From Norms to Environmentally Appropriate Behavior

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A good example of how norms get communicated for littering behavior was observed by Cialdini and his colleagues (Cialdini, Kallgren, & Reno, 1991). They placed handbills on the windshields of cars parked in a parking garage. Drivers approaching their cars from the garage elevator experienced one of two conditions: Either the garage was littered with handbills, or the garage was clean and litter-free. The experimenters observed what the drivers did with the handbill on their windshield. Knowing something about norms and how they are communicated, what would you predict? Drivers were far more likely to throw their handbill on the ground in the already littered garage.

This experiment explains something Deborah could never figure out about the neighborhood where she once lived in south London. The streets were constantly blowing with litter, and she often observed Londoners contributing even more to it. She was revolted by such behavior, and thought her fellow neighbors crass and insensitive. A more social psychological explanation would be that the litter continued by virtue of the norm it expressed. Analogously, Deborah recently attended a convention of the American Psychological Association in Chicago, where she noticed recycling containers placed in some hallways, but not in others. Notably, there were no containers at the convention registration desk, as there had been at previous conventions, so people weeding out their folders had no place to recycle. Many looked for bins with what appeared to her to be frustration and annoyance. Previous placement of the containers had communicated a norm for recycling behaviors, but when the containers were no longer available, the norm persisted and produced dissonance.

Finding ways to communicate behavioral norms through changing cues in the environment is an important social psychological approach to solving environmental problems. Some behaviors will be difficult to change through norms because they are typically not done in public. For example, backyard composting is usually unobservable to neighbors. That is why McKenzie-Mohr (2000b) asked householders to post decals that demonstrated their participation in a composting program. When they did so, backyard composting increased. Laws and regulations contribute greatly to norms by requiring environmentally appropriate behavior. Federal laws regulating Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that limit emissions of automobiles would communicate acceptable maximum levels of pollution and fuel efficiency, just as seat belt laws have greatly increased buckling up behaviors. Unfortunately, the 2002 U.S. Congress voted against increasing CAFÉ standards.

Norms can be transmitted by the particular features of a situation, or by hearing about what other people are doing. Social diffusion occurs when people change their behavior to be in line with what others do. Like a fashion that spreads throughout a group, environmentally appropriate behavior can be induced through interactions with one's ac quaintances. Your personal relationship with your ESA friend, as well as the ESA-relevant attitudes of your other friends, are going to be important determinants of your response to her request. Likewise, research has shown that the best predictor of whether or not people purchase solar equipment is the number of acquaintances they have who currently own solar equipment (Leonard-Barton, 1981). Similarly, a strong predictor of recycling behavior is having friends and neighbors who recycle (Oskamp et al., 1991). Other studies have shown that environmentally responsible consumer choices are influenced by high status people who know about and choose environmentally friendly products (Flynn & Goldsmith, 1994), and that energy conservation is influenced by social networks (Weenig, 1993). Thus, the more people you know that support the ESA, the more likely you are to support it yourself.

When we conform to our friends and neighbors, we use them as a reference group: a constellation of people who portray standards with which to evaluate our attitudes, abilities, or current situation. A reference group is made up of people we like or respect, and by the power of normative influence, they can have big effects on our environmentally relevant behavior. For example, Deborah has noticed that she is much less likely to order meat when dining out with her vegetarian friends than with her meat-eating friends, and more likely to bring used paper to write on when she goes to her campus Conservation and Recycling Committee meetings than other committee meetings! But reference groups don't have to be present to be powerful. Simply making norms salient to the group is enough to change environmentally relevant behavior:

The Washington Energy Office enlisted high-profile architects and builders and used highly publicized meetings between the governor, the builders, and the building owners in designing its Energy Edge program. . . . The Energy Edge program made energy-efficient design prestigious and a status symbol for new buildings. Smaller, lesser-known developers indirectly disseminated the technology by imitating the program's features. (Dennis, Soderstrom, Koncinski, & Cavanaugh, 1990, p. 1115)

Obviously, people do not just pay attention to the facts. They pay attention to a host of other variables, including the social status of the person communicating the message. We are much more likely to imitate or be persuaded by someone of a higher status than of a lower status. One of the earliest findings in social psychology is that the credibility of the source makes a difference. If two different people present exactly the same information, we will be more persuaded by the one we believe has more credibility. That is why New York City residents cut their electricity use by 7% when asked in a letter with New York State Public Service Commission letterhead. The plea had no effect when the same letter was sent on Con Edison stationery. Apparently, people trusted or respected the Public Service Commission more than Con Edison (Craig & McCann, 1978).

When norms are not written into law, many people do not comply. Have you ever heard people say that they know they are supposed to recycle, but it just isn't convenient? The distinction between personal and social norms can help us here. Personal norms are feelings of obligation to act in a particular way, whereas social norms are sets of beliefs about the behavior of others (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990). For example, Deborah feels guilty when she forgets to take her portable cup to the coffee shop because of her personal norm about wasting paper cups, even though she rarely sees others bringing their own cups, which would communicate a social norm.

As you might expect, activating personal norms is often more powerful than activating social norms, although both kinds of norms are more effective for changing behavior than information or pleas. To test these ideas, Schultz (1998) designed a clever study of recycling behavior that compared the effects of different kinds of messages placed on green door hangers that the experimenters hung on front doors. Five different experimental groups received different kinds of messages: (a) a plea to recycle, (b) a plea plus written feedback on individual recycling, (c) plea plus written feedback on the neighborhood's recycling, (d) plea plus information about recycling in general terms, and (e) a control group that received nothing. Households in the individual feedback group got messages about the amount of material they recycled over a 9-week period, and the group feedback condition received information about the recycling rates of the neighborhood.

As shown in Fig. 3.2, the individual feedback condition had an immediate effect, although it tended to diminish over time, relative to the group feedback group. The slower but steadier effect of group feedback may again underscore the power of group norms: An idea about what others are doing may continue to affect us, as our personal norms change in line with them.

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