How to Change the World: A two-step process backed by science

There have been two articles that I recently read about primary prevention and social norms that have intrigued me. They are about distinct topics- sexual violence and spanking- and yet, combined they can teach us much about building a better future. They can lead us down the following path:


Step 1: Build the culture- and the perception- appropriately.

This story discusses recent studies on sexual violence and perception. According to the authors of the study, they find that “when you’re talking about transgressive behavior, like underage drinking, drug use or nonconsensual sexual behavior, there’s often a “misperception of the norm.” Students believe that more people are ‘doing it’ than is real, and that leads them to be willing to engage in risky behaviors more often. The students further believed that, while personally, peer intervention is a good idea and they would be willing to step in at difficult moments, it was their peers who didn’t think it would work- so they didn’t act. All of this seems to make teens more willing to engage in bad behaviors, and less willing to stand up for the right thing. By working with primary prevention and building the right norms and the right perceptions, we have a good path forward to affect change.


Step 2: Let the long-range changes occur.

This story tracked the changes in behavior in those countries that took cultural stances against spanking. What they found was truly amazing. As countries banned spanking, they found that students growing up in that new culture were far less likely to use aggression and get in fights as adolescents: by 69 percent for adolescent males and 42 percent less for females. If we could see this sort of results with a change in spanking, what can we see by adding more and more pro-social behaviors? More over, they found no positive pro-social behavior changes in those countries that stuck with spanking, or put another way “violence teaches violence.” This may be intuitive for some, but it is a powerful effect, now demonstrated scientifically.


So, two studies over two random days in the past few weeks. And yet, there is a path forward. If we can teach positive social behavior to our kids; if we can help them learn honestly that those are the behaviors we are all trying to enact and we all benefit from; and if we can raise the next generation under those new norms- violence- sexual and otherwise- can and will decrease. Our role as teachers and parents is vital in helping this generation understand that we can build a better future- in two simple steps. It provides hope in a time when we can get caught up by all the bad news.

Chris McAvoy