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Collective Transformation

In ‘The Forgotten Half of Change’ (2005), Luc de Brabandère, a senior advisor to the Boston Consulting Group, splits change into two distinct halves: a change in reality and a change in perception.

The change in reality is continuous to the point of being potentially surreptitious. By contrast, the change in perception resembles a step function reflecting sudden mental shifts. For example, a post-merger integration project may be smoothly executed and successfully completed. However, once the real groundwork is laid down, employees still need to come to the realization, i.e. perceive that they now work for a new firm. It is at that point only that change truly occurs and that a new company is born.

It is tempting to link de Brabandère’s change in perception or mental shift to the transformational experience of insight. At the individual level, such events are akin to an epiphany that generates a fundamentally different life perspective. It is as if a new path forward were highlighted, a freshly revealed yellow brick road.

Which is what society is badly needing at present. Indeed, for the past decades, gradual change has led to an unsustainable reality from an environmental and social perspective. Many individuals have been subject to a perception-changing transformational experience of insight and have adjusted their behavior accordingly. Yet, there has been no change in perception nor any behavioral change at the collective level.

In Threshold Models of Collective Behavior(1978), the authors explore the transmission mechanism from individual to collective behavior. They introduce the notion of ‘threshold’ as ‘the point where the perceived benefit to an individual of doing the thing in question […] exceeds the perceived costs.’ The ‘thing in question’ would include joining a riot, going on a strike, voting for an unconventional politician, or, for this note, changing one’s behavior to adjust to a changed reality.

The model elegantly shows how action can be triggered on a large scale even if there is a minority of activists, i.e. individuals with a low threshold (see excerpt below). It all depends upon the network of social ties among individuals. There is therefore a significant random element.

Eventually, I expect a broad change in collective behavior to take place and to precipitate a collective transformational experience of insight. Then, almost out of a sudden, many of society’s current habits will appear to be as ludicrous as smoking in a restaurant or at the back of a plane.

At that point, the change in perception will have met the change in reality and a true collective transformation will have occurred.

A new society will be born.


From a change in reality to a new society

Extract from Threshold Models of Collective Behavior(1978)

‘Imagine 100 people milling around in a square-a potential riot situation. Suppose their riot thresholds are distributed as follows: there is one individual with threshold 0 [high benefit/low cost from riot], one with threshold 1, one with threshold 2, and so on up to the last individual with threshold 99 [low benefit/high cost from riot]. This is a uniform distribution of thresholds. The outcome is clear and could be described as a ‘bandwagon” or “domino” effect: the person with threshold 0, the “instigator,” engages in riot behavior-breaks a window, say. This activates the person with threshold 1; the activity of these two people then activates the person with threshold 2, and so on, until all 100 people have joined. The equilibrium is 100.

Now perturb this distribution as follows. Remove the individual with threshold 1 and replace him by one with threshold 2. By all of our usual ways of describing groups of people, the two crowds are essentially identical. But the outcome in the second case is quite different-the instigator riots, but there is now no one with threshold 1, and so the riot ends at that point, with one rioter.

Even this simple-minded example makes the main point suggested earlier: it is hazardous to infer individual dispositions from aggregate outcomes. Newspaper reports of the two events would surely be written as, in the first case, “A crowd of radicals engaged in riotous behavior”; in the second, “A demented troublemaker broke a window while a group of solid citizens looked on.” We know, however (since we constructed the example), that the two crowds are almost identical in composition; the difference in outcome results only from the process of aggregation, and in particular from the gap in the frequency distribution in the second case.’

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