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Mind the Gap (1/2): Environmental Behavior and Observed Consequences

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Jul 28, 2017

The Disconnect

From an early age, negative behavior is followed by a negative consequence. Misbehave in class, get detention. Steal something, get arrested. Drink too much and wake up with a hangover. In each case, we can directly attribute the negative consequence we receive to our own negative behavior.

However, when it comes to our behavior and the environment, there is a disconnect between our behavior and the perceived consequences. The temperature doesn’t increase by 10 °C every time you drive to work instead of walking. There isn’t an immediate outbreak of MRSA every time you don’t finish a course of antibiotics and discard the unwanted tablets in the bin [1].

This disconnect between behavior and consequence is deepened further, as the greatest emitters of CO2 are not the ones that bear the brunt of the consequences. As the developed world continues to damage the environment, it is the developing world that is disproportionately affected [2].

"If we change our behavior, such as walking to work, or buying environmentally friendly products, there is no observable change to the environmental outcome.  If there is no observable benefit to individual green behavior, how can we motivate individual consumers to behave in an environmentally responsible manner?"

Given the sheer scale of emissions and waste, the environmental benefit of ‘green behavior will only be noticeable if a sizeable number of individuals engage in the same green behavior [3]. In order to observe the benefits of green behavior, green behavior has to become the social norm.

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Social norms are a powerful and well documented phenomenon, and refer to the behaviors and actions that we perceive to be acceptable and ‘normal’. If we perceive a behavior to be a social norm, we are highly likely to partake in that behavior, even if we know it is wrong or goes against our moral compass [4].

"Our environmental behavior is highly susceptible to the actions of others and perceived social norms."

In one study, a promotional flyer was left under the windscreens of several cars in a multi-story car park that was either littered (littering is the social norm) or clean (littering is not the social norm) [5]. When subjects returned to their car, the rate of littering (discarding the flyer on the ground) was observed.

When the car park was clean, 14 % of subjects discarded the flyer on the ground, whilst 32 % of subjects discarded the flyer on the ground if there was already litter in the car park. The perception of littering as a social norm led to an over 100 % increase in the rate of littering.

Observing someone else discard the flyer on the ground had a similarly drastic effect on the number of subjects who littered. In a littered car park, viewing someone else discard the flyer on the ground increased the rate of subjects littering, from 32 % to 54 %. As the social norm is more explicitly emphasised, more subjects copied the behavior and discarded the flyer on the ground.

However, if the car park was clean, and the subject viewed someone discard the flyer on the ground, the rate of littering decreased, from 14 % to only 6 %. In this instance, it appears that viewing another individual violate the social norm caused subjects to adhere to it more strongly, reducing the littering rate by over 50 %.

In this study, it is highly unlikely that the subjects were pro-littering. In each instance they went along with the perceived social norm. When others had littered, the subjects were more likely to follow suit, as littering was perceived to be the social norm.

A similar study was conducted on towel reuse in hotels [6]. 36 % of guests staying in a hotel room with a towel hanger stating with the environmental benefits of towel reuse reused their towels. Switching the message to ’75 % of guest’s reuse their towels’ led to an increase in towel reuse, with 44 % of guests choosing to reuse their towels.

By giving the perception that towel reuse was a social norm amongst guests, occupants of the hotel room were more likely to copy the behavior, despite the majority of guests not actually reusing their towels.

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In the same study, towel reuse could be increased further, by making the message relate more directly to the guests in the hotel room. If the message was altered again, to ’75 % of guests who stayed in this room reused their towels’ the number of guests reusing towels increased again, to 49.1 %. The more explicit the norm, the more we are likely to follow it.

However, here we run into a chicken and egg type problem. If green behavior is the social norm, consumers are likely to behave in an environmentally responsible manner. But, to establish green behavior as a social norm, consumers must behave in an environmentally responsible manner to begin with.

Whilst social norms provide a medium to maintain green behavior, we still have to get consumers to exhibit green behavior in the first place. So how do we influence enough consumers on an individual level to establish green behavior as a social norm?

Read part 2 here.


[1] Lubick, N., Drugs in the Environment: Do Pharmaceutical Take-Back Programs Make a Difference? Environmental Health Perspectives 2010, 118 (5), A210-A214.

[2] Bawden, T., COP21: Richest 10 per cent ‘produce half the world’s CO2 emissions’. The Independent: 2015.

[3] Jos G.J. Olivier, G. J.-M.; Marilena Muntean, J. A. H. W. P., Trends In Global CO2 Emissions. PBL Netherlands Enviromental Assessment Agency 2016.

[4] Asch, S. E., Studies of Independence and Conformity: A Minority of One Against a Unanimous Majority. Psychological Monographs 1956, 70 (9), 117-190.

[5] Cialdini, R. B.; Reno, R. R.; Kallgren, C. A., A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1990, 58 (6), 1015-1026.

[6]Goldstein, N.; J; Cialdini, R.;; Griskevicius, V., A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels. Journal of Consumer Research 2008, 35 (3), 472-482.

About the Author

Tim Douglas

Tim Douglas

University of Nottingham

Tim is a PhD student at the Centre for Doctoral Training in Sustainable Chemistry at the University of Nottingham. Tim has an MSci in chemistry, also from the University of Nottingham, where he conducted research for GlaxoSmithKline. He is interested in utilizing behavioral science to foster sustainable consumption patterns.

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