Social norms & social networks
It is very rarely that people act purely as individuals. Most of our behaviour is social – with family, friends, colleagues or even strangers on the commute to work. Many strategies for promoting sustainable behaviour seem to forget this, and focus exclusively on people as individuals.
Too often, climate change communications are directed to the individual as a single unit in the larger social system. This can make the problems feel too overwhelming, but through an enhanced awareness of what other people are doing, a stronger sense of collective purpose can be developed.
One of the most well-supported bodies of research on sustainable behaviour starts from the position that changing individuals’ actions is best achieved by highlighting and influencing the behaviour of others around them: focusing on social norms to promote sustainable behaviour. Social norms are simply the standards that we use to judge the appropriateness of our own behaviour. People tend to act in a way that is socially acceptable, and so if a particular behaviour (littering, for example, or driving a car with a large engine) can be cast in a socially unacceptable light, then people should be less likely to engage in it.
Pictures and videos of ordinary people (‘like me’) engaging in sustainable behaviours are a simple and effective way of generating a sense of social normality around saving energy (Schultz, Nolan, Cialdini, Goldstein and Griskevicius, 2007). There are different reasons that people adopt social norms, and encouraging people to adopt a positive norm simply to ‘conform’, to avoid a feeling of guilt, or for fear of not ‘fitting in’ is likely to produce a relatively shallow level of motivation for behaviour change. Where social norms can be combined with ‘intrinsic’ motivations (e.g. a sense of social belonging), they are likely to be more effective and persistent (CCCAG, 2010).
However, while social norms are a powerful and effective way of influencing sustainable behaviours, there are some pitfalls to avoid. As Robert Cialdini and his colleagues at Arizona State University have demonstrated, the problem with appeals based on social norms is that they often contain a hidden message (Cialdini, 2003). So, for example, a campaign that focuses on the fact that too many people take internal flights actually contains two messages – that taking internal flights is bad for the environment, and that lots of people are taking internal flights. This second message can make the campaign counterproductive: by conveying how common the undesirable behaviour is, it can give those who do not currently engage in that behaviour a perverse incentive to do so.
In an experiment led by the psychologist Wesley Schultz (Schultz et al, 2007), researchers examined the influence of social norms on the household energy consumption of residents of California. The researchers picked houses at random and then divided them into groups depending on whether their energy consumption was higher or lower than the average for that area. Some low-energy-use households received only information about average energy usage — thereby setting the social norm. A second group of low-energy households had a positive “emoticon” (happy face) positioned next to their personal energy figure, conveying approval of their energy footprint. A third group of over-consuming households were shown their energy usage coupled with a negative emoticon (sad face), intended to convey disapproval of their higher-than-average footprint.
The researchers then measured energy consumption in the following months. As one might expect, the over-consuming households used the social norm as a motivation to reduce their energy use, but under-consuming households that had received only the social norm information increased their energy use. Crucially, though, the under-consuming households that had received positive feedback did not show this boomerang effect: the addition of a smiley face next to their energy usage made all the difference. Despite the simplicity of the feedback, households that felt their under-consumption was socially approved (rather than a reason to relax), maintained their small energy footprint. This suggests that using social norms can be effective — but only if they are used in the right way.
This academic research is now being put into practice by the energy company Opower, who have used simple social norm strategies like this to achieve consistent savings on average energy use with their US customers (Allcott, 2010). Working with the UK government’s Behavioural Insight Team (Behavioural Insight Team, 2011), Opower are now trialling similar techniques in the UK. But the strategy of focussing on the ‘social’ rather than the ‘individual’ level can be taken much further than cleverly designed energy bills: there are few influences more powerful than an individual’s social network, and if positive norms for sustainable behaviour are incorporated at this level, they will have even more of an impact.
Social networks are everywhere. Friends, colleagues, neighbours and family make up most people’s network of social contacts, and they have a powerful effect on our behaviour. The idea that information and innovation can spread through social networks is not a new one – in the field of commercial marketing, advertising campaigns targeting ‘opinion leaders’ and influential individuals is commonplace. In other fields – health behaviour for example – campaigns often target peer groups and existing social networks, in the hope that the spreading of positive health behaviours will be more likely within groups of individuals who trust each other and pay attention to each others’ behaviour.
Can social networks be used to spread pro-environmental behaviour? Unfortunately, there is not much in the way of direct evidence to answer this question. Olli, Grendstad & Wollebaek (2001) have suggested that whether or not people are in an ‘environmental network’ is one of the biggest determinants of engaging in pro-environmental behaviour (see also Nye & Burgess, 2008). This doesn’t tell us whether social networks diffuse pro-environmental behaviour among their members, or whether people with a pre-existing interest in pro-environmental behaviour join these sorts of social networks. But the evidence that does exist about social networks and the diffusion of behaviour in general suggests that sustainable behaviours will be enhanced by targeting social networks rather than individuals.
Social networks are important for creating a social identity that incorporates sustainability as a guiding principle (Rabinovich et al., 2010), rather than simply passing on a series of disjointed behaviours that may benefit the environment. If sustainable behaviour is incorporated at this level (and becomes defining for a social group) more significant behavioural changes (reinforced through peer pressure) are likely to be facilitated. Targeting social networks also helps to enhance ‘social capital’ – something that is critical for building the resilience to cope with and adapt to changes brought about by adapting to climate change (Rowson et al., 2010). And the efficacy of group based programmes at promoting pro-environmental behaviour change has been demonstrated on numerous occasions – participants in these projects consistently point to a sense of mutual learning and support as a key reason for making and maintaining changes in behaviour (Nye and Burgess, 2008).
One programme in North Carolina (DuRant et al, 2006), aimed at preventing teenage pregnancy, used parent-child relationships to get the message across, with the tagline:
‘Talk to Your Kids About Sex. Everyone else is’.
It targeted its messages to take advantage of existing social network relations – good friends, parents, spouses and siblings. This campaign tried to create a social norm for talking to children about sex, and used an existing powerful social relationship to get the message across. A phone survey established that parents exposed to the campaign were more likely to talk to their kids about sex the next month. The trick was to use mass communication to encourage inter-personal communication – so that the actual work of persuasion was done by peers. This has also been shown to be successful in reducing levels of campus alcohol abuse by students in America (DeYoung et al, 2006). In this study, both perceptions about the normative level of drinking behaviour and drinking behaviour were reduced.
For the majority of people, their social network is unlikely to be one that has climate change at its core. But social networks – Trade Unions, Rugby Clubs, Mother & Toddler groups – still perform a critical role in spreading change through society. Encouraging and supporting pre-existing social networks to take ownership of climate change (rather than approach it as a problem for ‘green groups’) is a critical task.
Allcott, H. (2011). Social norms and energy conservation. Journal of Public Economics. http://web.mit.edu/allcott/www/Allcott%202011%20JPubEc%20-%20Social%20Norms%20and%20Energy%20Conservation.pdf
Behavioural Insight Team (2011). Behaviour Change & Energy Use. UK Government Cabinet Office.
Cialdini, R. B. (2003). Crafting normative messages to protect the environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(4), 105–109.
Climate Change Communication Advisory Group. (2010). Communicating climate change to mass public audiences. Public Interest Research Centre.
DeJong, W., Schneider, S.K., Towvim, L.G., Murphy, M.J., Doerr, E.E. et al (2006). A multisite randomized trial of social norms marketing campaigns to reduce college student drinking. J. Stud Alcohol 67 (6) 868–879.
DuRant, R.H., Wolfson, M., LeFrance, B., Balkrishan, R. & Altman, D. (2006). An evaluation of a mass media campaign to encourage parents of adolescents to talk to their children about sex. Journal of Adolescent Health 38 (3) 298–309.
Nye, M. & Burgess, J. (2008). Promoting Durable Change in Household Waste and Energy Use Behaviour. Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, UK.
Olli, E., Grendstad, G., Wollebæk, D., 2001. Correlates of environmental behaviors. Bringing back social context. Environment and Behaviour 33 (2), 181–208.
Rabinovich, A., Morton, T.A., Duke, C.C., (2010). Collective self and individual choice: the role of social comparisons in promoting climate change. In: Whitmarsh, L., O’Neill, S., Lorenzoni, I. (Eds.), Engaging the Public with Climate Change: Behaviour Change and Communication. Earthscan, London.
Rowson, J., Broome, S., Jones, A. (2010). Connected Communities: How Social Networks Power and Sustain the Big Society. Royal Society of Arts, London.
Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological Science, 18(5), 429–434.
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- Communicating climate change
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- Visual communication of climate change
- Making climate science simple & understandable
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- Why are people still sceptical about climate change?
- Social norms & social networks
- Using scare tactics: does it work?
- Resources for communicating climate change
- Breaking bad habits & creating good ones
- How to go beyond social marketing
- Language: words & phrases
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- Uncertainty & the IPCC
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- How is the UK government promoting sustainable behaviour?
- Climate change scepticism and the media