Change Work April 2013

Follow the crowd

What is "culture" and can it be changed?

The word has several meanings.  I'm not talking about "the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement", but rather "the customs, ideas, and social behaviour of a particular people or group".

In the UK we now have many cultures.  As well as those relating to different races and ethnicities, we now have (apparently) cultures of fear on our streets, of neglect in our hospitals and of greed in the financial industry.  Unemployed people are trapped in a culture of dependency and everyone else in a culture of consumerism and debt.

It's widely believed that the financial deregulation and political shifts of the 1980's kicked off changes in British society that continue today.  Somehow our culture has altered.  It's become more like that of the USA - which has moved even further in the same direction over the same period.

It's about what part we expect government and the state to play in the everyday running of our lives.  Some say that the shrinking of the state is a terrible mistake - others that it's a necessary process that hasn't yet gone far enough.  Where you stand in this debate depends on whether you're a winner or a loser.

But does it?

Humans aren't driven purely by economics.  Self interest isn't always the clincher.  So what else drives us?

One thing is morality.  What you believe to be right and wrong might be the only thing that matters to you.  Honesty and respect for the law, a sense of justice and fair play - these are traditional values that many people feel are sacrosanct, not requiring any justification.

But that raises another question: where does our moral sense come from?

For many people the answer is simple.  It's revealed to them in religious texts and teachings.  But for everyone (to some extent) I suggest that it comes down to "social proof".

This is one of Robert Cialdini's 6 principles of influence and describes the strong tendency we all have to validate our own behaviours by reference to those of others.  Cialdini gives many examples of people doing bizarre, sometimes self-destructive things because they see others doing the same.  So we tend to emulate the behaviours of what we perceive to be the majority in our group and we tend to absorb their values and beliefs as well.  Exceptions are exceptional people!

(Newspapers are particularly influential because they combine social proof with another of Cialdini's principles: authority).

Self-interest is still a strong driver, particularly when it's reinforced by social proof.  Maybe this is how the individualist tendency of the 80s and 90s proved so powerful.  You can go after what you want with a clear conscience because everybody else is doing the same.  Morality proves to be rather flexible.

"Every man for himself" is the cry that goes up when the situation is lost, not as the general rule.  So is it inevitable that selfishness will always come through?

It's commonly maintained that capitalism is the only economic system that works.  The market (collective behaviours of large numbers of people) is always right and always efficient.  Part of the foundation for this view is that the market (i.e. the population) always responds to economic pressures.  But this isn't quite the same as saying that we are all "naturally" selfish - is it?

In a business setting, it's been said that "organisations get the behaviours they reward".  And reward isn't just about money or promotion.   It's also about praise and the good opinions of others.  Which brings us back to social proof - but now as the payoff as well as the justification.

This doesn't explain how it arises that some people choose to care for others and to put the interests of the cared-for before their own.  Human altruism has been the subject of much theorizing (and some dispute) to find an evolutionary explanation for its existence.  It's argued that being altruistic towards your close kin is selfish at the genetic level because they share many of your genes.  And looking after your brothers and sisters is just as useful as looking after yourself as far as your genes are concerned.  But why do we often concern ourselves with the welfare of non relatives?

Part of the answer lies in another Cialdini principle, that of "reciprocity": if you've helped me then I owe you a payback of some kind.  This reinforces give-and-take as a normal part of human interaction - but does it start with an unconscious calculation, "If I help you then you'll owe me a favour in return"?

So, back to the original question: how do you change culture?

Well, I suppose you have to press all of the buttons at once:

  • people in authority set the right example
  • tell people that they'll be better off in the new culture
  • give plenty of examples of others changing and thriving
  • appeal to their sense of fair play
  • emphasise their obligation to everyone else.

Humans are, above all, adaptable.  We can change our behaviours in whatever way we feel the need to.  We can change "the way we do things around here" - and that's our culture.

So what do you want to change it to?