SustainabilitySocial Issues

Fighting Climate Change: The Hidden Power of Social Norms

Nearly everyone is aware that climate change is a real, threatening problem. However, not everyone is doing something about it. A number of reasons may contribute to this gap between knowledge and action, but one of the most overlooked is the influence of social norms. Important lessons about social norms can help institutions and policy makers promote sustainable behaviour.

Here are a few:

1. We would rather conform to the norm. 

A field study compared the effects of two messages in a hotel bathroom on guests’ sustainable behaviour. One message encouraged guests to reuse towels in order to save the environment, while the others were told to join 75% of their fellow guests in reusing their towels. Those who read the second message reused their towels significantly more than those who read the first. This study suggests that in some cases people are more likely to do something if others are doing it, and not necessarily for a good cause.

The groups that we choose to conform to are not necessarily the most relevant to behaviour. In the same study, people who received a message stating the norm of towel reuse were separated into different conditions. Specifically, the reference group mentioned varied. It ranged from “citizens” to “hotel guests” to “guests who stayed in this room.” The third condition produced the greatest effect in sustainable behaviour, because the individual and the reference group had the greatest propinquity. Apparently, people identified more strongly with guests who had stayed in the same room as them than they did with other guests, or people in general. Even when a similarity is seemingly irrelevant, it has some meaning to an individual.

2. We also favour social approval. 

A study recorded the energy use of each resident in a neighbourhood. In the first condition, they gave everyone feedback on whether they were above or below average in the quantity they consumed. In the second condition, they gave the feedback with a sign of social approval (a happy face) or disapproval (a sad face) depending on their usage.

The result for the first condition was that everyone brought their own energy use closer to the average, whether it meant an increase or decrease – a phenomenon psychologists refer to as the boomerang effect. However, in the second condition, those who used less than their neighbours and received positive feedback maintained their good habits, and those who received a sad face reduced their consumption. From this study’s findings, it appears that social feedback can be powerful enough to cause an individual to maintain or change their behaviour.

Fighting Climate Change: The Hidden Power of Social NormsFighting Climate Change: The Hidden Power of Social Norms

The same study assessed the residents again weeks later, and found that almost everyone had maintained their good habits. This suggests that significant improvements in sustainable behaviours can be made through easy and subtle interventions.

3. We don’t need explicit norms to conform to them. 

A line of research that has focused on design with intent demonstrated that individuals in a building built with sustainability in mind, such as those with LEED certifications, tend to behave in a more sustainable way by throwing their waste in the right bin (recycling, compost, etc.). Hence, the same person can behave differently depending on their immediate context. It is also likely that people are not necessarily aware that these sorts of external cues affect their behaviour.

Fighting Climate Change: The Hidden Power of Social Norms

Image by Stefano Boeri Architetti Image source 

4. Norms vary, and so does the prevalence of sustainable behaviour. 

Surveys report that across different cities and neighbourhoods, what people believe about climate change and how sustainable their behaviour is varies. Cities that are designed in an environment-friendly way and encourage sustainability are more likely to have residents engaging in “green” lifestyles. Perhaps if a neighbourhood decided to start using less energy, it might be possible to start with just a few people to set an example. It comes as no surprise that younger generations raised to understand climate change as a problem are also the ones who behave in more sustainable ways – it is the “norm” of their time.

Hopefully, these lessons can be remembered and applied to real world problems, as social norms are very powerful tools that can be used to create interventions and fight climate change.


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Want to learn more about INKspire? Check out our organization's website.
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