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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 12-Jul-15


Sunday 12-July-15

Good cop, bad cop and faltering radical change

The principle of good cop, bad cop has been around for a long time and is a simple application of pleasure and pain (also known as 'carrot and stick'). It can be seen in plenty of TV series and movies, where the bad cop roughs up the prisoner then the good cop comes in and gently persuades the person to confess. The contrast between the two makes the good cop seem even nicer and the prospect of further rough stuff at the hands of the bad cop leads to the prisoner caving in. The method can also be seen in the negotiation good guy, bad guy format, again with one providing uncomfortable aggression and the other a more acceptable, friendly face.

This pattern has also been found in social change, where militant agitators are followed by more moderate and reasonable people who negotiate what actually turns out to be a rather a big shift in social thinking.

In the early 20th century campaign for equal rights for women in the UK, the Suffragettes were an aggressive group led by Emmeline Pankhurst. They went on marches, chained themselves to railings, attacked the police, broke windows and even indulged in arson and use of bombs. In contrast were the moderate Suffragists, most notably Millicent Fawcett, who preferred more civilized means such as petitions, lobbying and peaceful marches. It was perhaps the contrast between these two which helped convince Parliament to pass the Representation of the People Act that gave women the vote in 1918. The end of the Great War and the sense of change this brought also helped.

A similar pattern may be seen in the struggle for equality by African Americans in the mid-20th century, where Malcolm X, a radicalized ex-convict, terrified the establishment with his promotion of the Nation of Islam's ideals, including that white people were devils whose demise was imminent. In contrast, Martin Luther King was an educated son of a Baptist minister who preached peaceful change, even in the face of aggressive policing. Both were assassinated, but it was King who made the final difference in triggering widespread acceptance of equal rights, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Perhaps also the assassinations provided enough shock to the system that mirrored in some way the post-world-war-one trauma in 1918 Europe.

However, change is not that easy and, while women can still vote, there is still glass ceilings in companies and women somehow are still often paid less than men for doing similar jobs. And while African Americans also have equal rights, they are still more likely to be stopped by police and make up a significant proportion of the US prison population. Yes, there has been a female UK Prime Minister and African American US President. Opportunities are more than they were. Yet somehow there is still plenty of bias. One reason is that legislated equality took the wind out of the sails of the historical movements for equality.

There is a lesson for more mundane change in modern organizations. Pain and pleasure, bad cops and good cops, push and pull may be used to help trigger change, as can cataclysmic shocks such as financial problems or being acquired by a competitor. But even when change seems done, do not expect people to really change how they think all that quickly. To have bias is, sadly, human and is not that easy to eradicate. If you want to create lasting change, whether at national levels or in your company, you must be prepared for a long campaign that sustains attention and support long after you think the battle has been won.

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