Leveraging Social Norms to Achieve Sustainability Objectives


As human beings, we are surrounded by social norms – interactions with others that indicate approval or disapproval of our actions. We get cues from folks close to us, such as a partner who rolls their eyes when you start to tell ‘that’ story again. We also get cues from total strangers, like the pedestrian who smiles when I stop for them in the crosswalk.

What are Social Norms?

These various cues from family, friends, and strangers make up social norms, which are considered the way we do things at home, at work, and in our communities. For example, we are quiet at the library because librarians, teachers, and perhaps parents provided social cues for us to follow. We saw others being quiet, and we in turn learned the behaviors and noise levels that are appropriate and expected of us when we visit the library. These are social norms.

Social Norms and Sustainability

Social norms are an important concept for those of us advocating sustainable practices, because our ultimate goal is to make sustainable practices the new normal. We want folks to shut off faucets, car engines, and game consoles when not in use. Not because there’s someone telling them to do so, but because it’s just what we do.

Given this objective, social cues are really important. Human beings are social creatures, and research tells us that we are more easily influenced by other people than by information. That means a well-positioned social cue, such as a friend telling you that it’s better to turn off the engine than to idle the car, is more influential than a public service announcement or a poster.

How Do Sustainability Leads Leverage Social Cues?

The best strategy for sustainability leaders to leverage social cues is with positive reinforcement. Find people doing the right things and celebrate those actions. If you see Bob turning off the light as he leaves the conference room, thank him. If Mary has an idea that will reduce waste, give her kudos at the next team meeting. Seek out opportunities to catch people living the practices you want to be the new normal, and praise those efforts.

The praise will reinforce those practices among those you identified, while also nudging others to adopt similar practices. When you showcase Mary’s great idea, it inspires Ann and Nancy to speak up about other ways to save – earning them praise as well.

The key is to focus on the positives you want to reinforce regarding sustainable practices. If you focus on the negative, you will reinforce the negative. For example: asserting that everyone leaves their lights on just reinforces that leaving things on is the norm, which is not what you want!

The good news for sustainability advocates is that social norms are both influential and malleable. You can shift what’s normal over time so that sustainable practices become, “just what we do around here.”

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