Donations to environmental organizations increased in amount when participants believed a behavior to be socially expected and observable.
Social norms are important motivators of conservation behaviors—as demonstrated by a lot of research within conservation science and environmental psychology (e.g. Chen et al. 2008; Goldstein et al. 2008; Jones et. al. 2008). What is sometimes neglected is how the strength of social norms may change depending on context and the type of social norm.
Let’s take a step back- remember there are a couple of types of social norms:
- Injunctive Norms– perception of how others expect you to behave
- Descriptive Norms– perception of what is the typical behavior
To understand contextual effects of social norms on donations to environmental organizations Vesely and Klockner (2018) tested the interaction between injunctive norms and observability (whether donations were anonymous or public). Their research design used four treatments: 1) no norm- no information on donations; 2) high norm- participants received a statement in regards to a “socially appropriate donation”; 3) anonymous donation- donation amount would remain private; 4) public donation- donation amount would be seen by other participants.
They found that participants “on average donated 84% more money” when their donations were observable and combined with the message emphasizing the injunctive norm. The two norm treatments had the same effect when donations were kept anonymous.
Here the social norm was moderated or amplified by the public nature of the behavior and presents implications for conservation organizations such as potentially recognizing donors on websites or in other public displays. Also, despite the power of social norm messaging, we cannot assume its effect to be the same and must consider the context in which these types of messages are received.