Change Of Heart: A Review of Nick Cooney's Activist Theory | Civil Eats

Change Of Heart: A Review of Nick Cooney’s Activist Theory

The founder and president of the Human League, Nick Cooney, has two tasks as the author of Change of Heart, a book that dissects the interplay between psychology and effective advocacy work. His argument must compel his readers—draw them in through persuasion and confident presentation—and encourage advocates to use his tools to affect the greatest good for humanity. He successfully does both things by offering concrete research on advocacy and a how-to approach (supported by tools for successful campaigning). Cooney’s objective to enact the greatest good for animals is already familiar to many readers, but his theory is relevant to all fields of advocacy and should be viewed as a guide for action.

“A truly effective activist is a psychologist at heart.” Cooney understands human action and belief to be the product of ongoing self-assessment. His focus on self-identity becomes the reader’s concentration as well, as Cooney gets to the root of our subconscious tendencies. For advocates, “the more we’ve emotionally invested in something, the more highly we value it and believe it to be right.” For the recipients of advocates’ appeals, the more quantifiable the goal, the easier one may be swayed to change behavior. Many of Cooney’s notes on persuasion technique are much like social conventions we learn as children: be kind and genuine in your approach with others; take responsibility for your actions; be inclusive; act out of concern for others; know who you are and what you stand for.  His problem-solving tools turn quaint sayings into dynamic methods for change.

But his honest look at human avoidance strategies—how we ignore problems, limit exposure to hardship, or assign blame—is also a crucial resource for advocates to reference, when attempting to manage people’s expectations, fears, and complexities. Cooney convincingly reaches his readership because he can support his psychological study with hard evidence. He offers The Just World Theory–people want to believe that in this world we get what we deserve—to teach the reader how to effectively approach a recipient. Focusing on productive strategies for change–targeting the larger entity at fault for the issue, detailing the net gain of the corrective action for the benefit of the world, while removing a sense of blame on the recipient’s part–is one of his many tools for effective campaigning. The psychology of change is a dance in which the advocate must act with delicacy, cunning and clarity.

Change of Heart is not easily defined by any one of its theories. This is because Cooney has set out to explore human reactions, predispositions, environments, beliefs, and networks that vary among different social groups. To account for our assorted social trends, his framework for change includes proactive and inactive campaigning. Setting up tables on a college campus or polling audiences are proactive ways to get people involved. But he also contemplates inertia. Consider Cooney’s suggestion for promoting healthy eating in a cafeteria: presenting students with an opt-out meal plan option. Eaters would have to choose not to eat healthfully–which could make a larger change in dietary choices. What are the psychological factors at play? Cooney points to fighting loss aversion (the fear of losing what we already own) and maintaining status quo behavior (an inclination toward inaction). A student may align himself with sustainable eating practices without having to confront his complicity in an unhealthy food system.

For each advocate, the lessons and tools put forth in Change of Heart will have different relevance for different causes and modes of campaigning. But in learning the most crucial faculty an advocate must posses—strong communication skills—perhaps one might take a cue directly from Cooney’s own experience. A step-by-step case study describes Cooney’s meeting with a dining director at a small liberal arts college. His agenda: to convince his recipient to use cage-free eggs in the cafeteria. His tools: express thanks from the outset for the recipient’s interest and time; praise the recipient for the good work he has already done; introduce your topic by suggesting its relevancy to the recipient’s agenda; discuss the benefits of cage-free eggs and the social norms around it; allow the recipient to ask questions; validate his intelligence; present facts by experts; focus on areas of particular interest for the recipient; establish an agenda for change and resources needed; follow up after the conversation and create a rapport. This list of factors, as robotic as it sounds, may just be what an advocate needs in order to make substantial change through the power of human understanding and conviction.

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At its root, Change of Heart makes a strong appeal to advocates to assess the efficiency of their campaigns and take the necessary steps to create as much good as possible. Cooney may be seen as a figurehead—a motivating guide. But ultimately, he leaves the responsibility to his readers to discover and strike the complex balance between understanding others and influencing them. His theory teaches us that practical methodology does not necessarily need to fight against human conduct. Quite the contrary, it can leverage our beliefs and behaviors in order to revolutionize them.

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Stacey Slate is the former deputy managing editor of Civil Eats and community manager for the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, CA. She is currently helping to build, an online network to connect teachers, parents, and advocates of the edible education movement and to encourage them to share best practices and curriculum. Read more >

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  1. Dan M.
    This book rocks! I encourage everyone to read it -- it'll really help your advocacy work, whatever your cause may be.
  2. I am looking forward to hearing Nick Cooney speak at today's meeting of the Boston Vegetarian Society. I haven't read the book yet, but your review assures me I will learn a great deal about persuading others to participate in social change.
  3. Claire
    Looks like a very worthy read, thanks for the review! The simple practice alone of not placing blame and trying to meet people where they are in their understanding of an issue I think can go such a long way in convincing others to get on board.
  4. I find the psychological concept of "opting out" a fascinating idea, one that I intend to think about for the next three + hours.

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