Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Social progress isn't linear, but people believe it is

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Rachel Ruttan

New research finds that Americans believe that social issues, such as gender and racial equality, are improving with each passing decade — a steady line of progression as time goes on.

They think there are more Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies than in the past, a number that will continue to increase well into the future. They believe the number of women in STEM programs is growing — and will continue to do so. They estimate that more people are getting involved in environmental movements, and that momentum will continue to build.

But their beliefs don’t match up with reality. Social change isn’t always linear. Progress doesn’t tend to just continue to improve year-over-year — it often tends to take two steps forward, one step back.

Rotman assistant professor Rachel Ruttan and assistant professor Julia Hur of New York University surveyed Americans’ perception of change across five separate studies, and the research shows that the American public tends to hold the belief that social progress continually improves, despite evidence to the contrary.

For example, the researchers found that Americans believed there was linear progression on gender equality — such as perception that a growing number of women were obtaining bachelor’s degrees, directing and producing more top-100 films, or increasingly keeping their surnames — despite evidence that linear progress hasn’t been made. They found the same patterns with other social issues, such as environmental protection and diversity and inclusion efforts.

In comparison, Americans did not believe that economic issues — such as the country’s unemployment rate consistently decreased over time — followed the same linear path.

“It might be easier for people to be more in touch with the day to day of something like housing or unemployment because they might be checking in with these issues more,” Ruttan explains. “There might be more pessimism in the air that things are getting worse on that dimension all the time.”

This belief that social advancement is linear has an impact on support for social movements. The researchers found that participants felt that social issues needed less support when they perceived that the issue was making progress. For example, when people think women’s rights are continually improving, they were less likely to believe further advocacy on the issue was necessary.

Ruttan cautions that this finding does not necessarily mean that support for social change will wane before progress is achieved, and organizations committed to social change should not be alarmed.

“The link between these beliefs and motivation is a complex one,” she says. “Maybe if people think everything is just getting better, they’re less willing to get their hands dirty. That’s one potential effect of people holding these believes. But we don’t really have the data to speak to that.”

However, for businesses and organizations committed to social change, Ruttan says that the findings underscore the importance of finding a message that balances a sense of optimism and pessimism – and communicating that there’s still work to be done, without making people feel hopeless.

“On the one hand, what we find is that if people just kind of believe that progress towards social justice is just passively getting better, then these issues seem less urgent and less important to change,” she says. “On the other hand, you don’t want people to be totally hopeless. If they believe nothing is going to get better, then people aren’t going to be super motivated.”

She adds that organizations committed to social causes could include more balanced messages, such as “social change is tougher than you think,” or “everything isn’t automatically getting better,” and re-iterate that continued work is important.

Ruttan says the findings are also a reminder for business leaders to not make assumptions about their workforce — for example, assuming that workplaces are getting better for their employees who are women or people of colour.

“Keep good data on improvements over time along these dimensions,” Ruttan advises business leaders. “Without having that level of accountability, it’s really easy to slip into these beliefs that progress towards social justice is just getting better when it might not be.”

She adds that business leaders and social organizations can continue to build on social change, even when folks might get disheartened.

“When you look at the history of movements, there’s a legacy there,” she says. “All successful movements have taken a lot of time, blood, sweat and tears, and so it’s not unusual to have setbacks and that’s OK. What’s critical to movements is involvement in effort and behavioural change. So just keep going.”

Rachel Ruttan is an assistant professor of organizational behaviour and HR at the Rotman School of Management.