CRISIS post: The dynamics of social transformation – how habit, power and catalysts influence social change

Published by Aubyn Howard on

In my last post I developed a hypothesis for how societal change or transformation takes place as a function of compelling narratives, emotionally connecting with tribal identities.

In this third post I am adding the other key ingredients that influence how change takes place: the paradox of habituation and adaptability, the dynamics of power in human systems, as well as the role of catalysts in initiating or enabling change, the nature of momentum and inertia and how all these come together within the context of human societal systems.

The paradox of habituation and adaptability

We start with a seeming paradox in human nature – that on the one hand human beings are creatures of habits that can sometimes appear immovable or unchangeable, and on the other hand, when needs demand it or the situation changes, human beings are remarkably adaptable and very able to quickly form different habits. This paradox operates at both the individual and collective levels – we can all think of examples where we have struggled with changing a personal habit or pattern (for example giving up smoking, eating less or not checking emails so often), as well as times when we have quickly adjusted to a significant change (a new job, partner, home, etc). At the collective level, you could say our societies are habituated, addicted even, to certain behaviours and patterns, some of which have stopped or changed remarkably in response to the coronavirus pandemic, if only temporarily.

Behind most of our individual and collective behavioural habits and patterns are choices and decisions that have long since been buried in our unconscious. The pandemic, by bringing many things to a stop, gives us an opportunity to make conscious some of the underlying choices and decisions behind the shape and patterns of our lives.

The inter-relationship between individual and collective choices, habits and patterns within our societal systems is complex and exploring it may help us to step back and make new choices about what we want.

Society significantly influences individual behaviour through collective policy making and legislation at regional, national or inter-national governmental (e.g. EU) levels, which at least in the long term is in turn influenced by choices made by electorates. It can be argued that different democratic systems work more or less well in the way they translate the consensus of societal views and wishes into political policy platforms, alongside the extent to which those with power (which we will come to) influence, distort or stop these policies. Either way, our individual behavioural choices are influenced enormously by the mechanisms of the state – e.g. by increasing the tax on petrol, banning smoking in workplaces, requiring sugar content labelling and so on.

There has been much talk about ‘normal’ in relation to this crisis – either in terms of ‘when can we get back to normal?’ or ‘how can we create a new normal rather than going back to the old normal?”. What we view as ‘normal’ can be viewed as an aggregate of habits and habitual patterns of thinking and behaviour. Habit forming and normalisation is necessary for humans – at an individual level, the fast unconscious part of our brain (see Kahneman, 2012) is needed to manage most of what we do, leaving the slow, deliberate, energy consuming and conscious part to engage with the decisions and actions that really matter.

Oliver Burkeman speaks to the human capacity to quickly adapt to a new normal, for example, after this pandemic…:

for most of us, most of the time, it’ll feel normal. Part of the reason is “hedonic adaptation”, our tendency to swiftly adapt emotionally to positive or negative changes in our circumstances, drifting back towards our baseline levels of curmudgeonliness or cheer. Another is the “focusing illusion”, whereby we overestimate the impact that any given change will have on our lives.

Our brains have a drive towards normalisation, quickly adapting to any new circumstances with new routines that can be consigned to the automatic, unconscious part of brain functioning.  In the Power of Habit (2012), Charles Duhigg explains how ‘habits are actions people first decide to do deliberately and keep doing subconsciously. The “habit loop” has three stages: a “cue” propels a person into a “routine” to reach the goal of a “reward.” Understanding how your habits fit these habit loop stages can help you change them.”

In this brief moment between the old normal and finding a new normal, there is an opportunity to evaluate and change our habits. We are experiencing an inter-normal space.  The societal habits of consumerism (our addictions to shopping and cheap stuff), celebrity (vicarious escapism), credit (buying on tick) and foreign holiday (exotic escapism) seem almost hard wired into British society. Alongside these unconscious “choices” are more prosaic realities about the way that people’s lives work, that are now clearly exposed by the crisis. William Davies, describes this in Society as a Broadband Network, 19 March 2020, London Review of Books:

Wages, rent, credit card repayments and everyday consumption are locked into their own ‘just-in-time’ supply chain, which is stressful enough even when its up and running… Britain has little to fall back on when the most urgent need is for everybody to stay at home.

Britain feels like an extreme example of how society can unconsciously head down a road towards a just-in-time hell, but every society has choices they have made that are becoming more conscious again; from An Irish Times view about the crisis:

So many things we did not think about because they were merely normal – from the traffic on the roads and the distances we commute to the way we value work – are now open to the biggest question: why is that the way it is?

Let’s use the climate crisis as an example.  The focus of much of campaigning has been to persuade people to change their habits because of the existential threat to humanity and the planet.  Yet people in developed countries (and many in developing countries) have collectively continued to increase their carbon foot prints by driving more, flying more, consuming more stuff.

The point is that the collective societal habits that matter most for climate change, are based upon deep unconscious or unquestioned choices that created the old normal and are no longer even discussed in public debate, e.g. public subsidies for air travel and long haul sea and road freight, the tolerance for homes and workplaces to be far apart, the focus on GDP as our key measure of success and so on. Many of these are unconscious assumptions about the kind of globalisation we want can now be re-examined. Already there are signs this is happening in the inter-normal space.

Returning to our central theme of social change, the point here is to recognise that, to bring about meaningful change, both individual and collective habits needs to change in tandem. The relationship between the two needs to be remade. The reason there is so much talk of finding a new normal is because there is an implicit understanding that when we have been forced to stop doing habitual behaviours by circumstances this is the best opportunity to re-evaluate them and chose new individual and collective behaviours that are shaped by a new narrative vision of the society we want. The trick here is timing – if we unconsciously snap back into old patterns after the virus crisis has abated, the window will have closed.    

The dynamics of power in human systems

The topic of power is now finally coming out into the open as a social issue that demands engagement. Alongside public movements (such as #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, Climate Emergency, etc.) that challenge deep seated power distortions, there is an increasing sense that there can be meaningful public discourse about the way that power works in society. The winds of change were already blowing before the pandemic crisis.    

The problem with the ‘continuing reveal’ about power, however, is that the old and new media through which this is taking place is part of the power mix. As we learn more about the increasingly unequal concentration of wealth and power in the hands of “the 1%” there is a temptation to reject the whole established edifice through which we receive our news or information and take up with alternative sources and conspiracy theories that play to our beliefs, biases and fears.

Lightly holding the idea of a wealthy, well-connected and powerful elite or establishment, who conspire together to protect their interests, control the narrative and resist changes (such as the climate friendly ones raised in the previous section) that are disadvantageous to themselves, can easily tip over into paranoia and beliefs that someone or something is behind everything we don’t like or feel suspicious about – and guess what, a cursory search of the internet delivers a conspiracy theory that exactly fits. So, what is important is our capacity to stay with ambiguity and uncertainty long enough to develop a deeper awareness of how the world works and what is going on, alongside holding that much of what we are told by those in power may be lies or distortions of the truth.

How the risks identified above have been amplified through the coronavirus crisis are well illustrated in a piece by Brigid Delaney on Evil forces: how Covid-19 paranoia united the wellness industry and right-wing conspiracy theorists:  

How and why did (some of)the largely progressive and left-leaning proponents of wellness merge with right-wing conspiracy theorists and Donald Trump supporters?

Such unlikely allegiances were termed “fusion paranoia” in a 1995 New Yorker article by the journalist Michael Kelly, who saw left-wing and right-wing activists coalesce around the anti-war and pro-civil liberties movements that shared common traits of anti-government views and belief in conspiracy theories.

Such a tight alliance (or fusion paranoia) between the wellness industry and the far-right would have been unthinkable to me a year ago. But the connection between the alt-right, conspiracy theorists and sections of the wellness community have strengthened and bonded during global lockdowns.

Quoting Bruno Latour from ‘This is a global catastrophe that has come from within’ by Jonathan Watts, in the Observer 7 June 2020:

If you have to defend yourself against climate change, economic change, coronavirus change, then you grab at any alternative. If those alternatives are fed to you by thousands of fake news farms in Siberia, they are hard to resist, especially if they look vaguely empirical. If you have enough of them and they are contradictory enough, they allow you to stick to your old beliefs. But this should not be confused with rational scepticism.

In the spirit of rational scepticism, it may be helpful to hold in mind some key distinctions.  For example; between power that we can see and is publicly visible and power that we can’t see or is hidden; between power that is maintained and operates unconsciously in the system and acts of power which are conscious or deliberate; between power that is experienced as legitimate and power which is experienced as illegitimate, as coercive, manipulative or oppressive; between power that empowers others and power that limits or controls.  Across these and other distinctions, there is the vastly complex reality or who holds or exercises power in many different contexts and dimensions and how these interests interrelate and overlap; so for example in the old normal, we have old and new money, old and new media and technology, old and new business empires, old and new worlds in the global free for all. Even within “the 1%”, the diversity and disparity is considerable and although there may be natural coalitions between vested interests and powerful lobbies, these often operate informally.  Combinations of greed, self-interest, stupidity and incompetence are often more realistic explanations of events that clever and malicious conspiracies.

If we are going to change the way that power works in society, to address imbalances and abuses of power, we need to first understand how it works, especially how dynamics and forces of power are maintained in the system.  History is littered with stories of revolutions and civil wars to replace powerful elites to soon find the new incumbents operating within old patterns. Bringing the system crashing down doesn’t automatically lead to a better world, in fact it almost always leads to something worse (a point I will expand upon in the next post, with reference to evolutionary intelligence).

Better also, to resolve old injustices and heal emotional wounds in society with some form of dialogue or engagement, rather than retribution or revenge. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the end of apartheid, despite all its failings, is still one of the best examples. Today as the Troubles continue to reverberate on the island of Ireland, there is a radical proposal by John Green and others to bring about “truth recovery” and “justice facilitation”, as described by Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times. Without something like this, he concludes:

Historical memory abhors vacuums – either this space is filled with truth or it will be occupied by dangerous evasions.

At the personal level, our understanding needs to start with the psychological dimension of power and with ownership of our individual relationship with power – how and where we give it away, why we deny or suppress our power, how our will is hijacked by over-identified parts of ourselves.   We must also recognise the ubiquity of power dynamics in human society and all our relationships. To illustrate this, I quote again from Phyllis Rose in Parallel Lives: “Marriages go bad not when love fades… but when an understanding about the balance of power breaks down, when the weaker member feels exploited or the stronger feels unrewarded for his or her strength”.

At the EFPP summer school last August I attended a short seminar by Manolis Skoulikas, titled ‘The Royal Will as Quest for Truth’, in which he tells the eternal, repeating story of power (that starts with the first living organisms) and how this becomes embedded in human systems. He suggests we must recognise how the psychological relationship works between abusers and abused, between dominators and oppressed, between leaders and followers, before we can change the unconscious choices that maintain the relationship and find legitimate ways to change the dynamic. This story of power is worth telling – how can we recognise the truth in our unconscious shadow, heal the splits in our collective psyche, take back ownership of both our positive and negative scapegoating? But that is for another post.

Meanwhile, shifting from the inner psyche to the outer world, it is very easy to take our collective eyes off the ball and forget about the need to maintain and renew the key pillars of democracy that keep power in check in modern society – such as free, diverse and healthy news media; transparency and accountability in public service; an independent and well-scrutinised judiciary; accountable government with independent checks and balances; regulation and critical oversight of the business world, and so on.  We have seen how these protections of liberty against illegitimate power can be easily eroded or even swept away in societies vulnerable to populist politics and post-truth media.  Britons may be surprised to find how low down the free press league table they find themselves, and Americans may be despairing at the extent to which normal standards of integrity and truthfulness have been discarded within the current presidency.

To return to my central narrative, the point is that we need to understand how the dynamics of power operate within human systems, to be aware that powerful vested interests may either resist or restrict social change according to the perceived implications for themselves and that within the current coronavirus pandemic, the way in which this usually happens will have been disrupted.  Therefore, for example, the powerful fossil fuel lobbies may be less able to prevent undesirable changes than before the crisis. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s government has resisted offering economic support for conventional vehicle manufacture, instead doubling grants available to buy electric cars.

The role of catalysts

Implicit in this post has been the assertion that the coronavirus pandemic crisis is acting as a disruptive catalyst for societal change.

There are at least three types of catalyst for social change;

  • disruptive catalysts, that create space for new choices and decisions to be made. These are shocks to the system such as war, revolution, disease and natural disaster.
  • transformative catalysts, in particular the lives and actions of people, sometimes expressed through social movements or creative arts and literature. This notion of catalyst merges with the idea of agency that we will revisit in the last post of this series.
  • systemic catalysts, that work away inadvertently to bring about unexpected or unanticipated change, such as technology and globalisation over the last twenty years.

The nature of disruptive catalysts

Disruptive catalysts work to enable change by negating or interrupting the usual breaks and barriers to narrative-driven change posed by the twin forces of habit and (the vested interests of) power. They do not in themselves create or bring forward meaningful or positive change, they merely create the window of opportunity.  In themselves, they are often at the time deeply destructive and can have a terrible impact upon society, but in the long term their catalytic impact may be seen as ultimately beneficial. For good or ill, we are now in one of those times.

To paraphrase Charles Eisenstein again,

‘at some point we needed this interruption, so that we ask, hold on, is this working?’

And Jonathan Watts, quoting Bruno Latour again:

“The first lesson the coronavirus has taught us,” he wrote, “is also the most astounding: we have actually proven that it is possible, in a few weeks, to put an economic system on hold everywhere in the world…”

Disruptive catalysts work at the personal level too. Josh Jacobs on Laurie Santos’ psychology and the Good Life course:

Santos believes the pandemic can catalyse some of the individual changes she’s proposing. “It’s an awful crisis and that’s not to belittle it,” she says. “But I think there are blessings in the middle of this.”

Why do we need such disruptive catalyst before radical change is possible? Kyrill Hartog interviewing, Walter Scheidel, the Black death historian in ‘A coronavirus depression could be the great leveller’, explains how the fallout from coronavirus could be the catalyst for a more equal world.

“What I’m very sceptical about is the idea that ideology, or rhetoric, or just political agitation by itself can change things. What you need is essentially a combination of certain kinds of ideas being out there, and then a shock to the established order that allows those ideas to become mainstream.”

Will all this awareness spill over into demands for political transformation? “It doesn’t take all that much,” says Scheidel. “All we really need is a certain increase in the percentage of people who support certain policies for those policies to become mainstream.

We don’t know yet whether this disruptive catalyst will lead to positive or negative change and of course we can influence the outcome. An awareness of the importance of this moment in time, this inter-normal space, should embolden us to engage in whatever ways we can to make the best of the opportunity.  Within this it is important to transcend tribal differences and support narratives and movements for transformational change wherever they can be found, to give the benefit of the doubt where it can be given, to reach out across traditional divides with goodwill.

In France, for example, where incumbent presidents are traditionally given a hard time by a critical public regardless, Emmanuel Macron is mostly viewed by the progressive-leaning tribes with shades of disdain or even contempt, at least partly for his (tribal) background as a financier, the friends he keeps, the suits he wears, the public funds he spends on re-decorating the Elysée Palace. And I would agree with them that the tone and pitch of his presidency has often been ill-judged.

Yet he has consistently shown political courage and a willingness to break with the old in a way that is rare in European politics these days.  Before the coronavirus crisis, his solution to the gilets jaunesimpasse with the need to reduce carbon emissions of setting up a people’s assembly illustrated this.  In an April 16 Financial Times interview by Victor Mallet and Roula Khalaf, Emmanuel Macron says it is time to think the unthinkable, he shows this willingness: “We all face the profound need to invent something new, because that is all we can do,” he says.

In Ireland, at the time of writing, after months of political dithering after the last election, there is now a chance of a coalition that transcends traditional tribal rivalries and includes a strong green agenda, but only if their respective supporters are willing to hold their noses.    

In Britain, well… at least there is the possibility that the ideologically driven Brexit acts as a disruptive, destructive catalyst that eventually leads to resolution of deep seated issues in the British psyche, most likely involving the dissolution of the Union along the way.

Elsewhere across the globe, there is even more uncertainty and continuing turmoil that will feed into the making of the post-Covid world.

One purpose of this series of posts has been to show that we are both involved in shaping the world we and future generations live in as well as responsible for the way we experience our daily lives and that the two are connected. Perceiving the eternal dance between I and We, dancing between our inner experience and outer world of relationships and connections, between unconscious choices or identifications and deliberate decisions and actions, is necessary both for our sanity and our capacity to make a difference. I am also seeking to show how a psycho-spiritual perspective can help inform discussion of social and political systemic issues.


In my next and final post of this series I turn to the final part of the dynamics of change – the systemic interaction of these elements within our complex human systems and the capacity of leaders or leadership systems to engage with these as agents of transformative change.

Aubyn Howard

Aubyn Howard

Aubyn has 30 years’ experience as an organisational consultant, facilitator, educator and coach, supporting transformational change and leadership development with leaders.