Did you know that much of the common wisdom on how to accelerate social change does not actually work?

Damon Centola’s book Change: How to Make Big Things Happen unravels many of these false rules of thumb that we hold about how to make big change happen and how social networks accelerate change.

To begin with, social networks are not as mere “pipes” through which information or new ideas travel. They are much more like “prisms” as our worldviews are very much influenced by the people we know. Understanding this difference is crucial if you are serious about making big lasting change happen.

But we need to also understand what kind of an issue we are actually dealing with, and more importantly: what kind of networks are needed for change to spread and how do we recognise we are onto something?

Simple vs. Complex Contagions: the nature of change

For decades, we have believed that social change spreads like a virus: you need one close contact to spread a change. And then the change keeps spreading much like a virus that jumps from person to person.

This is what simple contagions do: e.g. catchy memes spread wide and far but they don’t exactly change the way we think or behave. This is because to change the way people behave and believe, it is not enough just to spread information.

Centola has found that social change issues that require significant personal investment follow a complex contagion process. Complex contagions “are contagions that people resist”… “Any change that involves a real risk… requires more than simply coming into contact with a single random adopter or “carrier” “ (p. 80).

The main difference between a simple and complex contagion is the amount of resistance that an idea faces: “innovations that counter the greatest resistance…are often the ones people are most committed to once they finally adopt them” (p. 84).

Resistance is about people looking for social confirmation. And this should be seen as a window of opportunity to make people care enough that they commit to the change.

4 critical barriers however need to be overcome if people are to change:

  1. Coordination. Because the more people use something together, the more change has an opportunity to actually take place.
  2. Credibility. Because the more people use it, the more credible it becomes. It also signals that it is safe to use.
  3. Legitimacy. Because the more widespread the idea is and its use, the more it generates social reinforcement that it is an accepted behaviour and ok to use.
  4. Excitement. Because when people are excited to use a product that leads to social effervescence: people come together to adopt it and use it.

This is why it is critical to specifically outline what rules of thumb apply to your initiative: are you simply seeking the most exposure or are you interested in creating lasting behaviour change?. How do you aim to overcome the 4 barriers that influence the level and scale of change that you are likely to see?

All of this also feeds into the way change spreads and whether you are using the right social network.

Fireworks vs fishing nets

What would you pick as a key strategy to try to make change happen: hire a famous person to tweet about your product or tell your neighbour and friends about what your product can do?

The first choice (hiring a famous person) is something that people often first gravitate toward. Centola calls this the firework network.

Firework networks have one person in its centre who is spreading a message. These types of networks can reach many people far and wide and spread a message incredibly quickly. Oprah tweets about a new service and hundreds of thousands of people follow her suit.

But this kind of network is merely about spreading information. Videos or tweets can go viral and reach millions of people in a matter of seconds.

Did information spread quickly? Yes.

Did the person help in recruiting new followers or people buying a product? Potentially yes.

But Centola has found that firework networks are problematic in bringing broader social change: people on the other end of a tweet or video have weak connections to the famous person. They might re-tweet or share the video but there is often little impact on how we go on about living our lives.

Yet, there is another form of network, “the fishing net”, that can spread and accelerate more long-lasting behavioural change.

In a fishing net network, people are more connected to each other: these are people that you more or less know such as your family, neighbours, colleagues, and friends, people whose opinion often matters to you.

These networks are built of strong ties where personal recommendations of books, movies, products and lifestyles carry more credibility. If a friend recommends a movie, we are more likely to watch it.

While firework networks might spur rapid sudden change at mass scales, fishing net networks are more reliable in producing actual and lasting behavioural change. This is because they create social accountability and are not reliant on one key person but a network of interactions.

But the key question we should be asking is not how did someone get a famous person to market a product but rather “How did this idea grow so effectively that celebrities wanted to be associated with it?” (p. 105).

Lessons for designing programs for change

So what is the relevance of this work for areas such as climate change adaptation and how we can assist people in adapting to such impacts as heatwaves and extreme storms and planning and making climate related decisions?

One way is to link Centola’s ideas into capacity building and awareness raising programs and how these are tailored and built. It comes down to the critical questions on purpose that we need to ask:

Are we dealing with a simple or complex contagion?

What is the more relevant network for us to use: the firework or the fishing net?

Are we seeking to mainly spread information as wide and far as possible, or are we also aiming to start sowing the seeds of actual behavioural and social change in the way people make decisions?

What resistance might we face and how can we overcome the four barriers?

How can we connect adaptation practitioners and scholars across the globe to work on these critical issues together in a way that opens up new opportunities for long-term adaptation?

The book overall is a fascinating deep dive into social network theory with so many examples of how companies and individuals have make their big ideas into social movements and moved the hearts and minds of people across the world.

By paying attention to the very fundamentals of social network theory, you can kickstart your ideas as well.