Cass Sunstein: The moment I knew that US democracy was in mortal danger
The world-leading behavourial economist used to think that warnings about the fragility of US democracy were 'crazy anxiety talk'. Then came 6 January
Cass Sunstein is a world-leading behavioural economist. His book 'Nudge', (co-authored with Richard Thaler) popularised the concept of nudge theory. His latest release, 'Sludge: What Stops Us from Getting Things Done and What to Do about It', has been making waves on both sides of the Atlantic.
In this edition of Changed My Mind, we ask Cass about 'Sludge' and what it reveals about our judgments. Cass reveals that he changed his mind about the danger US democracy was in during the Trump era. Having initially ignored the warnings of friends and experts, he was horrified to see how close it came to falling when the Capitol building was stormed.
Changed My Mind is a podcast from The Depolarization Project. Each episode, we talk to someone who has undergone a serious shift of opinion about something that matters deeply to them. It's hosted by chief executive Ali Goldsworthy together with behavioural insight expert Alex Chesterfield and corporate affairs director at London First, Laura Osborne.
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- 'It Can Happen Here' by Cass Sunstein, New York Review of Books, 2018
- 'Solution Aversion' by Troy Campbell, Behavioural Public Policy Blog, 2018
- 'Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment' by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass Sunstein. 2021
- 'Nudge: The Final Edition' by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, 2021 (first published 2008)
- 'Sludge: What Stops Us from Getting Things Done and What to Do about It' by Cass Sunstein, 2021
Cass Sunstein: For all my life, I've thought that democracy in my country, in the United States was firmly rooted in the ground, like a tree that could never die, that the idea raised by some, at some points in my lifetime that democracy had fragility to it was in the United States, a hysterical, not in the sense of funny, but in the sense of crazy anxiety talk and that democracy was not ever going to be at risk in the United States. The events of January 6th, 2021 made me think that I was actually quite wrong on that.
Alex Chesterfield: Welcome back to the new series of Changed My Mind, the podcast where we ask leaders, what they changed their mind on and why.
I'm Alex Chesterfield, behavioral scientist, and co-author of 'Poles Apart'. You've just heard from our guest today, Cass Sunstein, Robert Wamsley university professor at Harvard, advisor to governments and many other organizations, world famous author of Nudge, as well as many other books, including most recently Sludge. He'll be talking to us about what exactly is sludge and why we should be getting rid of it. And why Cass has changed his mind on the robustness of US democracy.
Before we get to that though, a reminder our book 'Poles Apart' came out last week, branded as essential reading by experts from behavioral science, political science, business, and more. It is out now from all good bookshops. For more information, sign up for our email newsletter. We promote this show with open democracy, to their millions of regular monthly events.
Sign up at depolarizationproject.com to get regular updates in your inbox about Changed My Mind, how to take part in our upcoming show and more, and you can find the back catalog to our shows and more information on this episode at opendemocracy.net/depolarizationproject.
As always, I'm joined for today's episode by my cohosts Ali, CEO of The Depolarization Project based in California.
Ali Goldsworthy: Hi Alex.
Alex: Hello, Ali. And corporate affairs director at London First, Laura Osborne.
Laura Osborne: Hi Alex. Hi Ali.
Alex: Hi Laura. So Laura, Ali, do you want to describe how the last few weeks have been?
Ali: I'm going to take a little bit of time to talk about us actually, because our book came up based on this podcast and the response from so many listeners and it's had the most fantastic reception, you know, getting branded as a great book, kind of refreshing tonic by Matt Chorley from the Times and really quite a big launch party.
I think. I've been really pleasantly surprised by just how many people are finding it really useful and really keen to understand if they are part of the problem in terms of vision. Laura, have you found that from the world of business and in your work and the reactions as well?
Laura: Yeah, absolutely. I was at a board dinner last night, talking to people about it, and I was amazed by how much it sort of opens people's eyes when you start to talk about the spill over effects into all different areas of our lives. And I should also say to listeners, we had a bit of a life highlight signing some books in Waterstones on Piccadilly, which was a lovely moment. So if you haven't got a copy of 'Poles Apart', please do go and get one.
Alex: Thank you both. Well, on that note, let's crack on with hearing from Cass and he's actually, I think probably one of the most prolific authors that I have ever met
Welcome, Cass, to Changed My Mind. We wanted to kick off with a question on your latest books, so 'Nudge' the final edition, which I have got right in front of me, and 'Sludge', which I believe is out tomorrow.
Cass: It is indeed.
Alex: Tell us a bit more about them.
Cass: Well 'Nudge' is an effort to come to terms with the phenomenon of the explosion of behavioral science over the last decade. And it tries to explore what we might do with respect to health, that's on people's minds, with respect to economic wellbeing, with respect to happiness. What can we do with respect to all of those things? It draws on the latest findings in behavioral science.
So we kind of took the book from 2008 and gave it an overhaul, like a home that needs to be remodeled and try to adapt it to the current situation the world finds itself in. There's a lot about climate change and how to handle that with reference to behavioral findings and some nudging. So we don't do more and more grave damage to the planet. So that's what that book is focused on.
'Sludge' is about one concrete thing, which is administrative burdens and frictions, things that make it really hard to navigate life. Whether it's a form you have to fill out to get medical care that has 10 pages and incomprehensible questions. Whether it's something you have to do by using the telephone or the internet to cancel a subscription that you hate.
Whether it's a matter of waiting in line for a long, long time to get something that you have a right to, or whether it's actually going someplace physically, when you kind of don't have time for that to get something that really matters and can help your family do a lot better in the next year than it did in the previous year.
So Sludge is about administrative burdens and frictions and barriers that are like little walls that separate us from all sorts of good things.
Alex: It's very, very timely. I have been trying to cancel a magazine subscription for probably the last four weeks. And even though I'm familiar with 'Sludge' and I know that these small barriers have a disproportionate impact, I still have not managed to cancel it. I'm still paying out for this magazine subscription that I don't want, so, I mean, that's one example of sludge. I'm sure our listeners will experience many other types of sludge in their everyday life. So it's very, very timely, but what is, I guess, one thing that's always interested me is what is the line between sludge and simply clever sales or marketing?
Cass: Well, there's a lot of things that involve clever sales and marketing. So saying that you can't afford not to buy this product is clever sales and marketing. There's no sludge there or having someone who's charismatic and famous, maybe a movie star say I use this and you should too. That's not sludge. So there's a subset of clever marketing, which involves putting up burdens or barriers to something that you really would benefit from and making it super easy to get access to something you really aren't going to benefit from. That's a sub category of clever marketing, let's call it. And if it's easy to enroll in something, let's say something that makes you a little poorer, but really hard to disenroll from something, the latter part that's the sludge element. Governments, by the way, impose a lot of sludge and they're not always in the marketing business, it might be that to get access to a program, let's say it involves training or education. You have to go through a horror movie of sludge that may be intentional by the designers, or it might be just that the designers thought it was easy because easy for them, but for the rest of us, it's a nightmare.
Alex: Nice. When you said about it could be intentional, can you ever use sludge for good? Is there actually sometimes a benefit to slowing people down or inserting a bit of friction in a particular process?
Cass: Completely. So if online you're about to let's say, make a reckless purchase or make what is for many people are reckless choice not to get some benefit that's important. It might say, are you sure you want to? That's a little bit of sludge and it's a pretty good idea. There were in north America but other countries too, efforts at one point to get people to buy lots of encyclopedias. And it was kind of pressure tactics and a lot of people who bought the encyclopedias, which are very expensive weren't glad they did in retrospect. So there's a cooling off period by law that you can't buy the encyclopedias from door to door sales, unless you agree that that was what you wanted to do after a few days. In some countries to get divorced has some sludge in it. That's not always a wonderful thing for people who really aren't getting along, but in general, it's not an unreasonable thing to make a decision of that degree of gravity has some sludge in it so you really know you want to do it. In the United States we have a problem you might have heard about gun violence. One thing that has actually worked in reducing gun violence is a waiting period before you can get a gun. And the basic idea behind the waiting period is people often get guns when they're mad. And when they're mad, that's probably not a good time to hand them a gun to give a waiting period actually reduces homicides.
Alex: Nice. Where do you think slush could be most reduced? If you had a sludge gun, where would you most aim it at? Where is the area you think — it could be in government, in the private sector — that could most benefit from desludging?.
Cass: Number one would be government. And it would be an areas that involve people who are really struggling either because they're poor or because they're old or because they're sick. And if you are a poor, old or sick, sludge is especially awful. There's a funny account by someone who had to fill out our forms, someone in his eighties who needed some benefit and the forms from government were lengthy and incomprehensible. And he said with a combination of amusement and disbelief, now they're making me fill out those forms? I'm 86. If I was 46, it wouldn't be so terrible. Now they're choosing to ask me to fill out those forms?
So I would hope that governments all over the world, maybe prompted in part by the pandemic, will take a hard look at the amount of sludge that prevents poor people from getting benefits that can make them less poor. That prevents poor kids, maybe from getting food or getting economic help or getting some job training or things that are hurting people who are in some physical state because of age or sickness that is making sludge something out of a Stephen King novel.
Alex: It's interesting. I was an elected councillor for where I live in the UK for four years and I'm just thinking about, you know, when we were sitting around and trying to make decisions about actually, what is going to help the local residents, we always thought about what to add and what's to bring fresh to the table. We never had a discussion actually, what could we take away? What could we stop doing? What could we almost de-sludge that it could actually have a greater net benefit on the people that trying to help at the end of the day.
Cass: Yeah, that's a great point. The human mind is often drawn to adding stuff when things aren't going well, and the notion of taking stuff away, that's just not intuitive for us. But as you say, that's often the best thing you can do. And during the Covid pandemic, one of the things that's sometimes gone pretty well is governments have de-sludged. They've thought we make people go in for an interview to get this and that, is that really necessary when maybe they're scared or they are actually sick?
And so the interview requirement is taken away, or we might say telemedicine isn't maybe ideal for some patients it's good for an in person visit, but for a lot of patients, telemedicine is excellent and just as good. And we saw an explosion of telemedicine and with legal requirements of in-person visits eliminated, and that's a war on sludge.
So I wouldn't say that elimination of sludge really needs to be part of the universal declaration of human rights, but I wouldn't deny or argue with those who say eliminating sludge deserves to be part of the universal declaration of human rights.
Ali: Cass, I just wanted to jump back to something that you mentioned much earlier about your, your book with what's coming out and climate change and how, I suppose, in some ways how we've ended up in really quite a polarized situation where you know how did a climate change denial movement gain some of the traction that it did with what was going on. And what I'm curious about is if you think for campaigners, is that a consequence of taking very polarizing campaign actions, is that likely to be a side effect of it? You know, the environmental movement has some people who make that very strident points, very stridently.
I have quite personally have quite a high degree of sympathy for them, but do you think that that's contributed some of this growth of the climate change denial movement?
Cass: I do. And I think that if you were attacking people and making it seem like you think they're ignorant or stupid, or indifferent to something that really matters to the wellbeing of future generations, then you make them defensive. And defensiveness is not a good start for finding commonality. So to meet people where they are is usually a really good thing in politics. And while some people are confused by the idea of climate change or skeptical or denying the existence, no one is really thrilled about flooding and drought and extreme heat and wildfire.
So to focus on concrete problems that in my view are aggravated by climate change is often a more productive way forward than to say that people in 2100 are going to be struggling. To say we're observing drought and fire and extreme heat and more all over the world, what can we do to reduce the incidence of those things and what can we do to make it so that when they actually happen, fewer people are hurt? That's something which initiates a productive conversation.
Ali: We spent quite a lots of time thinking about this issue and how it relates to polarization and campaigning. There are some groups who take very polarizing stances. Let's maybe move away from climate change, but who have been certainly in the US and to a certain extent in other places of the world, excluded from some of those going and meeting people where they are. So maybe some of the racial justice issues. Do you think in that context that doing particularly polarizing campaigning can be an effective way to change minds?
Cass: Sometimes. But I like with respect to serious problems, the idea of bringing a wide range of people on board. That's respectful and it also is likely to be more constructive. A potential nominee for the best widely unknown behavioral science research of the last 10 years is an essay on called something called solution aversion.
And the basic idea is if you tell people the solution to a problem that they may or may not recognize will be something they despise, they will deny the existence of the problem. That is whether a problem exists is often a product of whether they think the solution to it is appealing or terrifying.
So a little bit, if you go into the doctor's office and your doctor says, I'm sorry, you have cancer, you're probably going to die today. You might think this doctor knows nothing. But if the doctor says, I'm really sorry, you have cancer, but we have a path for you where you're going to be okay, or you have a good chance, then you'll be more receptive to the claim that there's a problem. The data, and this isn't a speculation, this is data, shows that this is exactly the same for climate change. If you tell people the solution to climate change is to abolish automobiles, and to have very stiff carbon taxes and to increase energy prices a lot — I'm giving an extreme version — people will say, I don't really think climate change is true. But if you tell them the solution to climate change is much more entrepreneurial activity, investment in solar and wind, unleashing ingenuity of the economy to promote economic growth, then people are much more likely to say, well, climate change, I actually think that is real.
Ali: We'll get hold of that research and put it in the show notes, actually.
Alex: I was just about to say that that's news that's news to me. So I'm going to check out the paper and we'll put it on so listeners can read it in their own time. And actually, Cass, that brings us nicely actually onto our next question. I'm conscious of readers that might be very new to the field or newer to the field of behavioral science, and given your wealth of experience is really keen to leverage this wonderful opportunity to talk to you and ask you a couple of I guess more general questions on behavioral science. The first one being what is, or can you say this one is, might be a I can't answer this question one, but what is the biggest driver of human behavior?
Cass: Inertia. That's number one. So if we are right now, let's say doing something in our life, the idea of doing something different from what we're doing is jarring. Both because it makes us exert effort and we might not want to do that. And because it suggests what we're doing now is bad. And we might not want to recognize that. So of course, people overcome inertia every day, but inertia is a really powerful force.
Ali: Cass, is there anything that you feel that inertia is particularly impacting your life where you're not doing something because you almost not quite can't be bothered to change it if I was being ungenerous, but something like that?
Cass: Yeah. Sure. So in this year plus of pandemic to get me to go someplace other than where I am is really hard, like to get from one house to another house is much harder than it was. And that's partly an artifact of what we've experienced, but it's partly just an extreme version of what other people suffer from less, which is inertia. I should say I do go places, but less than I should.
Ali: There is a time when like going to the local shop feels like a triumph and a massive adventure though, isn't there, at the minute?
Cass: Completely. But in the United States now I'm living in Washington, DC as we speak, but to go to New York or to go to California, it's very doable and it's not so terrible. And I do it less than I should. I confess.
Alex: Okay, so insight number one is inertia possibly the biggest driver of human behavior. What are some things most people wouldn't know about behavioral science.
Cass: I think when people don't know is captured in a three letter word fun. And I mean that in two different ways. First is that behavioral science is really fun. That's improbable, but something with the name, behavioral science should be fun, but it is it's funny and it's fun. So if you find out that human beings, you know, when they're told, if you have this operation, 90% of people are fine, people are going to say, I want that operation. People are less likely to have the operation if they're told, if you have the operation, 10% of people are dead. Then people don't have the operation. That's the latter is not funny. Death is not funny, but the fact that just how you describe it affects the conclusions of many people, that's fun and people who do behavioral science often have fun with human foibles.
But the more important reason that fun is important and people don't know about behavioral science is we have increasing evidence that if you want to change behavior, a good way to do so is to make the change fun. So if people think that eating vegetables is kind of dreary and worthy, climate friendly, they might well do it.
But if they think that eating vegetables is really fun because they're delicious and surprisingly tasty, then they're more likely to do it. If there's some behavior that you want people to engage in in order to live longer or to contribute something to the world, if they think it's fun it's going to be a good day, like they're going to laugh and smile a lot, then they're more likely to do it. And the research is increasingly demonstrating that fun is a great motivator. We didn't need research to demonstrate that, but then for behavioral science to demonstrate it is not widely known.
Ali: Cass I'm struck, there's a shop in America called Trader Joe's, which is an excellent supermarket should only British people get there, but they were selling chocolate hummus for the first time, the other day.
And I did, I was very struck that that was probably a way to get small children to eat more healthily, which is exactly what you're talking about, I think, and I just wanted to follow up on that quickly with one of the great ways to build divides that seems understudied at the minute is humor and how humor can build empathy between different groups.
And I just wondered if you had any observations on that, if there were any bits of research that you wish had happened or you'd seen happen that people should do to lift that rock a bit more?
Cass: I'll give you a couple of examples and then I'll give you some research. So Amazon sells a product in something called frustration free packaging. And I noticed that if I buy electric razors, as I do, I can use the frustration free packaging option, and I completely love it because there's no wires, no plastic, you just open the package and there's an electric razor, and often an electric razor if you buy it, it has so much packaging that the minutes of freeing it from the package you get caught and you don't have fun. It's terrible. It's not the worst thing in the world, but it's terrible. Frustration repackaging is a joy by comparison. So I looked it up and frustration free packaging, it's actually green packaging. Then there's no solid waste, essentially, there's no plastics. It's on environmental grounds, really positive. And it sounds as if that's why Amazon chose it for economic and environmental reasons, but they call it frustration free packaging. If they called it a green packaging, it would automatically be divisive. That some people would think what's Amazon doing, it's becoming political. And a number of purchasers would be turned off.
Frustration free packaging is actually truthful and credible, but it also has an environmental goal, which it is promoting. That's one example. Second example comes from Pepsi where Pepsi you sell some of its diet drinks under the name of diet Pepsi and some of its diet drinks under the name Pepsi max, and in some European countries, diet Pepsi has done okay and Pepsi max has been a spectacular success. I think I know why: the diet Pepsi leads with diet and makes you think, you know, they want me to lose weight as kind of political, they're a little paternalistic. Some people think that. Pepsi max sounds like fun and joyful, and everyone wants max. And by the way, it's also a diet drink.
So that's one where the political connotations political in the broader sense of diet is a potential negative for purchasers where max, everybody likes that. Basically, unless it's max something that is awful rather than tasty. Okay, that's not data, those are two examples. Here's data. There's a study a few years ago where people were encouraged to buy vegetables by an emphasis on the health qualities, et cetera. And you got roughly, this is from recollection, so it's rough. a 14% increase in vegetable uptake through the nudges toward the kind of values of eating more vegetables, but they also did something that emphasized taste and deliciousness. And there you got a 27% increase. Everybody likes taste and deliciousness. If it's environmental or based on health, it has a political slash paternalistic feature to it. But to your point about humor if you do something that induces positive affect and in New Zealand, by the way, the prime minister's been quite good at this in the context of Covid-19. At least at some crucial moments, she'd made people laugh by saying that, you know, we're going to have a lockdown, but the Easter bunny is exempt.
And that gives a sense of commonality. It's really interesting to think why exactly it is, but if you're laughing with someone, you don't care what their political affiliation is and you like them and you feel recognized by them. And that means that if the political stuff sometimes seems a little thin and tinny, we're laughing together.
Ali: I think I'm definitely with you on the Easter Benny stuff and Jacinda Ardem. I do wonder in a European context about the effect of the old diet Coke adverts, though, of whether Pepsi had the same market opportunity, given just how much Coke had stitched it up.
Cass: It's a good point. My understanding is that Pepsi max has done much better in some places than diet Pepsi. And the judgment is that it's better performance is not because it not only because it tastes better. It's that the conception of max among certain demographic groups is much more appealing than the conception of diet.
Alex: What behavioral insights Cass do you think are most relevant to polarization? So by that again, for listeners clarity, we mean rising hostility between groups. So both what causes it, but also how we might bridge divides.
Cass: Yeah. So I'm going to give two concepts for you and they're related. And neither is lovely. One is identity based cognition and the other is surprising validators. And I apologize for the non-fun nature of both of those terms. So for identity-based cognition, the idea is that often people's judgements are based on a quick thought, which is what kind of person am I. And that will determine their reaction to information. So if you're the kind of person, let's say, who is very concerned about the environment, if someone says look, on cost benefit grounds, this environmental initiative is a loser. You might think I'm not the kind of person who really listens carefully to that kind of stupid argument that it seems like it's monetizing everything.
Or if you're someone who is on the far right and you hear something about the need to help certain identifying groups, the most recent name for whom turns you off, you might think I'm just not the sort of person who cares about that. At least not in that way. I have my own way.
So if cognition is often identity-based, especially for the most polarizing issues we have both a challenge and opportunity, which is to meet people in terms of arguments in ways that are compatible with and not an attack on their conception of their identity. And then you can take your pick of the issue with respect to climate change, anti-poverty policy. There are ways of doing it, that run into the ground because of identity based cognition. And there are ways of doing it that actually can fly because of identity based cognition. The term surprising validators actually grows out of my experience in the Obama administration, where I heard a lot of a term I hadn't heard before, which is validator, which means who's going to be the validator for our initiative.
And that didn't mean a scientist who could come up with a ton of numbers, it meant someone outside of government who could say what we the Obama administration were doing is good. And to find a validator can often be helpful to depolarization. But if someone who is known to be, let's say a civil rights advocate says that your civil rights initiatives is an excellent thing, then you may not persuade anyone who wasn't persuaded already. So what you want is a surprising validator, and that is someone who isn't expected to be favorable toward the initiative in question. If the leader of let's say a large company that is associated with coal says this climate program is a really good idea, that's a surprising validators. Or if you have someone who's known to be a very right of center law and order type says that this initiative on civil rights is the best thing I've seen in the last 20 years. Then, then that's magic and there's relationship between surprising validators and identity based cognition, where the surprising validator might share the identity of the person who was believed to be presumptively skeptical. And then the surprising validator can help at least make the skeptic rethink by thinking, oh gosh, someone like me likes this, who knew.
Alex: Is it fair to say then the latter, the surprising validater, would that be an example of a more novel messenger?
Cass: Yes. And novel in a particular sense. You could have someone who's a novel messenger in the sense that they're really young and they've never been a messenger before. Or they might be a novel messenger in the sense that they're, let's say an athlete or an actor who's not participated in politics before, but if the novel messenger is surprising, not because of his or her novelty, but because that's not the sort of person who you would expect to think this, that can be very very very helpful.
Alex: I think about the factor of surprise that helps us to, I guess, pay attention and then also learn or listen to that person more than might be otherwise, have you tried either of these in your own personal life or conversations, Cass?
Cass: I haven't. But that's because I'm not a person who's involved in communicating with respect to products and causes very much some with respect to causes. So when I've been in government, my thought is how do we solve a problem, not how do we convince people that our solution is good. And as an academic, I'm kind of stepping back rather than involved. I guess a little bit when I worked on the Obama campaign, the first go around. I did some of this, I was very alert to people would be skeptical of him on the ground that they thought he might be too left or too African-American or too young.
And I would say things that would be designed to make people think that their conception of their own identity was compatible with liking candidate Obama. I can say I did do some knocking on doors in key states in the primaries. And one thing that to my amazement clearly worked was not talking about policy in a way that was number intense but instead making friends with people's dogs and that for me is really easy. I love dogs and people would see that I love their dog. And then whatever I said was instantly credible, I learned. I wasn't faking, I really do love dogs. And I remember more of the particular dogs than the particular people, which is testimony to my affection for dogs.
But I noticed that the people, once I was patting their dog and sitting somewhat ridiculously on my knees on their floor, they would find me kind of a surprising pro Obama person who instantly was a little bit of a family member.
Alex: I love that story.
Ali: I love it too. It's an interesting update on politicians, kissing babies, isn't it to try and build a rapport through that and probably more effective. Cass, is there anything where you think you would be a surprising messenger for somebody where you've got a view that somebody wouldn't expect you to have?
Cass: Yes. I love cost benefit analysis. I don't love it as much as my family, or as much as my dog, but I love cost benefit analysis a lot.
And because I worked for president Obama, the very few people who follow my work think of me as to the left of center, as I on many issues am. The fact that I love cost benefit analysis, as much as I do is not something that people expect to see.
Ali: Please both academic and policy makers response to that question. I'd been expecting something like, yeah, I really like broccoli, I'd be great as a champion for broccoli. Instead you gave us something very thoughtful and rigorous. I should pass back to Alex to ask the real meat, I guess of the question from our podcast.
Alex: Thanks, Ali. So Cass as I'm sure you're aware, we ask all our guests about a time that they've changed their mind on a substantial issue. And we can't wait to hear what have you changed your mind on and why?
Cass: Okay. Thank you for that. I'll give two, if I may, the first is quite fundamental and the second is that too, but less. So the very fundamental one is that I now believe the Beatles were better than the Rolling Stones.
And I thought for many years that the Rolling Stones were better than the Beatles, but within the last three years, I've listened a lot to John Lennon and Paul McCartney as if they were new. And I changed my mind on that matter of global and historic importance. Okay. That's a ridiculous example, the other one is actually even more fundamental and I hope not ridiculous, which is for all my life, I've thought that democracy in my country, in the United States was firmly rooted in the ground, like a tree that could never die, that the idea raised by some, at some points in my lifetime that democracy had fragility to it was in the United States, a hysterical, not in the sense of funny, but in the sense of crazy anxiety talk and that democracy was not ever going to be at risk in the United States. The events of January 6th, 2021 made me think that I was actually quite wrong on that. And that democracy, I believe in the United States is robust and not going to fall, but the roots of the tree in the ground now seem to me less solid, much less solid than I used to think.
Ali: And I really feel I should let the Liverpudlian respond first to either whichever one of those points.
Alex: My mum is from Liverpool so she would be thrilled that you have changed your mind about the Beatles being far better than the Rolling Stones, were there any particular events, or was it a gradual buildup to changing your mind?
So, so was it that you've just listened ,really listened, to the music? Like what was it that made you update your beliefs? The Beatles and Rolling Stones. And then under the latter example, was it just the events of January? So the storming of the Capitol building, or was it a more of a slow burn? And that then triggered or catalyzed that change or shift?
Cass: Slow burn in both cases. So with the Beatles, there was a book a few years ago, which was like a biography of the Beatles. And it knocked my socks off in showing the serendipity of the Beatles' rise to success, that there were various moments when it looked like they wouldn't make it.
And they could have given up, and they didn't. A world without the Beatles came much closer than I had thought to happening. That really interested me both in terms of culture and in terms of thinking about the arc of human history. So this is the Beatles, it could be true of Winston Churchill or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or any number of actors who played a large role in why things came out the way they did. And when I read that book I just started listening to the Beatles more. Creativity and then at times in Paul ebullience and in John rage that just struck me as much more, a bolt of genius than I had thought before. So it took a while though. There were songs that I loved, of course, but to hear them new all these years later, as I tried to, I just thought, man, they they're better even than the amazing bad boys, the Rolling Stones. I think it took probably about 14 months for me to change my mind on that one.
On democracy in the United States, it was a slower burn even. So in some of the difficult events we've had, I was extremely skeptical, almost contemptuous of admired friends who thought that the democratic system in the United States could take a serious blow and just as various things happened in our country the rise of X and Y and Z, and you can fill them in as you like, I'm thinking of private nonpolitical organizations mostly right now, seeing what the relationship between social media and the rise of those things, my certainty disintegrated. I wrote something in the New York Review of Books where I struggled with the editor, it's most about the rise of Nazism, struggled with the great editor, Robert Silvers who's no longer with us, who's a great friend and a hero. He actually thought democracy in the United States was fragile.
I didn't. And that was standing the title of the essay, which is 'It Can Happen Here'. The thesis of the essay was it can't happen here. I said that. I said it with less clarity and confidence because of his questioning than I otherwise would have. Nonetheless, that was the theme. I think that was published in 2017, but I wouldn't write it the same way now.
And the events of January 6th, 2021 were kind of a combination of a series of events on the ground of that I think made clear that those who thought that democracy, even in the United States, it has a degree of fragility to it I won't say exactly how much, but a degree of fragility to it, they were right all along.
Ali: Are you surprised that it took something as serious as the storming of the Capitol for you to update your belief?
Cass: I have a degree of self knowledge. I'm not surprised. So I'm an optimist by nature. I have a friend who says that everyone has a character or logical direction of error. If they're going to err it's in a certain direction.
So some people, you know, their characterological direction of errors toward bluntness. And others are toward timidity. Some others are toward cockiness. Others are toward inertia. My characterological direction of error is optimism, and I'm not sad that that's my characterological direction of error, but I'm alert to the fact that if I'm going to err it's because I'm too optimistic.
And then there's a great psychologist, Amos Tversky, who said it's a behavioral economist. One of the founders is a psychologist actually, but still one of the founders of behavioral economics though a psychologist he had a lot of formal skills, he said he was an optimist and it's rational to be an optimist because if you're a pessimist, you suffer twice.
I think it's really funny and really true. Once when the bad thing happens, and once when you think about it in advance. You should be an optimist then you'll suffer only once. So I kind of agree with that, but it can get you into trouble when you're attempting to make judgements about what's likely, and what's not. And I think I got into trouble in my ability to see risks properly because of my erroneous though, cheerful excessive optimism.
Ali: It makes you vulnerable to people taking advantage of you as well. Would that be a maybe uncharitable way to describe what happened on January the sixth?
Cass: Well, I think I wasn't involved at all in the planning as my capacity as government official.
I work hard and I hope successfully to see downside risks. It's more predictions and personal life. So in your professional life, you might be optimistic about what's going to happen to your children in the next year, while also thinking as a public official, here are the three things that can go wrong with the suggested course of action. So you can be an optimist without being clueless about people who are seeking to get you to subscribe to a magazine that you really aren't going to enjoy and won't cancel your subscription to after you subscribe.
Ali: Just before I pass back to Alex, there was one thing about the Rolling Stones that I'm intrigued about. You described them as bad boys and having been previously had loyalty to them would you ever associated it with that tag as well?
Cass: In some ways, I guess. I wouldn't say that I was a law breaker, but we all have in our heart a possibility of understanding and agreeing with Bob Dylan's dictum "to live outside the law, you must be honest". That's really good. And if you listen to 'Get Off Of My Cloud', one of the all time great creations of the human spirit. If that doesn't resonate with you, then you probably should look inward a little deeper.
Alex: So what advice would you give to someone who is trying to change someone, maybe your mind, maybe someone else's mind and wants to do it ethically?
Cass: Figure out what they care about. And connect your goal to something that they already care about. And that's both useful, instrumentally, and it's also respectful. Because you're not thinking they care about something that they don't care about, what's wrong with them, which is not very respectful, but instead attaching what you want them to think to something that they already think. This great old book, 'How to Win Friends and Influence People', has a hilarious chapter on winning arguments. And it says you can't win an argument. Don't try. If you actually win, which is going to be really hard, you win in some technical sense, then they're just going to hate you and not agree with you. Don't try and win an argument, but the author says sometimes you can make people want to agree with you. And I think that's helpful. And on the ethical side, if you attach what you want them to think or do with something they already care about, that's profoundly ethical.
Alex: We touch on that in the book, actually, your first point about adopting a mindset to understand and genuinely listen and ask open questions versus going in with that mindset of wanting to win and to denigrate and to beat and score points, which pushes you further away. Okay. That is helpful advice. And who would you like to hear from about a time that they changed their mind on an issue? It could be a person living or dead.
Cass: My favorite author is AS Byatt on the strength of her unbelievably good novel 'Possession', which in my view is the greatest novel of the last 50 years. I'd like to hear AS Byatt talk about anything. And I'd particularly like to hear her talk about that.
Alex: Ali, Caroline, have you read ?
Caroline: Yes, big fan.
Ali: Oh, well I'm so Caroline, I'm so pleased. You've got you on this call. I was about to ask if she was still alive, but also maybe for the benefit of our listeners, if you could explain just in a couple of sentences, what Possession is about, that will be really helpful.
Alex: Why you liked it so much as well.
Cass: 'Possession' is a novel of romance about a guy, a graduate student who uncovers in an old dusty book by a great poet, an unfinished letter that he had written to some mysterious person that seemed like something like a declaration of potential love.
I think that's the right word. And the question is what was that letter written for and to whom was the letter written. And it becomes a Sherlock Holmes discovery that this great poet think, you know, Browning or Wordsworth, had an unknown and unbearably heartbreaking and beautiful sublime love affair that no one knew about. And the two characters of the great male poet and the also great female poet are any word is going to be cliche and therefore not serve the novel well, but the cliche unforgettable is too abstract, but it's not false. And it's about that discovered historical romance.
So it's a little bit about how we really don't know the fullness of individual's lives and there's a lot going on in there that might be sublime or heartbreaking that we don't have access to, even if we study them well. And while the book is centered, I think it's fair to say on the romance of the long dead male and female poets, there's a romance in real time between the discoverer, the young graduate student and the confident, tall unbelievable Maud who also becomes caught up in the story. And the two investigators also have a romance. It plays a lot with the idea of the garden of Eden and what it means to fall and in the end, it it gives you an account of the fortunate nature of the fall, which is different from anything in English literature.
Alex: Well, I was going to say, it feels like I can hear echoes of Milton's 'Paradise Lost'.
Cass: Completely. The difference being, and this is, you know, very vivid that the fall and the smell of bitter apples, that's really precious. That's very good. And that's a reversal and Milton didn't quite go there.
Alex: Cass, a huge thank you. And goodbye. And can't wait to read 'Sludge'.
Cass: Thank you so much, a great pleasure.
Ali: Before we discuss this, let's have a quick word from our sponsors.
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Alex: So Laura, what was the key takeaway for you from that conversation?
Laura: So it was a really interesting conversation to listen back to. It was fascinating about solution aversion and that being the most unknown behavioral insight, essentially solution aversion is the idea that people are motivated to deny problems.
And the scientific evidence supporting the existence of those problems when they are against the solutions, when they don't like what the solutions sound like. And it's a concept that's really relevant to the work that we've done on this podcast. And in the book 'Poles Apart'. So Troy Campbell and his colleagues found that people evaluate scientific evidence based on whether they view its policy implications as politically desirable. And it shows how much we feel about the solutions to a problem shapes our beliefs about the problems. So for example, if you know, we think part of the solution is to increase taxes and we don't like increasing taxes, then we won't think that is a good solution.
Ali: Yeah. I think there was obviously really deep in this interview on behavioral insight, you know, Cass has a huge depth of knowledge on the topic to draw on. But I was really struck by how humble he was around the view that he thought that American democracy would survive. And actually it came quite close to peril on January the sixth this year with the protests at the Capitol building and anybody who looked at the faces of the then vice president, Mike Pence, and some of the other members of Congress could see that none of them felt safe and none of them felt secure in that building.
And that is not something that anybody expects from a durable democracy and Cass's view, for people who aren't based in the States, his view is not actually that uncommon, you know, people have a lot of faith in the checks and balances of the American system. They were like, no, we'll be able to ride this out. This has happened before. We'll all be okay. And other political scientists were saying I'm really not sure we are. And it was really good to see someone who's such an expert actually recognize that maybe others with deeper expertise in his field had been right. And that, you know, democracy is fragile and needs to be tended.
The other thing that stood out for me was how he was talking about how the Obama administration, when he was serving in that were in their, in their comms plans when they were deciding to announce something or because they worked on who would be the messenger that delivered something. And they thought about that in terms of who would resonate with an audience.
And that's unusual as anybody, this isn't just happening in politics, but you know, when there's often who makes announcements and who does the talking is as much dependent on who wants to announce good news and about egos and things within an organization rather than about who will be the best person that people want to listen to and who will, who will test in effect most effectively, I think there's probably a lot for comms professionals to pick up from that and how they are planning and communicating things.
What did you think, Alex?
Alex: Yeah, very much agree on Cass's humility, given his background and credibility in the world of behavioral science. So yeah, for me personally, it was a wonderful interview to do, but in terms of the, the key thing that stood out for me, it was really that idea of sludge and reducing sludge and linked to that what we take away or stop to make the world better, not just what we add.
And it really made me think about organizations typically and the workplace and how we continuously measure inputs as a measure of success versus outcomes, you know, what is it that we are trying to achieve or change? So, you know, for example, rules are often added activities are often added to plans but actually what impact or what difference does that actually make?
And the conversation reminds me of a book research by a guy called Leidy Klotz on how, when we were trying to change things from how they are to how we want them to be always to remember that one option is to subtract rather than add to what already exists and that it can be it's just a very simple way of getting from where we are to where we want to be.
So subtract or think about what we can remove versus what we can add which is often the more traditional route to change.
Ali: That's it from us. We'll be back with another podcast very soon for you crossing back over to America and interviewing someone whose research has been truly groundbreaking in trying to bridge divides.
But before we go, we'd like to remind you that our book 'Poles Apart' is out now in all good bookshops, attracting rave reviews, and even hit the independents bestseller lists. If you like what you had and you want to check out our full back catalogue of interviews with leaders about changing their mind, then search for that, change my mind in your podcast app.
Thank you to openDemocracy for their support of the show, to Caroline Crampton, for editing and to Kevin McCloud, whose 'Dreams Become Real' is the music you're about to hear.
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