While the energy efficiency market has implemented a variety of cost-saving incentives highlighting the economic rationality of reducing, reusing, and recycling at home, other factors may be even more persuasive. One of these commonly overlooked factors is the impact of social norms on individual behavior. Descriptive social norms influence perception based on observations of others’ typical behaviors with the expectation of following the status quo. A study titled “The Constructive, Destructive, and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms,” conducted by researchers at the California State University Department of Psychology found that mailing energy reports comparing household energy use with neighbors in similar homes resulted in a behavioral shift toward the stated descriptive social norm. Households using more energy than their neighbors reduced their usage to match the average, while low energy use households actually showed a slight increase in energy use to match the social norm. This negative phenomenon, known as the boomerang effect, is well-documented in academic literature.
Fortunately, the energy consumption study also demonstrated that the boomerang effect can be counteracted by the use of injunctive norms that emphasize low energy users not as outliers, but as leaders in their neighborhoods. Injunctive norms influence perception by appealing to morals regarding what one should or shouldn’t do. When the energy reports also included injunctive norms, such as a smiley face for lower energy usage or a frowning face for higher energy usage, people displaying positive behaviors were less likely to change to match social norms. Households using more energy reduced their consumption, while households using less energy than the average continued to do so.
What can we conclude from California State University’s study? For starters, philosopher Eric Hoffer was right in stating that “when people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” However, pairing social norms with injunctive norms can be even more powerful than descriptive social norms alone. Using descriptive norms without injunctive norms can result in the undesirable boomerang effect, while using only injunctive norms can sound too preachy. In conclusion, researching relevant descriptive social norms in a given area or population, combined with appropriate injunctive norms, can be powerful tools to develop successful environmental campaigns.
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