Scott Colom: How do you change culture?

November 3, 2011 9:12:00 AM

Scott Colom - [email protected]


A recent news story in the Clarion Ledger caught my attention; it was titled "Culture change in Mississippi urged." The article focused on a recent presentation given by the state economist, Darrin Webb, at a conference hosted by the Mississippi Economic Policy Center. Webb thinks Mississippi needs to increase its human capital to catch up with the rest of the country. The state's high rates of teen pregnancy, obesity and high school drop outs are serious barriers to economic growth, he said. "Mississippi needs a culture change that encourages people to put greater value on their own health and education," he said. 


The article left me with the question: How do you change culture? Seems easy. We know where to start. David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, recently said one of the most effective ways to improve culture is to increase college attainment. He pointed out that the average college graduate makes 75 percent more than the average high school graduate, and that college graduates are also more likely to get and stay married, less likely to have children out of wedlock and less likely to be obese or smoke. 


Thus, to create a culture that values health and education, we need more educated people. Makes sense. Theoretically, to do this, all we have to do is identify the values and priorities that promote obesity, ignorance and teen sex and then tell people to change them. They'll listen; they're rational. Right? Once enough people change, others will follow. It'll become trendy. Eventually, the culture will change. Mission Accomplished. 


Needless to say, it's not that easy. Finding a consensus on what's causing the problems is difficult; everyone's views and values are tainted by their life experiences, background and environment, which makes it hard to agree on much. Yet, even when we agree on the problems, getting people to change isn't so easy. 


People are defensive. They don't like to be told what to do or how to be or what to think. The people around them are usually a part of the same culture, therefore, critics are considered outsiders and less likely to be influential. 


To make matters worse, in reality, people aren't always rational. They'll eat red meat when they know they have high cholesterol, or start smoking when they know it causes lung cancer, or have sex when they know they're too young. So, even when people are able to agree and the information is conveyed despite cultural barriers, it may be for naught. People may ignore it. The culture may stay the same. 


Thus, changing culture is easier said than done. As with most problems, there's no easy solutions. It'll probably take a mixture of individual accountability, creative ideas, tenacious outreach, and patience. And won't happen overnight. They'll be setbacks. But, in the end, despite the difficulty, progress will prevail, if only incrementally. It always does.

Scott Colom is a local attorney.