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Social Norming: Show Don’t Tell

We have all lived social norming. If you’ve ever gotten into an elevator and turned around to face the door, this is a social norm. If you’ve ever given a dirty look to someone talking on his or her cell phone in a theater, this is a social norm. If you’ve ever recycled your trash into every single appropriate bin at Whole Foods after eating there—and caused someone else to do it because of your behavior, this is a social norm.

Social norms are behaviors or attitudes that are commonly accepted within a group or society. Here are two very important factors about social norms every sustainability consultant, program manager or activist should remember:

•    Social norms vary. By location, culture, nationality, workplace, department, group of friends, family and many, many other factors. We subscribe to multiple norms without always consciously knowing it.
•    Social norms can change. Just look at fashion trends – a very common social norming. If you started and stopped wearing parachute pants in the 80’s, you know what I’m talking about. Littering also used to be a norm. Now in addition to being fined, you are also a social pariah if you chuck a fast food wrapper out of your car window.

So why isn’t change easier?
I’m not going to propose that change is easy, but I will say that for the most part we have been approaching it the wrong way in the sustainability world. We educate. We tell. We horrify. We cajole. We encourage. We guilt-trip. But we very rarely go to any great length the model the behavior we want you to adopt with any kind of longevity. We tell you what to do. We build the infrastructure. But they don’t come. Or they don’t come in the numbers that we had hoped for.

Education and infrastructure alone are not enough.

An article in The Atlantic recently discussed the importance of the “I voted” sticker on Election Day. The author, Derek Thompson, discusses a voting study in Switzerland where voting numbers were down. The country created vote-by-mail ballots because they thought the barrier was an economic time-cost ratio. Voting numbers dropped and the conclusion was that people didn’t vote because of time, they voted because their friends, family and peers voted. It was a social pressure or a social norm. This is an incredibly valuable behavior change lesson.

We are good at identifying a behavior we want to change. Barriers to that change are often correctly identified or tested as they were in the Switzerland voting example. But we forget to make the behavior popular, en vogue and the thing to do. Instead the requested behaviors are often seen as a nuisance, a hassle or a short-term initiative until the boss is on to something new. We build LEED certified buildings and show tenants all the sleek new energy efficiency or intended-use designs and forget to actually model the behavior – the new behavior – to give it context, meaning and yes, a bit of peer pressure to make the new behavior the new norm.

The good news is you can go back to previous strategies and see if there is a way to social norm the behavior in your organization or community. Start small. Really learn who influences the behavior adoption through their leadership and personal behavior. Build on the results to spread the behavior broader and deeper amongst your targeted audiences. Add social norming strategies to any new and future sustainability planning and see your results improve.




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