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The Utopias of Everyday People

July 14, 2013

By Paul Bain, Matthew Hornsey, Renata Bongiorno (University of Queensland), Yoshihisa Kashima (University of Melbourne), & Daniel Crimston (University of Queensland)

Utopias are images of ideal societies. Some utopias are fantastical or naïve, but others are realistic images of a better world that can be achieved in the future. Dr. Martin Luther King, for example, “dreamed” of a future America where all were treated equally, no matter what their race, creed, or color.  Such images of the future are staple ingredients of political rhetoric, such as President Obama’s image of what it means for America to “Win the Future”.

While we can readily observe the utopias of political leaders from their speeches, we know little about the utopian (or dystopian) visions of society held by everyday people, and how these visions may shape their behavior. Just as Martin Luther King’s “Dream” helped motivate community action, we wondered whether everyday people’s own dreams (and nightmares) of society in the future motivated their actions in the present. This was the focus of our recently published research (Bain, Hornsey, Bongiorno, Kashima, & Crimston, 2013).

In our research, we asked people to think about the effects that changes in society today would have on society in the future (the Year 2050). For instance, we asked people to consider what society would be like 50 years in the future if climate change was mitigated, marijuana was legalized, abortion laws were relaxed, or the proportion of atheists or Muslims in society increased substantially. Participants considered changes in society relating to people’s characteristics (how caring, moral, and competent people would be in 2050), whether people’s values would change (e.g., becoming more concerned with security or achievement), whether there would be more societal problems (like crime and poverty), or greater societal development (economically, technologically, and socially).

The different contexts produced diverse and nuanced images of what future society would be like. For example, participants saw a more atheist future society as making people less friendly but more competent than today, but saw a future society where marijuana was legalized as both less friendly and less competent. Overall, people’s images of future society weren’t all good or all bad, suggesting they had realistic rather than fantastical projections about what society would be like in the future.

What may be most surprising, however, is that only one dimension emerged as a reliable motivator of people’s actions in the present. People supported changes in policies today (e.g., legalizing marijuana, acting on climate change) if they believed it would lead to a future society where people were more caring and moral. Other dimensions – people’s values, their competence, or levels of societal problems and societal development – emerged less strongly, only in a few contexts, or were irrelevant to people’s willingness to act.

These utopian visions are also important in places you might not expect. For instance, in another study we asked climate change skeptics to consider a future where action had been taken to mitigate climate change, and asked about their own behaviors in support of this goal. A pointless task you might expect, as why would someone work towards a goal they don’t believe in? Yet many climate change skeptics had their own visions of what it meant to act on climate change – while they thought it wouldn’t alter the climate, some saw action as something that would make society more caring overall, or that it would have pay-offs in terms of the development of green technologies and jobs (Bain, Hornsey, Bongiorno, & Jeffries, 2012). That is, some saw acting on climate change not as pro-climate, but as pro-social – and to the extent that they did so, they were more willing to engage in environmentally friendly behaviors. Furthermore, climate messages that focused on these “side-effects” of climate change action were more effective in promoting pro-environmental behavior than traditional messages designed to emphasize the consensus around climate science and to convert skeptics into believing the scientific orthodoxy.

Why would people be so concerned with promoting communal and moral traits in society? It is telling that, at least in the West, these are exactly the dimensions people believe are declining in society (Kashima et al., 2009; Kashima et al., 2011). Thus, people may be particularly motivated to engage in activities they believe will arrest or reverse this decline.

There is a message in these findings for politicians and policy designers. The idea that people want policies to promote caring and morality in the community – even more so than cracking down on crime or promoting the economy – may come as a surprise to politicians and policy-makers. However, if they were to explicitly incorporated communal goals into their policies, such as strategies to address climate change that also encourage community-building, not only would they gain more support from citizens, but would move society towards the “utopia” that everyday people actually want.

Author Information

BainDr Paul Bain is a Research Fellow in the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Queensland. His research interests include human values, lay theories and beliefs about human nature, subtle forms of dehumanization, cross-cultural psychology, and people’s conceptions of society in the future.

HornseyMatthew Hornsey is a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Queensland. His research interests are in the areas of group processes and intergroup relations, with particular interests in (a) how people respond to trust-sensitive messages such as criticisms, recommendations for change, and gestures of remorse; and (b) the dynamic and sometimes tense relationship between individual and collective selves.

BongiornoDr Renata Bongiorno is in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Her research examines gender inequality, collective action, and social change.

KashimaYoshihisa Kashima is a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Melbourne. His research interest is in cultural dynamics – the formation, maintenance, and transformation of culture over time.

CrimstonDaniel Crimston is a PhD student in Psychology at the University of Queensland. His research involves new approaches to understanding moral decision making and the societal and interpersonal factors that influence the expansion of moral boundaries.


Bain, P. G., Hornsey, M. J., Bongiorno, R., & Jeffries, C. (2012). Promoting pro-environmental action in climate change deniers. Nature Climate Change, 2, 600-603.

Bain, P. G., Hornsey, M. J., Bongiorno, R., Kashima, Y., & Crimston, D. (2013). Collective futures: How projections about the future of society are related to actions and attitudes supporting social change. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 523-539.

Kashima, Y., Bain, P., Haslam, N., Peters, K., Laham, S., Whelan, J., . . . Fernando, J. (2009). Folk theory of social change. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 12, 227-246.

Kashima, Y., Shi, J., Tsuchiya, K., Kashima, E., Cheng, S. S., Chao, M. M., & Shin, S.-h. (2011). Globalization and folk theory of social change: How globalization shapes societal perceptions about the past and future. Journal of Social Issues, 67, 696-715.

Image Credit:  Hand Hold Empty Snow Dome courtesy of “jannoon028” – view portfolio (ID: 10067808) /

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