Time magazine named the “silence breakers” of the #MeToo movement "Person of the Year." The Editor-in-Chief Edward Felsenthal said in a statement, “The galvanizing actions of the women on our cover … along with those of hundreds of others, and of many men as well, have unleashed one of the highest-velocity shifts in our culture since the 1960s.”

We are in a moment where accepted norms around sexual assault can change or recede. If the movement wants to ensure that this behavior—a willingness to speak out and stand up—becomes the status quo in our society, advocates and organizations need to think strategically about how to ensure that women are supported as they continue to report sexual violence and their perpetrators are held accountable.

To do so, they can look to the science on social norms—shared beliefs of how people behave or should behave, set by social groups they are either born into or self-select into.

Efforts such as the well-organized anti-tobacco “truth” campaign that targeted at-risk youth and peer-to-peer bullying interventions have shown the power of working within social groups to shift what people believe is socially acceptable and, as a result, their actions.

If you pop the hood on why campaigns to change norms work, you will see that they often rely on three social and psychological drivers:

  1. Identity defines us as individuals.
  2. We gather in social tribes based on our identities and look to those tribes for information on what is socially acceptable.
  3. Social Institutions set norms and influence behavior.

This framework, from psychologists Margaret Tankard and Elizabeth Paluck, provides a deeper look at how social norms are created, and the #MeToo movement can use it to ensure lasting change.

Identity defines us as individuals.

Social identities are categories that people use to define themselves. They influence the news and information people consume and the groups with which they align.

The more important an identity is to someone, the more likely they are to act inline with the socially defined norms of the group. Each of us has an ideal vision of the type of person we want to be. This vision determines who is influential to us. When we look to influencers to understand what our group does and does not do, we are seeking to verify that we match the idealized version of ourselves. If we do not match, we will adjust our behavior to meet it.

To influence people’s behavior, advocates need to identify the right influencers in their hyper-niche social groups that shape identity norms. For example, gender violence activist and scholar Jackson Katz developed a training program with the US Department of Defense to shift norms around sexual and domestic violence within the military. To do so, the department attached prevention to military leadership, focusing primarily on junior and senior enlisted Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force officers. These trainings target aspiring officers who are working to move up the ranks and establish influence in their units by attaching prevention to leadership. The program has also been tailored to college athletics and professional sports—identities salient and influential to some groups of men.

We gather in tribes.

Communities shape what people perceive as socially acceptable. In the sociology of group behavior and deviance, people are motivated to fit into their niche communities to avoid being labeled as deviant and ostracized.

People learn what is OK and not OK by looking to others in their social groups. For example, college students report greater intention to be environmentally friendly when they think their behavior is worse than their peers. Republicans and conservatives update their beliefs to be consistent with their party, rather than changing parties that conflict with their beliefs. And people deciding how much to donate to charity look to what others have done.

Changing what people perceive as socially acceptable can be effective in influencing beliefs and behavior. “Showing how norms are changing can give people a model of how they can change, too, and lead to a circumstance where many people change,” says Stanford psychologist Gregory Walton in an article published on Stanford News.

In a new study, Walton and Stanford psychology doctoral student Gregg Sparkmann found that messages that told participants about changing norms around meat consumption, rather than current norms, resulted in more people reporting they were interested in changing their own meat consumption and doubled the purchases of meatless lunches by participants in the study.

“Just learning that other people are changing can instigate all these psychological processes that motivate further change. People can begin to think that change is possible, that change is important and that in the future, the norms will be different. And then, if they become persuaded and decide to change, it starts to become a reality,” Sparkmann told Stanford News.

We see the power of this in the #MeToo movement. The hashtag, initially introduced by sexual violence activist Tarana Burke, went viral after actress Alyssa Milano asked people to write “me too” on social media if they had been sexually assaulted. “Social media was soon flooded with stories of harassment and assault, as #metoo became a way for users to tell their experience with sexual violence and stand in solidarity with other survivors,” the New York Times reported. “The hashtag was widely used on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and other platforms; on Facebook, it was shared in more than 12 million posts and reactions in the first 24 hours.” As more women came forward, these posts sent a signal to other women that they are not alone, that this is the time to come forward, and that this is what women who are targets of sexual assault are now doing.

Interventions could target specific identity groups, like in the work of Jackson Katz, or social media influencers who have experienced sexual assault—groups critical to driving change. “Most individual community members strive to understand the social norms of a group and adjust their own behavior accordingly. When many individuals in a community perceive a similar norm and adjust their behavior, then a community-wide behavioral pattern may emerge,” wrote researcher Elizabeth Palluck and her colleagues.

Social institutions influence behavior.

Social institutions—like government, media, education and religion—shape our perception of what is socially accepted and what is not. Culture wars regularly take place over the values and norms of a society, including how organizations respond to reports of sexual violence.

Institutional policies and laws influence behavior. When social institutions change their rules, it signals new norms. For example, Margaret E. Tankard and Elizabeth Paluck found that the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same sex marriage resulted in people believing more Americans were in support of marriage equality (even if they personally were not). Meanwhile, Blessed Tomorrow, an organization for religious leaders, is working to introduce conservation as a religious value in the church. Social psychologist David Sleeth Keppler found that introducing conservation norms through religious leaders, among other messengers, can be influential on environmental beliefs. And media, a powerful institution, can shift what people perceive as socially accepted. Shows like Will and Grace, Orange is the New Black, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show have played a critical role in changing how generations think about LGBT people by exposing audiences to new storylines and norms.

To change norms around sexual assault, institutional policy and culture must change. For example, The New York Times reported an increase in sexual assault allegations on university campuses as a result of the movement. One woman told the paper, “I was just inspired by all the women coming forward about Harvey Weinstein ... People are believing these women. Maybe they’ll believe me too.” One university created a task force to address sexual assault on campus, the accused at several universities are being investigated, and universities that do not respond are being called out. However, it is important to note that some victims are still silenced, intimated, and ostracized on campus by their social groups, which may stop them from reporting incidents to their university. Targeting the social norms of particular identity-based groups, along with changing institutional norms and policy, could be the push needed to create lasting change on campus.

Social change is possible when we design it to use the best of what we know from science. Doing so can help create new belief and behavior norms critical for sustaining change. To ensure that #MeToo does not lose momentum, advocates and organizations should leverage social identities, social groups, and social institutions to enforce this new and incredibly important social norm.

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