Change behaviors by changing perception of normal

October 6, 2017 by Milenko Martinovich
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Whether it be for the environment, one's health or other important causes, convincing people to adopt new or uncommon behaviors can be difficult. One reason is that societal norms powerfully reinforce the status quo.

Stanford researchers suggest a subtle shift in messaging can help. In new research that appeared Sept. 29 in Psychological Science, they find that focusing on how norms are changing can help alter their behaviors.

"One question we're interested in from a psychological standpoint," said Gregg Sparkman, a doctoral student in psychology at Stanford and the paper's lead author, "is how social change happens. What leads people to overturn a status quo?"

He points out that although change usually happens slowly, it does happen, and perhaps more frequently than we notice. For example, seat belt use was once a nuisance, but now it's standard practice. Smoking in restaurants and other public places was once commonplace, but has declined.

The question for the researchers is what factors influence people to make those changes.

Dynamic vs. static norms

Past research on how social norms influence behavior has focused on seemingly static views of how most people behave, according to Greg Walton, associate professor of psychology and the study's senior author. Sparkman and Walton's research, however, tests how people behave when they think the norm is changing.

"Showing how norms are changing can give people a model of how they can change too, and lead to a circumstance where many people change," said Walton.

The researchers conducted four experiments relating to , a norm Sparkman described as "well-rooted, highly visible and something you do every day in the presence of others." It's also a norm that has a huge negative impact on the environment, as livestock consume large volumes of water and emit greenhouse gases.

In one experiment, participants from across the United States read two statements about eating less . One statement (static) described how some Americans are currently trying to eat less meat, while the other statement (dynamic) described how some Americans are changing and now eat less meat.

The participants who read the dynamic statement reported more interest in reducing their meat consumption than those who read the static one. Those participants reported anticipating that this change would continue into the future – leading them to conform to that future norm.

Another experiment tested people's likelihood to order a meat-based lunch. People standing in line at a Stanford campus café read statements describing how some people "limit how much meat they eat" (static) or "are starting to limit how much meat they eat" (dynamic). Lunch goers who read the dynamic statement were twice as likely to order a meatless meal than those in the static group (34 percent compared to 17 percent).

Less is sometimes more

An important aspect of these studies, the researchers said, is that participants were never asked to change their behavior, or even told the benefits of doing so.

"We didn't ask people to not eat meat or eat less meat," Walton said. "They're just given information about change."

The researchers also conducted an experiment involving conserving water during the recent California drought. They posted signs in laundry facilities at high-rise residences of Stanford graduate students with static messages ("Most Stanford Residents Use Full Loads/Help Stanford Conserve Water") or dynamic messages ("Stanford Residents Are Changing: Now Most Use Full Loads/Help Stanford Conserve Water). While the number of laundry loads were unaffected in buildings with no signs over the next three weeks, there was a 10 percent reduction among those who saw the static message, and nearly a 30 percent reduction for those who saw the dynamic message.

The next question, Sparkman said, is to see whether it is possible to apply this method to other sustainability initiatives like curbing electricity usage and promoting policy support for new laws, such as those to reduce the gender gap in wages.

"Dynamic norms may play a large role in social change," Sparkman said. "Just learning that other people are changing can instigate all these psychological processes that motivate further change. People can begin to think that change is possible, that change is important and that in the future, the norms will be different. And then, if they become persuaded and decide to change, it starts to become a reality."

Explore further: First international survey on the psychology of meat consumption

More information: Gregg Sparkman et al. Dynamic Norms Promote Sustainable Behavior, Even if It Is Counternormative, Psychological Science (2017). DOI: 10.1177/0956797617719950

Related Stories

First international survey on the psychology of meat consumption

September 25, 2017
The consumption of meat is not merely a question of taste as is generally assumed. It also necessarily involves beliefs that the killing and eating of certain animals is justified. German and American researchers looked at ...

Supreme Court rulings can signal a shift in societal norms

July 31, 2017
When the Supreme Court issued its 2015 ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, Americans understood the decision as a signal of Americans' increasing support of same-sex marriage, according to a study published by Princeton ...

Telling people not to 'down' drinks could make them drink more

August 16, 2017
Campaigns designed to stop young people "bolting" drinks can be ineffective and can even make them more likely to do it, new research suggests.

I'll have what they're having: Study finds social norms influence food choices

December 30, 2013
Is obesity a socially transmitted disease? In order to try to find out, researchers in the United Kingdom conducted a systematic review of several experimental studies, each of which examined whether or not providing information ...

Review highlights the range of negative health effects linked with red meat consumption

September 6, 2016
A new review provides a comprehensive summary of the potential negative health effects of eating red meat. Results from published studies and analyses indicate significant, although weak to moderate, increased risks for diabetes, ...

Recommended for you

Probing how Americans think about mental life

October 20, 2017
When Stanford researchers asked people to think about the sensations and emotions of inanimate or non-human entities, they got a glimpse into how those people think about mental life.

Itsy bitsy spider: Fear of spiders and snakes is deeply embedded in us

October 19, 2017
Snakes and spiders evoke fear and disgust in many people, even in developed countries where hardly anybody comes into contact with them. Until now, there has been debate about whether this aversion is innate or learnt. Scientists ...

Dutch courage—Alcohol improves foreign language skills

October 18, 2017
A new study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, conducted by researchers from the University of Liverpool, Maastricht University and King's College London, shows that bilingual speakers' ability to speak a second ...

Inflamed support cells appear to contribute to some kinds of autism

October 18, 2017
Modeling the interplay between neurons and astrocytes derived from children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Brazil, say innate ...

Study suggests psychedelic drugs could reduce criminal behavior

October 18, 2017
Classic psychedelics such as psilocybin (often called magic mushrooms), LSD and mescaline (found in peyote) are associated with a decreased likelihood of antisocial criminal behavior, according to new research from investigators ...

Taking probiotics may reduce postnatal depression

October 18, 2017
Researchers from the University of Auckland and Otago have found evidence that a probiotic given in pregnancy can help prevent or treat symptoms of postnatal depression and anxiety.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.