Raymond Brescia, ‘On Tipping Points and Nudges: Review of Cass Sunstein’s How Change Happens

ABSTRACT
In How Change Happens, Cass Sunstein explores the mechanisms through which social change can occur, the triggers that can cause it, and the pitfalls along the road to change. For Sunstein, small influences, which arise through what he has called ‘nudges’, can have large impacts, particularly where they indicate that support for existing norms has fallen. When this occurs, it can reveal hidden preferences that might have existed all along, but individuals were discouraged from making them public because of the existence of those norms. Once support for an existing norm begins to disappear, it can create a tipping point and then a ‘norm cascade’: when support for a new norm takes hold securely in society. In recent years, several works have appeared that have attempted to explain the sources of social change by looking at examples of successful campaigns and trying to divine the sources of such successes. Sunstein offers a different perspective. He provides more of a theoretical view on the sources of social change, not just identifying the levers that can bring it about but also some guidance on how to utilize them. It is a welcome addition to the scholarship on social change and stands as an elegant and insightful complement to some of the other, recent and more inductive scholarship on the subject. As a way to test Sunstein’s theory of social change, this review asks whether that theory can help explain recent developments, namely, the victory of the marriage equality campaign and the rise of a new and emboldened white nationalism in the wake of the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. As a review of these phenomena shows, Sunstein’s theory of change helps to provide insights into how such change came about, but, it also raises more questions. Indeed, questions still linger, like when is a nudge enough, can we identify what will make something ‘tip’? Nevertheless, Sunstein offers deep insights into the inner workings of social change and how norm entrepreneurs can understand not just how change happens but also how to bring it about.

Brescia, Raymond H, On Tipping Points and Nudges: Review of Cass Sunstein’s How Change Happens (May 16, 2019). Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy, forthcoming.

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