Prior to my first sociology class in college, I was only dimly aware of how much our lives were controlled by systems. The extent of my knowledge was knowing that families in my community operated according to certain rules. To stay alive we were respectful to White people. Children were required to go to school. My second oldest sister would get us ready for church every Sunday. Disobeying my parents could get me in trouble. There were certain days when my parents would go to vote, and there was a lot of discussion in our household and in the community prior to those days.
When someone “did wrong,” people seldom looked at the context or systemic factors that predisposed that behavior. Rather, the individual was deemed solely at fault. People would whisper about one of my friends, “She’s acting out because her family is so strict.” Still, the child was the problem, not the strict parents. The child should have known better.
Knowing this, I played by the rules of my family and my community to the extent I could. Among my siblings, I was the most rebellious, but still there was only so far I would go. Within those rules I experienced what I thought of as a huge amount of freedom. Several of my friends’ parents were much stricter than mine. Partially because of that, I saw more freedoms than constraints.
That all changed when I went to college and took my first sociology class. Once we got past the introductory stuff, the chapters looked like this:
Sociology of the family
Sociology of education
Sociology of crime and delinquency
Sociology of government and politics
Sociology of work
Sociology of religion
Sociology of health
Sociology of the military
In a flash I realized that my life, all of our lives, conformed to rules and patterns. We were not the independent agents I expected once we were adults. Rather, the rules of our lives were so well formulated that people could write about them and put them in textbooks. Everything we did, every place we went, all of our actions were governed by patterns. Chapter after chapter we would read through another segment of American life and the rules and patterns that governed them. I was astonished to learn how these rules and patterns were silent background players in our lives.
Fast forward a couple of decades. I’m now an assistant professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, teaching a class in community organization. I decided to try out a simulation in which two groups of students would act as nonprofit leaders presenting their plan for community revitalization to a third group of students who acted as City Council. I deliberately set it up as a competition to mimic real life.
To my astonishment, the two groups of students became angry at one another, accusing each other of unfair tactics. Two students in particular were very vocal about it, and each became a target for the opposing camp.
I was in over my head, wondering how to get them out of that simulation and back to some kind of reality. I didn’t want to be responsible for students holding grudges against one another. Finally I asked those two if they thought the others were playing by unfair rules. When they said yes, I asked, “who set the rules?” They blinked at me. I asked again, “who set the rules?” They looked down at their papers and then glanced up to glare at each other.
“I set the rules,” I declared firmly. “If you’re going to get mad at someone, get mad at the rule-maker.” A few students got it. They looked at me in amazement. The expressions of the two angriest students softened a bit, but they were not willing to let go of their anger. I told the class we would debrief the next week. They needed to think about whether they wanted to get mad at their peers who were trying to play by the rules or at the rule-maker, and what that meant for why people in communities compete rather than collaborate.
On her way out one student said to me, “I think I get your point, but she still should not have acted like that.”
Reflecting on that comment over the week, I was reminded of a television news interview in which a woman receiving public assistance was asked to comment on her neighbors, many of whom were also receiving assistance. She said, “a lot of them on public assistance don’t deserve it. Trying to take advantage. Having babies out of wedlock. In my case I need it because of my health.”
This was horrifying. I put myself into her neighbors’ shoes and felt betrayed. Why does she have a need to prove herself better than her neighbors? Why does she not recognize that they are all in dire straits and that working together they might be able to do something about the rules of the game that kept them in poverty? Why did she – and others like her – end up blaming the victim, not the rule-maker?
Similarly, why did that student blame her classmates rather than seeing me as the institutional authority who had created a system that set them at odds? I invited her and all of them to see me as the system. They could not or would not. Now I recognize that none of them felt safe in saying to me yes, you did this. I understand.
There is a second reason they did not and would not acknowledge my role. In an impressive body of literature, John Jost, a prolific social justice researcher, and his colleagues found that people tend to justify the status quo as legitimate and necessary under several conditions. The two most relevant here are:
To be sure, not every person in a disadvantaged situation embraces systems justification. But according to Jost, it occurs in about half of those in his studies.
If something bad happens and the person feels powerless and unable to change it, it’s much easier to focus on the neighbor who appears to be trying to put one over on the government, or the classmate who is being incorrigible. Seeing systems takes work. Victim blaming is easier and less threatening.
A third reason systems are so hard to see is that people don’t like to imagine the extent to which systems control their lives. I realized that when reading the table of contents of that sociology textbook. I was both repulsed and fascinated.
In a different class, I asked students to discuss how much were they influenced by their environment. They passionately declared they were freethinkers and made independent choices. I looked around the room, and of 25 students, 23 had on blue jeans and two were wearing khakis. Most wore T-shirts. “If you are freethinkers,” I asked, “where are your dresses? Your suits and ties? Your kilts? Your hats? Why are you all dressed alike?” They burst out laughing.
Mary Harlan, a dear friend of mine, used to say that people believe they are not influenced by advertising, while the advertising industry is betting billions of dollars that they are. We are all influenced by systems way beyond our conscious awareness. Understanding this and learning to see systems is the key to true freedom, not an illusory notion of agency.
Think carefully about the systems that influence what you do and the choices you make. Want to lose weight? Critique the television commercials that promote one sugary food after another. Want to get more organized? Look at the spaces where you keep things. Do you have them in random places? Want to control your temper? Look around and see if your family and friends are modeling out-of-control tempers rather than calm. Want to move to the next level in your work or job category? Who do you hang out with? Are they the type of people you aspire to emulate?
Bottom line: set up your environment to reflect your goals. Don’t try to willpower your way into doing anything. Rather set up the environment to induce you to do what you want to do.
Instead of being mad at those coworkers who never seem to cooperate, instead be mad at your organization’s reward systems. Do they encourage collaboration, or do they encourage competition?
Lasting change does not occur simply by rearranging a particular behavior. Systems are built to remain in homeostasis. Disrupt even a small part of a system, and the rest of the system strives to go back to the status quo. The students in my class found it easier to maintain the status quo by blaming each other than by challenging me or my rules.
Changing a behavior is more effective if you look at how the rest of the system will be affected, then plan for the inevitable pushback. Want to clean out one closet? Suddenly, another closet or room is disorganized. Want to elect a more egalitarian, progressive president? Suddenly the Proud Boys and other white supremacist groups emerge stronger than before. Systems strive for the balance they have always known. A gain in one part of the system means the loss in another must be planned for. Something or someone will emerge to defend the status quo.
We begin to see why it’s so hard to change a system. If the people harmed by it are defending it, what would lead them to participate in building a new system?
As we learned in my class, the first step is to identify who is making the rules and who benefits from them. Look, for example, at police mistreatment: many people continue to insist that if you do nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from the police. Or there are those who are sure that the homeless can simply get a job. Easier to blame the accused person or the homeless than to look at the systems that create the situations they live in.
Lecturing to people doesn’t work. The lament, “Why do people vote against their interests?” illustrates that logic doesn’t work. The impetus to defend the system is too strong.
Empathy and inducements have a proven track record to inspire people to change. Here is a simple example: Several years ago, Volkswagen launched a contest to determine if it were possible to change behavior by making the new behavior fun. The results were delightful.
In one experiment, people were encouraged to start using the stairs rather than the escalator. Sixty-six percent (66%) more people chose the stairs. How did the experimenters get these results? They made it fun. Here’s a 3-minute video.
Bottom line: Is your desired behavior easy to do or are the systems working against you? Are you only blaming people (or yourself) for failing to change or are you also examining whether and how the systems are working against you?
If you can pinpoint how the systems are maintaining the status quo, think about how to change them in a way that creates a new homeostasis that people will willingly engage in. Seek to change the system, not just the individual behavior.
Questions to ask ourselves:
Leading Consciously concepts and skills covered in this blog post:
#BetheChange #ChangeStartsWithMe #LeadingConsciously
 Jost, J. T. (2020). A quarter century of system justification theory: Questions, answers, criticisms, and societal applications. British Journal of Social Psychology, 58(2): 263-314.