only 18 percent more people, had 228 traffic-related deaths in 2022. Edmonton, even with its more treacherous winter driving, had only 14.

Credit: City of Edmonton https://twitter.com/VisionZeroYEG/status/1392963809136967681Credit: City of Edmonton https://twitter.com/VisionZeroYEG/status/1392963809136967681

Moreover, when s-frame changes such as traffic congestion zone charges or single-use plastic bag bans are introduced, initial public outcry typically subsides with surprising speed. Even charging people a token amount for single-use plastic bags “is remarkably effective in reducing their use.” If new carbon taxes charged producers and customers for the future environmental costs of climate change—but then redistributed that revenue in other beneficial ways—people would similarly adapt.

So, to create a better world, should we seek to persuade, to nudge, to educate, to inspire? Yes! But simultaneously we should, all the more, work to create situations and incentives that will naturally engender sustainable human flourishing. We can better the world by changing individuals and systems.

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com or check out his new essay collection, How Do We Know Ourselves?: Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).