Guest commentary: Changing behavior

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June Sochen


A classic and perennial question is: how do you change peoples’ behavior? Is the legal route the effective way or do you have to change attitudes first? Reformers throughout the ages have theorized about this puzzling subject and have tried both approaches.

Using the American experience as the basis for our discussion, we can point to examples on both sides of the issue. The 18th amendment to the Constitution, for example, prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol. Did it stop Americans from drinking? (Indeed, Americans had been among the heaviest drinkers of any country).

Popular culture says no. Crime, in the form of bootleggers and speakeasies, became common in big cities around the country. Actually, however, the evidence suggests that alcohol consumption declined during the 1920s, but it did spawn organized crime. Enough people wanted to drink to provide high profits to criminals.

The experiment was deemed a failure and the 21st amendment repealed the 18th, the only such example in the Constitution.

Another illustration of a more mixed result was the passage of three civil rights laws in the 1960s. Unquestionably, providing legal equality to African Americans (and to women who benefited as well from the Civil Rights Act of 1964) has resulted in a more equitable society, but equally certain is that the evil of racism and discrimination has not ended.

A good example of education as the means to change behavior is the work of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. MADD can claim that their vigorous and continuous informational campaign against drinking and driving has had a positive effect. Teenagers, particularly, have been educated to understand the disastrous effects of such bad behavior. Designated drivers abstain from drinking while out with friends. Responsible adults remind their spouses and friends when they’ve had too much to drink and take the car keys away from them.

Recently, Mayor Bloomberg of New York, has tried to change his constituents’ behavior regarding drinking large sodas. This effort has not succeeded. It was challenged in court and lost to consumer and commercial interests. Bloomberg has been able to get restaurants to list calories on their menus and generally to raise awareness of what constitutes ‘‘good’’ food and what can be defined as ‘‘unhealthy’’ food.

The evidence suggests that consumers have changed their behavior, particularly in the grocery store. Labels now list ingredients and calories, something unheard of a decade ago. People have the knowledge to make more informed decisions when choosing prepared foods. All of this is a result of both education (which results in attitudinal change) and legislation.

Clearly, both pathways are important and necessary. But changing attitudes and values takes a long time, sometimes generations. Passing laws, though not a speedy process by any means, is faster.

Currently, there are many social issues that divide the country. Each side asserts the rightness of its cause, while not engaging the validity of the other side’s views.

There are two hot-button issues today where the public is on one side and the politicians the other. Ninety percent of the American people believe in background checks before guns can be purchased, but not enough legislators are willing to vote for the measure. So you have the unusual situation where opinion has been changed but legislative reform has not been accomplished.

The same can be said about same-sex marriage. A majority of Americans, particularly young Americans under 30, believe in the right of gays to marry. But most state legislatures do not agree. In both of these cases, gun control and same sex marriage, attitudinal change has not led to legal change, a most unusual situation.

The deadlock in Washington between the two parties reflects the gap between the will of the people and their legislators. How can this be? Why, for example, is the House of Representatives more intransigent than the Senate?

A simple answer may be that when one party controls the state legislature and draws legislative districts that favor its side, the elected representatives only have to satisfy those who agree with them. Consequently, there is no incentive to compromise or to appeal to a more diverse constituency.

Of the many gaps that exist in this country, the one between public opinion and legislative behavior is the most dramatic. The anomalous situation we are in today defies logic but lamentably still exists.

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