Sustainable or Not, We All Follow Social Norms

Meet Joe. He wants to do the right thing. Especially when it comes to environment.

So, when Joe saw a commercial the other day about the ugliness and ocean damage caused by litter, he thought “You know, this gives me a bad attitude about people tossing their trash around. We shouldn’t do it.” Moments later, his favorite TV show came back on and he dozed off in front of it.

Next morning, Joe exited his front door and saw an advertising circular tucked under his windshield wiper. “What an irritant,” thought Joe. “I can’t wait to tear that thing up and give it a piece of my mind.” Neighbors on either side of him had apparently thought the same thing, because the sidewalk and gutters were strewn with bits of paper just like the one on his vehicle.

“Outa here,” he muttered to the flier, as he tossed it to the ground and jumped into his car to go to work.

Flash forward two weeks, Joe has just spent another long work day at Green Technical. As he exits the building for the parking area, an errant plastic bag floats down the sidewalk, only to be snatched up by a co-worker, pleased to do his part. But Joe mutters to himself as he approaches his car. Once again someone has papered windshield wipers with advertisements. But none of them are on the sidewalk. In fact, other motorists are removing the little eyesores and disposing of them in the nearest recycle bin. So… does Joe angrily toss the circular from his car to the pavement, or does he follow the example of his Green Nerd coworkers?

That’s right, he follows suit. Into the bin goes the offending ad.


What just happened? Was something mysterious afoot that would change Joe’s behavior at the end of his day, that could be harnessed for positive behavior change? Well, not exactly mysterious – and yes, it’s something that can be put to use.

What we see at work here is the power of social norms. A social norm is a set of behaviors that a group of people actually does in a given situation, whether it jibes with expressed attitudes, or not. The social norm of the after-work crowd was to properly dispose of the paper and plastic bags. The group of morning neighbors followed a norm of tossing the ad circulars onto the ground. People conformed to the prevailing norm whether they’d adopted a litter-free attitude or not.

Behavioral norms act like a magnet to encourage conformity. Change agents who are able to set up desired behaviors as social norms are on the way to success. Programs deploying Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM) offer many tools to make this happen. In many cases the public is presented with a highly motivated core group of individuals who are modeling the behavior, setting the norm. In some cases, including opinion leaders in a modeling group is critical.

If you are an environmental program manager or hold sway over the budget process of eco-programs for your organization consider the huge difference between Joe seeing an advertisement and changing his attitude versus him unconsciously picking up on the behavior of people around him and following suit. This is the power of modelling and social norms. It is also the difference between “educational” type programs and those that employ all the tools offered by a full-on CBSM approach.

Studies show that educational campaigns change actual behavior in a very low percentage of cases — in the 1-3% range. CBSM behavior change programs employ a much wider range of tools, and have proven to change what people actually do in the 20-40% range (or more). Community Based Social Marketing may cost a little more than the average educational approach but their 10-fold or better effectiveness far outweighs this potential difference.

Jeffrey SchmidtSustainable or Not, We All Follow Social Norms