The Rules of Reality: How Societies Change
The stakes are high. When would-be agents of change ignore what works, they can’t get it readily adopted. And the world misses out on its own salvation.
August 6, 2015
Jeffery J. Smith

If I’d only known …

… that beneath my land sat oil, I never would’ve sold the mineral rights to that durn city-slicker.

… that the free parrot for-a-good-home had been owned by a salty-tongued sailer, I never would’ve given it to my maiden aunt.

… that “inflammable” meant it can ignite, then I never would’ve had that fateful cigarette.

Caveat emptor. Buyer beware. There are times when people would be glad to know more.

Yet there are times when people can’t be bothered. Even when the new knowledge would benefit them. And it’s not just knowing what delicious foods are not good for you.

As wannabe do-gooders, we know most people don’t go gaga over economic reform, even when the reform has been demonstrably beneficial to everyone.

What’s even more ironic? Those wannabe reformers don’t want to know how to get an audience to listen, to understand, and to respond.

The researchers who study how a majority changes its collective worldview—how paradigms shift—have isolated several principles common to every instance of society going from, say, slavery being OK to slavery not being OK. You’d think such information would be of interest to those who want to change society. But it’s not.

Within the Democratic Party, there’s Dr. George Lakoff, a linguist from Berkeley, who constantly exhorts his fellow Democrats to use language smartly, to void pushing negative buttons, to push buttons that’ll get people on their side. Do any Democrats take him seriously? No. That’s not what True Believers do (Eric Hoffer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements).

As a rule, True Believers expect the person they’re talking to to come to The Truth by the same path they did. That’s a fine strategy for when The Truth fits tidily within the prevailing paradigm. But when it doesn’t, when the message needs a new way of seeing things, it’s silly to expect people to hop on board.

Eventho’ many political people ignore what researchers have learned about influence and change, not all of them do. Ironically, it’s those who don’t want change, or want regressive change, take these techniques most seriously. Death tax. Welfare queen. Patriot Act. Etc.

And of course, obviously, so do successful businesses use what’s known to sell, gain market share, keep established customers, etc. New terms like Lexus. Focus groups of the intended customers. Celebrity endorsements. Etc.

But that kind of human brain—the business person—differs from another kind of human brain—the prophet.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably not a business person but an advocate, one not normally receptive to what’s known about social change. I applaud you for reading this far. To reward you, here are a few tidbits of what researchers have established as invariably true (Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).

  • You don’t need proof. Early Einstein never had it. You need vision. Einstein had it by the boatload.
  • Aim for the youth. They don’t have ossified opinions yet. And they’re still exploring. Older folk don't change their minds. They just die away and take the old paradigm with them.
  • While you must use language that means what you want to say and that resonates with your intended audience, don’t be shy or cowardly, which suggests lack of faith in your proposal. Instead, if you really mean that the earth is round, that space is flexible, and that rent is common wealth, then, heck come out and say it. Just find the right way to say it.

These and several other principles of social change can not be repealed any more than can be the law of gravity. And they can’t be ignored, if you hope to travel thru space. Once understood, they can be put to good use.

Can reformers change society without knowing how to? Sure, they can luck into it. But why rely on luck? Why not rely on knowledge? Repeating the same failed methods over and over just means you’re nuts, Einstein noted. Harnessing successful techniques means you not only want to win but are willing to do what it takes.

By the way, humanity’s relationship to knowledge is curious.

For example, for millennia, the Chinese had a much better plow than did Europeans, getting the job done with much less effort. And their plow was just one step advanced. Yet Europeans could not take that step, held back as they were in this case by the debilitating attitude of “oh, that’s good enough.”

Another example: When the good doctor Alex Fleming discovered penicillin, it was hailed as a breakthrough. True, yet it had also been forgotten. Ancient Ethiopians also used penicillin, yet somehow that knowledge got lost.

What else? The human brain can know Elvis is alive, even when he’s not. A remarkable species, we are.

The stakes are high. When would-be agents of change ignore what works, they can’t get it readily adopted. And the world misses out on its own salvation.

If you’d like to know more, if you’d like to know the sources of these conclusions, and much else, ask your movement’s controllers of movement assets to finance a paper on what’s known about social change. If you’re serious about changing society, what could be a wiser investment? OK, yes, then investing funds in putting the new knowledge into practice.

Can reformers change society without knowing how to? Sure, they can luck into it. But why rely on luck? Why not rely on knowledge?
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Jeffery J. Smith

JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at