Changing Behaviors may be Easier When People See Norms Changing

In a study, people ate less meat and conserved more water when they thought those behaviors reflected how society is changing. The findings could point to new ways of encouraging other behavior changes.


Asking people to accept new or uncommon behaviors can be troublesome. It may because of the societal norms that forcefully reinforce the status quo. A new study by the Stanford researchers suggests, focusing on how norms changing can help people alter their behaviors.

Gregg Sparkman, a doctoral student in psychology at Stanford said, “One question we’re interested in from a psychological standpoint is how social change happens. What leads people to overturn a status quo?”

“Although the 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.”

Previous research only focused on seemingly static views of how most people behave. This new study tests how people behave when they think of changing norms.

Greg Walton, associate professor of psychology said, “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.”

Scientists carried 4 experiments that relate to meat consumption. This norm described as well-rooted, highly visible and something you do every day in the presence of others. The norm also has a huge negative impact on the environment, as livestock consume large volumes of water and emit greenhouse gases.

During the 1st experiment, scientists asked participants to read two statements about eating less meat. 1st statement narrates how some Americans are currently trying to eat less meat. Another narrates how a few Americans are changing and now eat less meat.

Participants who read the 2nd statement showed more interest in less meat consumption. Those participants reported anticipating that this change would continue into the future, leading them to conform to that future norm.

Scientists also tested people’s probability of ordering 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). People who read the 2nd one were more likely to order a meatless meal than those in the static group.

Scientists said, “In these studies, 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. They’re just given information about the 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 or dynamic messages. While the clothing load quantity was unaffected in structures without any signs throughout the following three weeks. There was a 10 percent lessening among the individuals who saw the static message, and about a 30 percent decrease for the individuals who saw the dynamic message.

Sparkman said, “Now, the next task 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. 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.”


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