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Green practice: Conform with the norm and reform

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Cite as: May 2011 85(5) LIJ, p.79


Utilising the power of social norms can motivate people to adopt more environmentally-responsible behaviours.

Social norms, the customary rules of behaviour that guide our interaction with society, can be utilised to encourage environmentally-responsible behaviour. When that occurs, we are essentially tapping into people’s desire to conform and be accepted by others.

Getting people to “conform with the norm” can be as simple as revealing positive social norms to people previously unaware of their behaviour.

Households presented with information about their neighbours’ energy use have been shown to more readily reduce their own consumption (to match the norm of the neighbourhood) than those who were only informed of the environmental benefits of, for example, turning off lights before leaving a room.1

While we may intuitively understand that social norms influence behaviours, the key issues are how to best harness the power of these norms and how to avoid some of the associated pitfalls.

Here are three key tips to remember when utilising social norms to encourage environmentally-responsible behaviours.

Tailor your message

People are most heavily influenced by social norms that closely match their circumstances or situation.

Signs in a hotel room advising that “the majority of guests in this room reuse their towels” have been found to be more influential on a person’s decision to reuse their towel than signs stating that “the majority of guests reuse their towels”.2

If you are trying to change behaviours in your office, be as specific as you can about your target audience – drill down to team or group level.

Define your message

Environmental advocates will often point out the prevalence of a problem to stress the importance of changing behaviours, but there are dangers in adopting this approach. Be careful that the message you are sending is not legitimising the behaviours you are trying to eliminate.

In a study of theft from the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, visitors were almost four times as likely to steal petrified wood when signs stated that “Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the petrified forest” than when signs simply instructed people not to remove petrified wood from the park.3

If the social norm is a bad one, it may not be beneficial to promote it. People may be more likely to engage in environmentally irresponsible behaviour if everyone else is doing it.

Don’t let the good apples turn bad

Ensure that you don’t send the wrong message to those who are already doing the right thing. In another study where householders were provided with information about neighbourhood energy usage, researchers found those who were previously using less than the norm started using more after this information was provided.4

Fortunately, this unintended effect was reduced when the low energy users were presented with a “smiley face” along with the neighbourhood energy use information. The moral of this story: be explicit in your praise of good behaviour.

Practical applications

Many Victorian water suppliers now include a chart demonstrating average household consumption with each invoice. This information allows consumers to compare their water use with those of other households and is aimed at reducing household water consumption.

Similar programs targeting energy saving have claimed an uptake of energy-saving action in up to 80 per cent of households in which programs have been implemented.5

If we can harness this type of persuasive power, then we may all be able to make environmentally-responsible behaviour sustainable in the long term.


Top tips for better uptake of sustainable behaviour

  • Play matchmaker – tailor social norms to the people you’re targeting.
  • Check everyone is on your page – what is the message you’re sending?
  • Don’t let the good apples turn bad – fight backlash with positive feedback.

TABOKA FINN is a member of the LIV’s Community Issues Committee.

1. Jessica Nolan, Wesley Schultz, Robert Cialdini, Noah Goldstein and Vladas Griskevicius, “Normative influence is underdetected” (2008) 34(7) Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 913-923.

2. Noah Goldstein, Robert Cialdini and Vladas Griskevicius, “A room with a viewpoint: using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels” (2008) 35(3) Journal of Consumer Research 472.

3. RB Cialdini, DW Barrett, R Bator, LJ Demaine, BJ Sagarin, KVL Rhoads and PL Winter, “Activating and aligning social norms for persuasive impact”, cited in Robert B. Cialdini,“Crafting normative messages to protect the environment” (2003) 12(4) Current Directions in Psychological Science 105.

4. Wesley Schultz, Jessica Nolan, Robert Cialdini, Noah Goldstein, and Vladas Griskevicius, “The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms” (2007) 18(5) Psychological Science 429-434.

5. OPOWER, a company that has implemented an energy efficiency program tailored at reducing energy consumption in the US. See www.opower.com.

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