Study explores how to change societal behavior for the better

An abstract mathematical idealization may hold the answer to how societies can turn good solutions into behavior change, according to a new interdisciplinary study involving many fields of science.

The study led by a University of Vermont researcher was originally designed to determine what kinds of behavioral changes are needed for societies to adopt policies that would help deal with climate change and pandemic infections. The resulting model suggests that social change may depend on the relationship between policies and beneficial behaviors.

Laurent Hébert-Dufresne, Associate Professor of computing to University of Vermont Center for Complex Systems, was modeling the COVID pandemic, working on the mathematics of how to predict the spread of disease and responses to such events when he partnered with other scientists. Some of them study cultural evolution and social change, while others are ecologists and researchers who study adaptations of the food system to climate change. The team posed the question: “How do we propagate the behaviors and policies that will limit the impact of climate change? says Hébert-Dufresne, the main author.

Although there are many good solutions already designed to improve society, transforming these solutions into major changes is “a collective societal challenge”, in the words of Hebert-Dufresne. Why and how to overcome this challenge is what the research group wanted to understand.

They found that the best way to tip the scales – that is, to make things change more quickly in a large group of disparate communities – centers on the relationship between beneficial actions and policies designed to promote behavioral changes. As part of their mathematical model, they built a simulated society where positive peer behaviors could spread virally under the right conditions, meaning that institutional costs were not too high and institutions supported the behavior to facilitate its spread. These factors can play out with a composting program, for example, where a local entity provides education and supporting infrastructure, but individuals must choose to participate. If a program is successful, with significant participation, the effort can influence neighboring communities.

Similar dynamics play out in our daily lives related to climate change and the pandemic, two issues that affect many people. A major challenge with most beneficial patches is that they require buy-in from many people. “Often these solutions are quite expensive individually, says Hebert-Dufresne. An example of a pandemic response would be to limit the spread of disease by wearing masks all the time; but it comes with many costs, starting with a financial burden of buying masks, followed by a potential wave of social and personal inconvenience. “Some people would say they are paying the price for their freedom. What matters are the perceived costs. And so there is a perceived individual cost for all of these behaviors,” adds Hebert-Dufresne.

The mathematical model they built used an innovative combination of evolutionary and epidemiological techniques and asked what drives a society to engage in the beneficial behaviors of its peers and which behaviors can spread virally without the burden of too much institutional cost. students. The researchers say the model is unique because it combines behavior change and policy change into a single system rather than just focusing on policy or behavior.

The study suggests that to achieve large-scale social improvement, behavior change and policy change must work in tandem. Additionally, the most successful projects—those that drive major positive change—include the viral spread of bottom-up behavior change and top-down policy change. “There are individuals and groups and we both have to make decisions,” says Hebert-Dufresne. “Our model can help determine how to balance bottom-up and top-down effects so new solutions can scale.”

The team’s next step is to apply their models to all sorts of beneficial social changes, with a high priority on climate change to determine how best to promote behavior change and normalize climate change policies.

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