The Functional Unit of Social Change

Last week, forty-six people gathered in Seattle to learn about How to Bring About Large-Scale Behavior Change. In this workshop we set about designing campaigns for social change armed with knowledge from the cognitive and behavioral sciences.

Participants explored the emotional foundations of morality and experienced the nuances of human decision-making. Armed with this knowledge, they set about working in small groups to identify the goals and priorities that perpetuate problematic organizational structures.  Then they considered strategies that might shift these social norms in a manner that allows us to address global threats like climate change and resource depletion.

At the core of our discussion was the keystone concept of situated identity, which I call the functional unit of social change:

Situated Identity is the story a person lives that is informed by the confluence of cultural myths, cognitive models, institutional structures, and universal constraints.  The identity is ‘situated’ in a particular historical-cultural context and reinforced through the institutional and built structures of society.

We discussed how vital it is to consider (1) the stories people live, (2)  the conceptual models that shape their understandings of the world, and (3) the incentive structures inherent in social institutions. All three elements of identity converge with fundamental aspects of human nature to constitute social behavior. Persistent change always involves at least one of these elements of situated identity.  And changes in one element will have repercussions across the others.

Our purpose for doing this was to both acknowledge how difficult large-scale behavior change is and realize that we know enough to begin designing campaigns that engage people in a significant behavioral change process.  The workshop provided a great learning opportunity for people who recognize the need to develop more systematic approaches to advocacy and organizational change.

If you are looking for tools and insights that increase the effectiveness of your campaigns, you will want to stay informed about what we’re up to at Cognitive Policy Works.  We are already beginning to adapt this workshop into a webinar so that practitioners around the globe have the opportunity to incorporate situated identity into their campaigns.

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.