The rule before 1978 was that everything belonged to the collective - every straw, every grain. The government would gather up everything that the group produced and then distribute it equally amongst the group. There was no incentive to work because no matter how much work you’d put in, you’d end up with the same amount of food as everyone else.
The village of Xiaogang, in the Anhui province, changed this. They created an agreement out of desperation of poor harvests and did so in secret (planning for potential executions) that would create the foundation for China’s modern economy. The agreement was simple, the land of the village was divided amongst the farmers' families and if the family grew more food then the more they would be able to keep the surplus. The result? A harvest greater than the previous 5 years combined, the per capita income increased by nearly 20 fold from 22 Yuan to 400 Yuan (China Development Gateway, 2008). Surrounding villages noticed, and it wasn't long before the government became aware of it. Instead of executing the farmers, the village was used as a model for economic reform, which the country adopted and resulted in a countrywide increase in agricultural production.
Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behaviour, as well as other studies and theories can explain how and why the farmers of Xiaogang ended up changing the way they farmed.
Figure 1. Pictorial layout of Ajzen's Theory of Planned Behaviour
The attitude the farmers had towards working before the agreement was poor. They didn’t want to work because they felt as if the work they did perform was for nothing, they ended up losing more than they were gaining. Everything they did would be taken away and they’d have little to show for it. So why would they want to work if it would just be taken away from them? However, with the shortage of food, they needed a way to resolve that, and this made them want to find a solution to stop begging for food for their starving children from neighbouring villages.
2. Subjective norms
The norm of the village was that something needed to change. There was little disagreement about that. The poor production and distribution of food, as mentioned was leading to starving children, and having to go and beg for something as simple as food must’ve been embarrassing for the village. None of the farmers was exempt from it, and thus the subjective norm that they needed a way to create/receive more food was set in stone.
It wasn’t simple, many were worried thinking that it would end up in potential imprisonments and executions, this was at a time just after chairman Mao had died, and questioning the government was unheard of. Those few were unsure also doubted whether the plan would work, would it be worth it? However, as the majority were in favour of the plan it’s probable that those who doubted conformed with the majority, as it probably seemed to be the most feasible plan. This has been shown in Asch’s infamous conformity experiments, where a minority is influenced by the majority.
3. Perceived behavioural control
Could the farmers actually make a difference if they changed how they worked? The farmers evidently believed that they could affect the food distribution to their families. If they had believed that it was an unattainable goal then they never would have pursued it. However, they did and they ended up having profound consequences on the world.
With all these factors that came together to influence the creation of the agreement, it only led to another aspect that would drive the behaviour, competition. In the NPR article that covered the village, a farmer, Yen, mentions how changing the rules lead to friendly competition, “we all secretly competed, […] everyone wanted to produce more than the next person.” It became fun for the farmers to produce more food and this became a motivating reason to farm.
Other theories can also explain other aspects of why the farmers signed and kept to the agreement.
By getting all the farmers to sign the agreement they had already achieved a lot. Previous research has shown how by simply getting someone to sign their name on a petition, they are more likely to support the cause and display behaviour consistent with the cause, as shown with water conservation in Dickerson et al. (1992). By signing the agreement, the farmers were more likely to stick to it and was a small but effective step in changing the behaviour of the farmers! This is known as 'foot-in-the-door', where a small request can lead to larger ones later on. This commitment to the cause was them amplified further by the fact that the change in behaviour had a successful outcome and thus meant there was no reason to cease the agreement.
What signing the agreement also did was for all the farmers, and especially those who were unsure about it, made them change how their attitudes towards it. The farmers who were especially worried about the possible consequences had to overcome cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1962) and displayed forced compliance behaviour (Festinger and Carlsmith, 1959). They performed an action (signing the agreement) which they didn’t agree with and were hesitant to do but still did. To conquer the conflict between their feelings towards the agreement and its associated behaviour, they changed their attitudes to it and thought of it as being more fun, as Yen suggests in the NPR article.
So, if you ever feel that you will never make a difference in the world remember that a village of around 100, who’d only ever heard of electricity, laid the foundation for one of the world’s largest economies.
Ajzen, Icek (1991). "The theory of planned behavior". Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179–211.
China Development Gateway. (2008). Xiaogang Village, Birthplace of Rural Reform, moves on. Retrieved 20 November, 2016 from China Development Gateway: http://en.chinagate.cn/features/rural_poverty/2008-12/16/content_16966805.htm
Dickerson, C. A., Aronson, E., Thibodeau, R., & Miller, D. (1992). Using Cognitive Dissonance to Encourage Water Conservation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 22, 841-854.
Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford University press.
Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203.
Kestenbaum, David., & Goldstein Jacob. (2012). The secret document that transformed China. Retrieved 20 November, 2016 from NPR: http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2012/01/20/145360447/the-secret-document-that-transformed-china