What is “Normal”? The Abusive Power of Unnoticed Institutional Change

By Katharina Bauer

In chapter 3, Pierson points to slow moving institutional changes that can only be captured once they exceed certain threshold values. In Pierson’s (2011) analysis, these threshold values are often treated as constant and with that considered to stay at one value over time.

However, threshold values in society can in themselves be subject to change. Deliberately slow introduction of institutional change can allow for adaption of threshold values to new circumstances. This can in turn ensure that institutional change remains unnoticed and is with that left unchallenged.

In this web-post, threshold values are understood as levels that trigger switches from perceptions of “normal” (same) to “not-normal” (different). According to Kahneman, two systems operate in the human mind, namely System 1 and System 2. System 1 is uncritical and intuitive, while System 2 involves more deliberate critical thinking. However, System 2 is only activated once System 1 perceives something as “not-normal”.  What is perceived as “normal” can adapt slowly over time and the threshold value of what is “not-normal” rise step by step. Consequentially, change can happen so subtly that System 2 is left un-activated, and it can in turn remain unquestioned.

Nowadays, democracies are facing a balancing act between the protection of people’s liberties and the insurance of public order. New information extractive technologies equip police forces with additional surveillance power and information collection is becoming increasingly pervasive. Used abusively, these new technologies offer powerful instruments for public supervision and have the potential to undermine current perceptions of democratic principles concerning privacy and autonomy.

If surveillance techniques are established rapidly, people oppose policies for fear of their liberties. However, police force and surveillance mechanisms can be increased just slow enough to remain unquestioned. Deliberately slow institutional change can thus become an effective means to avoid opposition.