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Why People Don’t Rise Up Against (Even Bad) Change

As the living-room-picture experiment showed, we may not always notice subtle shifts in society because of something researchers call change blindness.

When it comes to our social-awareness researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Harvard hypothesize that people set thresholds that determine what kind of behaviors we will give attention to or accept.


We likely believe stealing is wrong, for example. Most of us, as follows, would consider our co-worker a thief if he blatantly backed his car up to the office door and began loading $365 worth of office supplies—that’s 114 packs of copy paper—into his trunk in broad daylight.

That flagrant thievery crosses the threshold of what we’re willing to accept. And It is an obvious challenge to what many of us value: in this case, honesty.

But, ironically, many of us would have to admit that we’d be less likely to confront the same level of theft if it occurred gradually. Let’s say, for example, we observed a co-worker helping herself to a small handful of the company’s office products on a regular basis.

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If we perceived the items the person was taking to have very little value—say, less than a dollar—we might think poorly of him or be annoyed, but many would hesitate to categorize him as a full-on thief. The irony of this is obvious when you consider that all of the things he takes in the course of a year—say $365 worth at a dollar a day—eventually add up to the same amount.

But for some reason, gradual shifts often aren’t enough to set off our internal alarms.

This principle may also help us understand how we adapt to changes in the way communities function as well. Clearly, if our ability to meaningfully interact with those around us was blatantly disrupted all at once—if a new law was passed banning locally owned hardware stores or forbidding us from using our front porches to socialize with neighbors—we’d find it intolerable.

That action would beyond the threshold of what we’re willing to accept.

We’d stand up for ourselves. We’d impeach politicians. We’d sue for our Constitutional rights. We’d march through the streets in protest because this would be an obvious challenge to what we value: community … relationships … the freedom to interact with other people.

This is not how the quality of community erodes in the free world though. It rarely if ever get removed all at once, in one sweeping, attention-grabbing instance.

No U.S. president instructs people to stop walking around their communities on foot and to instead acquire as many cars as possible.

There was no contract world citizens signed vowing to cut back on our small talk with passerbys and to check our text messages, email, twitter, or facebook feeds on our smart phones instead.

But many of these small, one-degree shifts in behavior became normalized—one at a time, spaced out over months and years and even generations.

Individually of course, none of them were inherent evils that tripped our internal alarms. In fact, many of them brought convenience and enjoyment to our lives. Alone, the potential downsides of each change were not enough to exceed the threshold of what we were willing to tolerate.

So even if we didn’t appreciate the change, or were annoyed by it, it wasn’t enough to rally us to push back.

But even if we can’t pinpoint one sweeping, immediate change in the quality of society’s relationships, I would suggest these one degree changes have gradually, together, been changing our sense of community for generations.

Looking back, can you think of any one-degree shifts that have happened during your lifetime? Do you remember noticing things were changing at the time? Did you accept the changes? Did you want to? Why or why not?




  • comment-avatar
    Darrel October 13, 2014 (11:20 am)

    I really appreciate how you’re connecting this theme line from week to week, Sarah. I’m guessing the average blog reader just sees each post as a stand alone piece, but I can see that you’re connecting one week to the next and building a more substantial case for community over time. I have shared your URL with several members and look forward to seeing where the hard work takes you. Are you going to write a book on this? Or is the friendship book you’ve talked about different than this theme?

    • comment-avatar
      Sarah October 13, 2014 (11:28 am)

      Really kind, Darrell. Thank you so much for following along. Feel free to leave your comments or ideas any time. I’m craving feedback!

  • comment-avatar
    Shannon October 13, 2014 (5:32 pm)

    I like the way you applied this experiment to society. I have thought things along these lines before but this brings more clarity to why we allow things to slowly shift. Interesting!