Depleting resources, global warming and loss of biodiversity are all a siren call for pro-environmental action. These challenges must be met with international regulations and technological change. But does this mean individual action is irrelevant? Jessica Feldmann, PBS alumna (MSc Psychology of Economic Life, 2018) and creator and author of the blog Psychology in Perspective, explains the power of social norms, and how they can be used effectively by policymakers to promote pro-environmental behaviours.
Evidence shows that about 70% of global carbon emissions are directly or indirectly connected to individual behaviour and household consumption including energy use, transportation, food and housing (Hertwich & Peters, 2009).
Behavioural change could reduce carbon footprints substantially and should be far more considered by climate policymakers (Moran et al., 2020). The trouble for individuals, is that pro-environmental behaviours are not yet widespread in society. In short, these behaviours are not the norm.
For any policy intervention to have a lasting impact, it needs to be adopted by a majority of people and there is a powerful, yet underused lever that can help influence behaviour: social norms.
Social norms broadly fall into two categories: “is-norms” and “ought-norms”.
“Is-norms” refer to what most people around us do, they reflect the actual or typical behavior of people, without saying whether those behaviours are good or bad.
“Ought-norms” indicate what is generally acceptable or unacceptable by the rest of society. “You ought to do this” holds an implicit moral judgement about what is right and wrong.
Although both types of norms are psychologically linked, the reasons for individuals to conform to them are distinct. You follow an “is-norm” because you may infer that it is the wisest, most sensible or most effective thing to do. You follow an “ought-norm” to get approval from others.
In reality, we commonly underestimate the extent to which our actions are influenced by other people. There are also complexities to how social norms, messages and interventions impact our behaviours.
Things to know about social norms
#1: Social norms influence our decisions, only when, at the point of decision-making, they are consciously or unconsciously focused. In absence of a “sign” or “hint” that calls the relevant norm to mind, it will likely only play a marginal role in our decisions, outweighed by other considerations, like costs, convenience or personal preferences.
#2: Normative messages or interventions unfold their full impact on their target, only when, the behaviour they try to promote, is echoed in the actual behaviour of most other people (i.e., of the reference group). In other words, appealing to a social norm to encourage positive behaviour, is only effective, if “ought-norm” and “is-norm” are aligned and positively valenced. E.g., “60% of our customers already use reusable shopping bags. (positive “is-norm”) Join us in reducing plastic waste!” (positive “ought-norm”).
However, there are lots of cases where the prevalent behaviour in society is a harmful one.
When it comes to the environment, do as I say, not as I do (yet)
Most of us will agree that a clean and well-preserved environment is preferred to a littered, polluted one. Still, most of us drive polluting cars. Pro-environmental behaviours, like proper recycling, water or energy conservation, and eco-friendly travelling, on the other hand, are minority behaviours.
However, it would be ineffective, and possibly counterproductive, to draw people’s attention to the fact that such a small amount of the population recycles their waste at all (negative “is-norm), and then to kindly ask them to recycle (positive “ought-norm”). Essentially, two contradicting messages are given and it highlights a general norm that people do not recycle. So why bother?
“60% of our customers already use reusable shopping bags. Join us in reducing plastic waste!”
How can social norms be more effectively used to influence pro-environmental behaviours? Here are five strategies I devised from current research:
- Avoid highlighting harmful behaviours that are currently prevalent. Shock value does not pay in the long run. Direct people’s attention to the positive behaviour you want to encourage instead.
- Pick a relevant reference group. When you refer to the behaviour of “others”, make sure they are relatable. The more similar or connected they are, the more strongly they will identify with the norms of the group. Social influence effects occur most likely when referring to peers or other “in-group” members. e.g., “Save water! As students of the LSE, we feel responsible for caring for the environment and we do our bit to save water on campus”.
- Adapt the scope. Be specific about the location a certain pro-environmental behaviour is being practised and expected from your target (e.g., the residential area, university campus, on the streets), rather than being completely generic about what most other people on Earth do or approve of.
However, in some instances, where a harmful behaviour is present only at a local, district level and not representative of city residents in general, the opposite might hold true. Here, you might want to encourage residents of that district, by appealing to the city-wide norm (the general norm) and ask them to join in. Always choose the strategy that best resolves the conflict between actual and expected behaviour.
- Communicate a positive trend. Presenting a situation as dynamic (vs. static) is more motivating and empowering, as it emphasizes the possibility to change the status quo. A dynamic pro-environmental norm can convey a positive “is-norm”, even if in absolute terms, you are referring to a minority. e.g., “in the past month, 30% of residents have begun to recycle their waste”, “every year, more and more consumers choose eco-friendly alternatives”.
- Use quantifiers with positive polarity. Verbal and numerical quantifiers with a positive polarity (e.g., A few, some) direct attention to reasons for performing the pro-environmental behaviour in question, while those with a negative polarity (e.g., Few, not many) point to reasons against, – although, in reality they describe exactly the same thing!
Social norms are not as straightforward as you might have guessed? True – but, with a strategic approach, you can raise pro-environmental action to the next level!
- The views expressed here are of the author and not the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE.
- Feature image by Alena Koval via pexels.
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