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Climate change is the result of many human actions, from carbon dioxide emissions to deforestation, and mitigation will require a wide range of interventions, including legislation, regulation and market solutions implemented at the local, national and global levels. Demand-side factors such as changes in social norms can also help by creating political pressure for increased climate action. In addition, they can improve the effectiveness of other activities, for example by increasing the acceptance and adoption of new technologies or compliance with laws and regulations.

In the last issue of Psychological science in the public interestan interdisciplinary team of researchers reports how social norms— “patterns of behavior or values ​​that depend on expectations about what others do and/or think should be done” — can be used to create a collective climate action and policy changes. They emphasize that while interventions with social norms can be powerful engines of social change, they can also reinforce unsustainable behaviors and attitudes and require deep contextual knowledge to be used effectively.

“Demand-side changes can be integral components of broader climate policies, creating public acceptance of new measures and accelerating or amplifying their impacts,” said Sarah M. Constantino, an associate professor at Northeastern University and lead author of the paper. “However, the effectiveness and ethics of interventions aimed at shifting social norms depend critically on the details of the behavior or relationship in question, a variety of structural and cultural factors, psychological processes, and a variety of design and implementation decisions.”

In this article, Constantina and her colleagues review the literature on how changes in social norms occur, how the tendency to conform or coordinate with others can cause rapid social change, and the circumstances under which this can occur. They base their findings on a review and synthesis of a large body of literature on the influence, measurement, and change of social norms from the perspectives of psychology, anthropology, sociology, and economics published between 1951 and 2021.

The authors explain that harnessing the power of social norms for climate action can take two interrelated forms. Social norm interventions attempt to increase the adoption of sustainable social norms in social networks by providing information about what people in a group do or think should be done. They can change the behavior of individuals and communities by correcting social misconceptions (e.g. people believe that climate action has limited support when in fact there is a lot of support) and/or by showing the prevalence of certain private behaviors (e.g. water and energy conservation, recycling, voting ).

However, many preferred behaviors are unstable. In such cases, social intervention aims to bring about changes that disrupt these unstable norms. Interventions (such as subsidies) can be used to stimulate change in a subset of the population. Once enough people adopt persistent maladaptive behaviors and beliefs, it can lead to broader social change, “tilting” society toward a new social norm even in the absence of long-term intervention.

Structural, social, and other factors will determine the success of social-normative interventions, and Konstantinos and colleagues suggest a number of steps to take before designing and implementing them. These include identifying key characteristics of the target behavior and population, measuring existing social norms and expectations, and considering interventionpotential negative consequences, such as perceived threats to people’s sense of agency and autonomy or a phenomenon known as “moral licensing”, where taking action on a problem can make people feel they have done enough, crowding out other actions.

Finally, the authors emphasize the importance of piloting any intervention with local stakeholders, that is, conducting small trials, evaluating the results, and then conducting additional trials before adopting it. “An intervention should be scaled up only after it has been tested in the context of interest and found to be successful,” they write.

“Social norms and social advice can drive rapid social change under certain conditions,” Constantino said. “However, they are not a substitute for other forms of climate action, and the development of effective and responsible interventions will depend on many factors.”

In an accompanying commentary, Stefan Lewandowski (University of Bristol; University of Western Australia) and Sander van der Linden (University of Cambridge) suggest that the pivot problem scientific consensus climate action into social consensus is likely to be overcome if practitioners take into account “the adversarial, misinformation-rich environment in which normative information is communicated, the role of pervasive misperceptions of norms and other people’s behavior, the possibility that community norms can quickly unfold after key political events, and the fact that there are important differences in how susceptible people are to social influence.”

The influence of collective risks on the adoption of social norms

Additional information:
Sara M. Constantino et al., Scaling Up Change: A Critical Review and Practical Guide to Using Social Norms to Address Climate Change, Psychological science in the public interest (2022). DOI: 10.1177/15291006221105279

Stefan Lewandowski and others. Interventions based on social norms could benefit given the competitive information environment: Commentary on Constantino et al. (2022), Psychological science in the public interest (2022). DOI: 10.1177/15291006221114132

Citation: Can changing social norms help mitigate climate change? (2022, October 13) Retrieved October 13, 2022, from

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