Prentice, D., & Paluck, E. L. (2020). Engineering social change using social norms: Lessons from the study of collective action. Current Opinion in Psychology 35:138–142
In a nutshell: There are a variety of different ways of tapping into the social nature of humans in order to influence behavior. We should make better and more nuanced use of social norms and related processes to more effectively influence behavior.
Providing individuals information about social norms is a common and effective behavior change technique (see PKTTP posts on social norm messaging). Social norms help guide behaviors in social settings, leading to behavioral conformity among a group of people. Social norms are also dynamic, social processes that may be reinforced or updated by new information gained about others’ behaviors through for example, observation or discussion.
The authors of the above paper argue that behavior change research has generally ignored the social processes of social norms when designing interventions. Integrating social processes can make behavior change more effective by enabling “the development of interventions to strengthen, weaken, broaden, narrow, and diffuse norms to new groups“.
The authors make four observations about social norm interventions that are relevant to conservation initiatives:
- Target social referents Maximize intervention effectiveness by targeting those who are most influential in a group. If an intervention is able to influence social referents, those individuals whom others look to in establishing accepted behaviors, the intervention will influence the targeted population.
- Weaken social norms Social norms are often obstacles to social change. Behavior change interventions in group settings could target prevalent social norms with negative biodiversity impacts by publicly exposing the social norms incongruence with private beliefs and opinions.
- When do social norm messaging interventions work? In environments where it’s challenging to know how others actually behave in regards to a specific issue; for instance, energy consumption.
- Learn from collective action research Ideally we want to deliver enduring social change that can benefit biodiversity and society. Collective action research on group processes and dynamics can provide valuable insights benefitting behavior change interventions.
While seeking to change individual conservation behaviors via social norm messaging can be effective, it is limited to those contexts where there is a favorable existing norm. Learning how to initiate social processes to shift unfavorable norms towards those which support key conservation behaviors would enhance the repertoire of conservationists seeking to harness the power of social influence.
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