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Changing Mindsets

Robert Litan - Former Director, Economic Studies, Brookings Institution
Ella Bell Smith - Professor of Business Administration, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth
Matthew Slaughter - Paul Danos Dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth
Robert Lawrence - Albert L Williams Professor of International Trade and Investment, Harvard Kennedy School and Non-Resident Senior Fellow, The Peterson Institute for International Economics

This research is sponsored by S&P Global and does not represent the explicit views of S&P Global.

Published: October 21, 2021


This is the sixth and final chapter in a series of content related to Entrepreneurial Leadership Must Help Meet America’s 21st Century Challenges in a Post-Pandemic World

Chapter One: Introduction – Major 21st Century Post-Pandemic Challenges

Chapter Two: The Power and Limits of Federal Policy

Chapter Three: Entrepreneurial Leaders at Work

Chapter Four: Barriers to Social and Policy Entrepreneurs

Chapter Five: Reducing Barriers to Effective Social Policy and Policy Entrepreneurship

Join S&P Global Sustainable1 for the next episode in our ‘Beyond ESG’ series as we sit down with the authors of the report. Register here to join the discussion or receive the on-demand replay

Truly effective and lasting change ultimately requires a change in mindsets. This can be challenging when it comes to matters of race, especially in a polarized environment poisoned by the influence of social media, which reinforces filter bubbles, encouraging people to remain in their information silos, dividing rather than uniting the country. 

Nonetheless, with the recognition that meaningful change takes time and thus with enough patience, progress can be made. Social science research has established that mindsets are more likely to change with extensive interpersonal interactions – or when people move outside their digital filter bubbles. Psychologist Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business provides numerous examples of this proposition in his book Mindwise. This quote from the book summarizes the key lesson:

“Our sixth sense, this amazing ability each of us has to understand the mind of another, must be engaged, up close and personal. When distance keeps it disengaged, we may see other human beings as lesser minds and, thereby, as lesser persons. The capacity of mind blindness is not limited to only a select few. Such mistakes can afflict any of us, rendering us less socially intelligent than we could otherwise be.” [Epley, at 60].

Based on this insight, we support ways to incentivize more young people to engage in paid community service for one year after they graduate high school but before entering college or the workforce. By this we mean not just any community service, but in service activities where young people are encouraged to get out of their own bubbles or comfort zones and either serve with a diverse group of people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds or to provide services to people from different backgrounds than their own.  AmeriCorps, working with state and local agencies to identify these opportunities, could be charged with matching young people with approved community service engagements: examples include tutoring K-12 students; helping adults, especially those with disabilities; or helping senior citizens. One possible incentive for this sort of community service might be priority to receive state-funded support for attending college.

This sort of service commitment would expose young Americans to others with whom they otherwise might not have been in regular contact. This broadening of the experiences and horizons of young people would help reduce stereotyping and inhibit the kinds of divides that unfortunately are so present among our current adult population.

Bridge-building should not be limited to the next generation, however. Perhaps the only benefit to come out of the multiple tragedies involving the killings of young Blacks in this country over the past several years is that long-overdue, frank conversations are being held among groups about our national history. That history includes both our successes in melding a multi-ethnic and multi-racial society—successes that, even with our faults, surpasses that of any other country in the world—and the shameful parts of our past.

Bridge-building can only work so long as everyone can and will put themselves in the shoes of others, to strive to understand where they are coming from, so all of us can then begin to come together. We do not pretend to have all the answers here, but several ideas could make a difference—ideas that may well be worthy of foundation and philanthropic support.

A leader in in this regard has been MacKenzie Scott, who has established “bridge building” as a separate area of philanthropy and backed it up with substantial financial support [Luscombe]. One type of bridge building, where more philanthropic support would be helpful, is to encourage interest and participation in structured debates, which promote reasoned, civic discourse on society’s challenges. Two of the many organizations in this space are Braver Angels and IQ-squared. More broadly, debate principles should be used more widely throughout middle and high school instruction, as they have been in selected schools in Boston and Chicago, not only to teach students (and future voters) civility, the importance of reasoning and facts to support arguments, and the virtues of appreciating multiple sides of any issue, but also as ways to enhance student engagement, retention, and understanding of the material they are taught. The Kauffman Foundation funded an effort to train more teachers in 2021-22 throughout the United States in how to instruct and excite their students in this fashion [Litan].

Another way to build bridges is through wider education and awareness of both the virtues of this country that have made it possible for so many to live the American Dream, as well as the events that still require healing today. On the positive side, of course, are the acts of heroism by Americans from all backgrounds that have preserved our democracy in all our wars and overcome the worst atrocities imaginable such as freeing survivors of the German concentration camps at the end of World War II. But Americans must also know about our difficult past, memorialized in places such as the African American History Museum in Washington and the National Memorial for Peace Justice (also known as the National Lynching Museum) in Montgomery, Alabama. The latter museum would not have been possible without the tireless advocacy of Bryan Stevenson, one of the nation’s great social entrepreneurs, who founded and has directed the Equal Justice Initiative, devoted to challenging the bias against the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system (and whose work is justly celebrated in the movie Just Mercy, based on his book of that title).

Given the impossibility of moving these and other memorials and museums honoring our heritage – and the limitations of even learning from these museums on the Internet or through documentaries and movies – social and even private-sector entrepreneurs and philanthropies should explore ways of using virtual reality technology to bring to life the contents of these museums for students and adults.

The Tipping Point: How Social Change Can Happen in Remarkably Short Time Periods

Change, by definition, is often highly disruptive, especially if sudden and seemingly unexpected.

One thing is clear, however, about such unexpected shocks: the remarkable resilience of people and companies in the private sector who do not have the luxury or inclination to wait for the government to come to their rescue. Think of how quickly companies and their workers in so many parts of the economy turned to information technologies like video conferencing to continue operating amidst the pandemic, with few hitches.

Outside of sudden disruptions like the pandemic, other deep changes – in technology and in the patterns of globalization, for example – often proceed much more gradually, going unnoticed until their cumulative effect becomes apparent. The slow-motion declines in the economic fortunes of many localities throughout our country is a telling example of this.

But the good news is that in many contexts across the United States, entrepreneurial leaders who were unsatisfied with these deep changes have mobilized efforts to respond—often with surprisingly quick and broad impact. These entrepreneurial leaders should be a source of comfort and encouragement to those who may despair of this country’s need to achieve more inclusive opportunity and thereby help heal our social and political divisions in the process.

Professor Leslie Crutchfield has analyzed how quickly multiple social changes, once thought to have been impossible, came to pass. The list includes:

  • the elimination of smoking in public spaces;

  • acceptance of gay marriage, validated by the Supreme Court;

  • non-acceptance of drunk driving, reflected in tougher, well-enforced laws against it; 

  • gun-rights expansion, validated by the Supreme Court.

Since Crutchfield’s book was published, one can add the substantial acceptance of the Black Lives Matter movement for racial equity and the movement to “ban the box” asking job applicants, at least initially, if they have been arrested for or convicted of a crime (now the law in most states).

We hope this essay has shown how entrepreneurial leaders working outside the federal government are actively making progress at addressing all four of the principal challenges that the U.S. faces in a post-pandemic world.

But that progress is not enough. We also have outlined additional ways that non-profits, state and local governments, and the business community can address these challenges at scale. We all have a stake in seeing these initiatives through, but perhaps none more than our young people. It is they, as President John F. Kennedy once stated, who “have the least ties to the present and the greatest ties to the future.” But all will benefit from meeting our great post-pandemic challenges and, in so doing, fulfilling our Constitution’s aspiration to make us into a more perfect Union.