Wondering how to get people to go green? Tell them that's what their neighbors are doing

At heart, we're imitators -- shaming people into changing won't be nearly as effective as a positive message

Published May 10, 2015 8:30PM (EDT)

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Excerpted from "What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming"

Groups and collectives may seem the least likely place to start improving the public’s responses to climate. As Sting sings in All This Time, “Men go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one.” Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, the founders of psychoanalysis, were deeply mistrustful about the ways groups influence the individual mind. Other psychologists have shared the concern about group conformity and groupthink. Indeed, people do change in groups—much more quickly and thoroughly than they do on their own—and much havoc can result from group dynamics gone awry. But groups can and do foster positive change as well. And when it comes to climate, group behavior can be a powerful lever for change.

Conventional climate information, however, has targeted the individual mind as if it is not swayed by colleagues and friends. NGOs and public agencies publish countless what-you-can-do lists, all heaping the full weight of climate disruption onto the shoulders of lone individuals expected to heroically conquer the ten or more tasks with sheer willpower and idealism. The approach is well intended, but underlying the push lies an individual-by-individual assumption of behavior change. To move past the barriers, we need to engage the power of our social networks to strengthen the norms to care for the air. The question is how?

The last time you were in a hotel room, did you notice the little sign hanging in the bathroom—the one asking you to care for the environment by reusing your towels? The sign often includes some numbers about tons of detergent or water used, or CO2 generated, by excessive washing. Did you do as it requested? Some do, but most don’t. Could applying a little social influence turn that around?

Social psychologists Robert Cialdini, Noah Goldberg, and some fellow researchers wanted to find out. They set up signs informing hotel guests that 75 percent of their fellow guests staying in the very same room had actually reused their towels. They then measured the effect of this statement. Reuse suddenly rose by more than a third compared with rooms displaying the standard be-nice message. Why? The new sign used wording that aroused or “hacked” the ancestral forces of group imitation described in part 1. We are, at our core, imitators. Researchers refer to this phenomenon as applying social norms.

Price or Peers?

Many rugged individualists proudly state that what their neighbors do has little effect on their own habits, but most studies clearly show that this influence is rather high. Peer behavior is one of the strongest predictors of green behaviors and attitudes on issues like littering, energy, and water use. Since the imitation effect is so strong, asking consumers to go green will fail unless they are convinced that many others will do the same. If we can inform people of what others usually do, and in particular of what their friends and networks do, the impact of our request picks up considerably. Most of us tend to act according to what we believe similar others are doing.

From economics we know that higher prices on carbon and strong state regulations are efficient measures to curb climate emissions through market dynamics. “Price, price, price!” is the manifesto from mainstream economists. They and many others insist that placing a high enough price on carbon is the only key to making change happen. Since the price ultimately gets passed on to consumers, the thinking goes, they will rationally choose cheaper alternatives that are fossil-fuel-free. Politicians, though, have been slow to do what both economists and the climate community have been waiting for—to slam a price on carbon emissions. If that happened, it would be great. But we might as well wait for Godot as wait for global carbon taxes. You can’t rule out a political treaty miracle, but regrettably this is wishful thinking today. I’m a skeptic.

Fortunately there are other avenues to motivate societal change and build support for climate policies in the long run. New research from psychology and behavioral economics has demonstrated broad impacts of social norms and peer pressure on behavior—and sometimes those norms can be even stronger than prices. Much research in this area has been inspired by the early work of Robert Cialdini, a marketing psychology professor from Arizona State University.

Take littering, for example. Experiments by Cialdini and others showed that people visiting parks dropped more litter when there was already lots of litter there. In cleaner areas, they littered less. Other experiments introduced a person—a “social model”—who littered in front of people. This strengthened the tendency further; even more people copied the behavior of the model. Other studies show that if there already is litter on the ground or graffiti on the wall in a district, people will not only throw more litter and draw more graffiti but may also commit more crimes. People adjust their behavior to fit the signals sent by their physical surroundings about what a neighborhood finds acceptable.

Or take recycling. Another experiment compared two messages to people in a neighborhood: One was a moral exhortation to recycle and the other was a statement that their neighbors were already recycling. When the wording was crafted to activate social norms (the latter of the two), curbside recycling rates increased by 19 percent. The results also showed that the influence of social norms in communication could backfire if used without awareness. Well-intended but naïve media may publish messages such as “Eighty-three percent of people are not recycling!” or “Three hundred million plastic bottles discarded every day!” But these communicators have missed something critically important: “Within the statement ‘Look at all the people who are wasteful’ lurks the powerful and undercutting power” of imitation, states psychologist Griskevicius. Then the implicit social norms work in the wrong way: Since nobody else does it, why should I bother? Shaming messages backfire; positive messages reinforce positive social norms.

Or take water use. Economist Paul Ferraro at Georgia State University did an experiment with one hundred thousand households. Some got messages that compared their consumption to the average of neighbors. A second group got messages that asked them to conserve water for moral reasons: “Please don’t waste water. Remember: every drop counts.” A third group got only technical tips on how to save water. The outcome? Again, social comparison had the biggest effect. The reduction in this group was as large as if water prices had increased by on average 15 percent. And interestingly, the savings were greatest among customers that were the least sensitive to price changes—the largest and wealthiest water consumers.

The same principles hold true for climate-changing behaviors, such as reducing household power consumption. Cialdini and colleagues gave four groups of households different reasons for saving power:

Group 1: Because it’s better for the earth (sustainability).
Group 2: For the sake of future generations (your grandchildren).
Group 3: Because it pays (saving money).
Group 4: Because your neighbors do it (social norms).

Which group got the greatest reduction in power consumption? No, not the first, idealistic group. And care for our grandchildren did not win, either. Not even the third group, who had learned how much money they could save, prevailed. The ones who showed the most commitment and the greatest reductions were again those who could compare their own efforts with those of similar neighbors.

To most people energy use is boring stuff, and utility bill numbers usually evoke a big yawn (or anger if the cost is too high, of course). But something happens the moment the communication from the utility is tailored for you, and your own power consumption is compared with that of people you care about. Then, suddenly, interest in and motivation for changing energy behaviors soars.

The company Opower has pushed the power of social norms by transforming boring and confusing power bills into engaging, proactive customer dialogues. The company’s Facebook app (see Figure 9.1 below) lets you access your own power consumption measurements, and compare your energy-saving performance with your friends’, all in real time. The company claims that in its start-up phase from 2007 to 2013, its services saved enough energy to power all of the homes in an American city of eight hundred thousand people, such as Indianapolis or San Francisco, for a year.

Other businesses, too, are catching on. The mobile app Strava lets you easily record where and how much you’re biking by tracking your mobile phone’s movements as you ride. As you get fitter, you can track and share your progress and challenge your friends to bike more—to work, to the store, or for weekend recreation. Even better, you can add your miles to your community’s biking total and compete on a neighborhood-to-neighborhood or city-by-city level. The city of Münster in Germany has had huge success in engaging people. So far, the Münster project has attracted twelve hundred participants. In the month of April 2014, 7,702 bike rides were recorded with a total of 30,121 kilometers cycled. The competition has attracted 136 schools that are fiercely competing to win the most points. Or you turn the app off and simply enjoy the ride.

Our social radar also influences how we view electric cars. Not long ago, their image was all square and boxy and inconvenient. Then Tesla came along, with insane acceleration, elegant design, and the most digitally advanced dashboard you’ve ever seen. All of a sudden, the coolest people in town are driving Teslas. They’re boasting about them to friends, gossiping with one another at charging stations, and laughing at their own fuel costs compared with the rising gas prices others have to pay. The brand recognition and loyalty almost match those of Harley-Davidson bikes. In Norway, where there has been a generous tax break for electric cars, the market share has soared, making the model Tesla Model S the bestselling car of any type in the autumn of 2013. From a life-cycle point of view, heavier Tesla models may not be as efficient as smaller hybrids, public transport, or using an e-bike, but it is beyond dispute that Tesla’s launch has started to change the social norms around electric cars.

In many situations, comparison with peers is an emotional, evolutionary inner force that is stronger than rational self-interest. Facebook and Twitter users get a kick when their comments or photos receive a lot of likes. Likewise, it’s no real fun just saving power, water, money, or gas all by yourself. But being seen and recognized by others for it adds zest. Cialdini points out that when people are uncertain about how to behave, they usually look around them to see what their peers are doing.

Think back to the ancestral forces identified by evolutionary psychology: self-interest, status, imitation, short-termism, and risk vividness. Social norms can be leveraged to put these forces to good use. Opower’s app is asking: “Feeling competitive?—Invite more friends.” Most people will not switch to low-energy behaviors because they think long-term about the fate of their grandchildren or the earth. However, when a good common cause can be associated with attaining acknowledgment and status among my in-group, suddenly the issue of climate feels near and personal, not distant and abstract.

Humans have always imitated one another and competed based on social norms. But the common cause is better served when people are imitating and competing around the common causes of water and energy savings rather than maximizing house or car size. Moreover, it appears that social norms can trump cost savings as a motivator. The question is therefore not one of either higher energy prices or peer pressure. The trick lies in combining conventional policy tools like pricing, taxes, subsidies, and better technology with peer pressure to supercharge attention onto the way the policies get implemented.

So if we stop communicating our worst behaviors (how much energy we consume, how big a house we build, how many miles we fly) and instead model our best behaviors—inspired by and in competition with friends, celebrities, or anyone else we think well of—change can happen, and happen faster. We can start social cascade effects.

Publishing Archive:What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming:01_WhatWeThinkAbout:finalpages_02_26_15:Links:9-1_cropped.eps

Figure 9.1. Opower’s Facebook app lets utility customers compare themselves with other homes and compete with friends to save energy.

Social Groups: All Emissions Are Local

The term social norms refers to the knowledge, imagined or real, of what others would say or do in your situation. Norms are created by a broad range of social engagement, from mindlessly clicking on online petitions or imitating friends via Facebook apps to deeper engagement with identity-changing groups like 350.org or others in the Climate Action Network. The question is, Do some methods of creating social norms result in stronger impacts? Will behavior-changing prompts from Opower have lasting effects after the prompting ends? Some researchers doubt it. Rather, they say, real-world face-to-face interactions hold the potential for much deeper behavioral impact.

Since climate change is often described using highly abstract, scientific data, people yearn for personal interaction and face-to-face conversations to help them process and embody the information. Conservationists have different concerns than do health care professionals or businesspeople. Conversations with friends, neighbors, or work colleagues, or even at information booths, are far more important than is usually realized. Face-to-face contact and word of mouth are still king.

What is an effective climate message? You can start telling your own personal story to people you care about. Explain why you yourself are worried about a future in which we fail to address climate change, and what kind of world you’d prefer. Resist the impulse to debate the science and be “right,” and instead really listen to what your aunt/brother-in-law/high school friend has to say. Rather than questioning the science, is this person really feeling helpless?

Another good place to start is to ask people if they are aware of the surprising agreement among scientists all over the world that global warming is real and urgent. Studies show that when people become aware of the strong consensus, this seems like a norm and they become more willing to support ambitious societal responses. Therefore, simple and clear messages about the consensus, repeated often, by a variety of trusted voices, may hold potential to spread support for action through social networks.

And who is the best messenger? The most credible spokespeople for an idea or a brand are peers—people who are similar to those you want to reach and who can reach them because they are part of their in-group. Peers excel at word of mouth, a communication tool so old that cave dwellers no doubt used it to barter their animal skins for more berries. In the last few years, the advertising and marketing industries have looked to word of mouth—which today also means word of email, word of Facebook, word of Twitter, and so on—as a response to mass media overload.

As we saw in earlier chapters, people easily feel helpless if left on their own when confronted with the severity of the coming climate disruptions. Participating in a community or group that works for a common cause is a good remedy (the only one, actually) for this toxic helplessness and passivity. It can stimulate people who feel powerless on their own. But rather than forming more new climate groups and organizations that demand yet more of our free time, we can transform existing groups—sports, book clubs, churches, health organizations, housing co-ops, unions, parent associations at schools, biking clubs—into eco-teams. Make goals clear and modest, and have fun while doing it.

The idea that information, innovations, and values can spread through social networks is far from new. In the field of commercial marketing, advertising campaigns targeting “opinion leaders” and influential individuals has long been commonplace. In other fields—health behavior, for example—campaigns often target peer groups and existing social networks because individuals who trust one another and pay attention to one another’s behavior can effectively spread positive health behaviors within their groups. Both AIDS campaigns in South Africa and anti-smoking groups in the United States have been extraordinarily successful by giving youth at risk a group to join and to identify with. Why not climate communication campaigns too?

Social networks are everywhere. Friends, colleagues, neighbors, and family make up most people’s network of social contacts, and they have a powerful effect on everyone’s behaviors. While the required societal change has been slow at best the previous decades, today there are two new forces worth betting on: the rise and connectedness of the social web, and an increasing desire for sustainability and better self-governance among the millennial generation.

Nearly all fossil emissions are made at some location, and in that sense they are local. Since they are human-made, only human groups can curb them. Acting to influence the emissions and sites nearest ourselves makes the distance less. This is a point that climate analysts tend to forget, with their tendency to focus on global averages and universal policy tools.

* * *

I Party Therefore I Am

A fundamental principle of activism is that none of us can change the world alone; the task is always way too big. None of us can even change our neighborhood alone. Or town. Therefore, we do as much as we can, while acting together with others.

This reality explains why we need to make climate communications as social, interactive, and local as possible. Living creatively with climate change happens when the dispassionate statistics are relinked with social meaning particular to place. Thus, New Yorkers make sense of global warming when hearing how the city’s subway system will flood in storms like Sandy. New Orleans residents begin to understand sea level rise when learning how much of their shoreline vanishes each year. Californians grasp the meaning of extended droughts when hearing about their own shrinking groundwater supplies and what that will mean for their daily habits, like bathing, washing dishes, and watering lawns and gardens.

Don’t describe a vision of a sustainable Dallas when you’re in Detroit—or vice versa. Speak of people, places, and spaces where you are. Refer to local species, jobs, and traditions. Make it transparent, by using the social web to extend social influence and interaction (as, for example, through Avaaz, the global online activist network whose clicktavism spans issues from climate to human rights).

By employing social norms through imitation, status, cooperation, and competition. By involving a multitude of groups in creating shared meaning, we can make climate communications less universal and more social. When we do, we circumvent the first major barrier to conventional climate communications: psychological distance in time, space, and locus of control. The prominent message should not relate to the Arctic ice by 2050 or Antarctica by 2100, but to practical interaction with people and places I care about today. My voice reaches farther through the groups I participate in, and the distance between me and others with the perceived capacity to act is reduced. My sense of in-group can eventually become extended.

This strategy can also reduce the political and cultural polarization at national levels: Never mind the fighting in Congress, but here in Louisiana, we need to build our own preparedness and resilience. Or as Kahan writes: “The influences that trigger cultural cognition when climate change is addressed at the national level are much weaker at the local one. When they are considering adaptation, citizens engage the issue of climate change not as members of warring cultural factions but as property owners, resource consumers, insurance policy holders, and tax payers—identities they all share.”

The purpose of this networking strategy is not only the direct reduction of wasteful consumption of energy or water in absolute numbers. Such a reduction would of course be welcome and significant37—but still more important is the spillover effect into greener attitudes, norms, values, and ultimately votes.

At the same time, remember that groups hostile to climate action use similar dynamics in the opposite direction. They employ their group norms to reinforce the status quo and promote inertia. To reach into contrarian groups, we have to combine this social strategy with others, such as new ways of framing, nudging, and storytelling. Ridicule and sarcasm against an out-group mainly evoke further resistance and polarization, an us-versus them situation, which denialism thrives on.

The more people see happy others conserve energy, install solar rooftops, recycle, shop green, and drive electric cars, the more they are inclined to support ambitious climate policies on local, state, and national levels. By seeing solutions in action, their feelings of helplessness and of being overwhelmed by global climate facts are eased. By seeing and believing that others—neighbors and friends—are taking action on the climate message, they start perceiving it as more personal, nearer, and more urgent, too, counteracting the barriers. Demand for clearer political leadership grows from the bottom up: “We’re doing something about it; why aren’t the politicians?”

Social: Use the Power of Social Networks

Use social norms to motivate others to:

  • Reduce power and water consumption.
  • Spread social norms through green products and services (rooftop solar, eco-apps).
  • Improve recycling efforts.

Use groups and word of mouth from trusted peer messengers to:

  • Clarify the scientific consensus.
  • Join Earth Hour and similar initiatives.
  • Set up home parties; solar panel buying clubs; local-patriotism climate conversations.
  • Introduce the topic of climate in existing networks (churches, clubs, sports, and the like).
  • Join Carbon Conversations and Transition Town efforts.

Set up funding for social network climate initiatives.

Excerpted from "What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming" (Chelsea Green, 2015) and is printed here with permission of the publisher. For more information, visit chelseagreen.com.

By Per Espen Stoknes

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