New research shows what it takes to improve society


Many people are trying to change society for the better. The real challenge is how to get good solutions to scale when there is a major change. New research suggests that social change may depend on the relationship between beneficial behaviors and policies.

The research, conducted by the University of Maine, University of Maine in Augusta, University of Vermont and Laval University in Quebec, Canada, attempted to understand how society can achieve major and transformative social change, especially the kind of social change needed to tackle the growing problem of climate change.

Researchers have studied behavior that benefits groups but does not spread without political support, as a costly measure to mitigate the effects of climate change. They created a mathematical model using an innovative combination of epidemiological and evolutionary techniques, which simulates a society where agents live in groups and engage in the beneficial behavior of their peers – behavior which, under the right conditions, can spread virally, but not if the institution costs are too high.

The model takes into account factors such as the prevalence of adopters and non- adopters in a group; the spread of behaviors, both within the group and globally; the strength of institutions supporting the behavior and facilitating its spread; and the cost of these institutions.

“Our model is unique because it combines behavior change and policy change in one system, and encourages us to think about social change in a richer way. Large-scale social change is not just a policy or a behavior, but the emergence of a new self-reinforcement system that combines the two. This allows us to ask new questions, such as “how would a new pattern of behavior and policy spread?”, says Timothy Waring, associate professor of socio-ecological systems modeling at the University of Maine and co-author of the study.

The results showed that behavior change and policy change are necessary to achieve large-scale social change – and that they must happen together. While neither can do the job alone, the change in policy is particularly critical.

Researchers have found that sometimes beneficial behavior can spread too far. In some cases, spreading the behavior beyond the groups benefiting from a supportive policy can reduce its perceived success and slow the spread of the policy, thereby limiting beneficial social change overall.

The simulation suggests that projects that involve both bottom-up viral behavioral spread and top-down political change may be the best kind of solution for big sustainability issues like climate change, because they set an example and can spread between groups to influence major change. .

“For example, let’s say a state wants to expand participation in a new organic composting law that would benefit cities,” Waring explains. “For the system to work, the waste collected must be purely organic material. But bringing pure organic waste takes effort from households, so the behavior does not take off on its own. This is a common problem for the implementation of the But if cities experiment with systems to help support and spread the behavior, successful city programs can spread between cities with household contributions, resulting in effective, large-scale change.

Laurent Hébert-Dufresne, lead author of the study and associate professor at the University of Vermont, says, “Our model can help determine how to balance bottom-up and top-down effects so that new solutions can evolve. For example, it can help determine when we should promote a behavior like composting across the country to normalize it and when we should instead focus on a well-funded, local pilot project to show the potential benefits of composting.

Waring said that in future research, the team aims to apply these types of models to all sorts of beneficial social changes, especially the challenge of addressing climate change.

The study was published in the Royal Society Open Science on March 23, 2022. The research is part of track 2 of UMaine’s Experimental Program for Stimulating Competitive Research (EPSCoR) project.

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Material provided by University of Maine. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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