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Informational and reputational cascades often arise in the presence of four factors: (1) preference falsification; (2) diverse thresholds; (3) social interactions; and (4) group polarization. In the context of animal welfare, cascades have often occurred, and more consequential ones are possible.
First: In this domain, preference falsification has run and is running rampant. Those who care about animal welfare, or are inclined to want to say or do something about it, often silence themselves. They know that if they speak or act, they might incur social disapproval or worse.
Second: People have different thresholds for disclosing their views or for taking action. With respect to animal welfare, some people really will speak out or act, even if no one else does. Others need someone to follow – but only one. Still others need two, or three, or a hundred, or more.
Third: Social interactions are and continue to be crucial to the movement for animal welfare. Who is seeing whom? When? Who is talking to whom? Are visible people speaking and acting in ways that support animal welfare? Are they credible? With whom?
Fourth: In many times and places, believers in animal rights, animal welfare, or both have created communities of like-minded people. These communities can be highly effective. They create a commitment to a belief that might have been held tentatively. They make that belief salient, potentially part of people’s identity. They increase confidence and unity.
Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor and the founder and director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard Law School.
From 2009 to 2012, he was Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and after that, he served on the President's Review Board on Intelligence and Communications Technologies and on the Pentagon's Defense Innovation Board. He is currently a Senior Counselor at the Department of Homeland Security and Chair of the World Health Organization’s technical advisory group on Behavioral Insights and Sciences for Health.
In 2018, he received the Holberg Prize, sometimes described as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for law and the humanities.