FEATURE28 March 2018

Breaking free

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Behavioural science Features Impact North America Public Sector

When social norms break down, people may reveal preferences or values they previously felt they had to conceal – sometimes with profound consequences. In a new paper, Harvard University law professor Cass Sunstein explores how the unleashing of hidden preferences can create social change. By Katie McQuater.

Yellow brick in wall

In October 2017, sparked by the allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano asked her Twitter followers to tweet the words ‘me too’ if they had experienced sexual assault or harassment, to highlight the scale of the problem.

The global response that ensued – more than 1.7m tweets including the hashtag #MeToo, and 12m Facebook posts in less than 24 hours by 4.7m users around the world – became a rallying cry against sexual assault and harassment; a collective outpouring of shared experiences. Experiences that, for many, had previously been kept a secret. 

As social media time-lines filled up with stories, the norm of silence had shifted. Buoyed by the experiences of others – including the very public revelations from high-profile Hollywood actresses about Weinstein’s alleged abuse – the unleashing of honesty had empowered millions of women to speak out when they may otherwise
have not. 

In a new paper, Harvard Law School professor and co-author of ...