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In order to achieve some personal goals of mine, I decided to embark on a new health and fitness journey this past summer. It was nothing crazy, I just pledged to eat better and work out 5 days a week. Simple. Well, a few days into it, my good friend—who is practically allergic to exercise and vegetables—suddenly took interest in eating better and working out too. She started running with me and introduced some leafy greens into her diet as well. But why? Unlike myself, she never showed an interest in dieting and exercising before; it just wasn’t her cup of tea. So why the sudden change?

The answer was simple and honest: everyone else was doing it. She used to make fun of diet and exercise enthusiasts. But now, more and more people were buying into it, and so she felt like she should too. Ah, the power of social norms. As it turns out, my friend Lilian isn’t the only one guided by changing social norms: we all are. New research “Dynamic Norms Promote Sustainable Behavior, Even if It Is Counternormative” published in Psychological Science finds that changing norms motivate others to change too.

In order to better understand how social norms influence behavior change, the research team conducted four different experiments related to meat consumption. In one of these experiments, participants from all over the country simply read two statements about consuming less meat and then reported their degree of interest in changing their own meat consumption. The first statement (static) noted that some Americans are trying to eat less meat and the second (dynamic) described how some Americans are changing and eat less meat than they used to. Those who read the second, dynamic statement reported more interest in reducing their meat consumption than those who read the first, static one, due to their belief that the change would persist into the future.

In another experiment, the researchers tested the participant’s likelihood to order a meat-based lunch after reading two similar, yet very different statements: one said that some individuals “limit how much meat they ate” (static), while another said that some “are starting to limit how much meat they eat” (dynamic). Again, those who read the second, dynamic statement showed more of an interest in changing their own behavior: they were twice as likely to order a meatless meal than those who read the static statement.

Greg Walton, the study’s senior author and an associate professor of psychology points out an important element of their experiments: “We didn’t ask people to not eat meat or eat less meat,” he said. In fact, they weren’t even given information about the benefits of doing so; instead, they were simply given information about change.

In order to further test the power of changing social norms, the research team also conducted a test involving conserving water amid the recent California draught. They put up signs in laundry facilities with either static or dynamic messages, pertaining to conserving water such as “Most Stanford Residents Use Full Loads/Help Stanford Conserve Water” (static) and “Stanford Residents Are Changing: Now Most Use Full Loads/Help Stanford Conserve Water” (dynamic). The researchers found that there was a 10% reduction from those who read the static messages and a 30% reduction from those exposed to the dynamic ones.

The research team is excited about their findings and wonder if this method of highlighting dynamic norms could potentially support other sustainability initiatives. “Dynamic norms may play a large role in social change. Just learning that other people are changing can instigate all these psychological processes that motivate further change,” explains Gregg Sparkman, the paper’s lead author and a doctoral student in psychology at Stanford. “People can begin to think that change is possible, that change is important and that in the future, the norms will be different. And then, if they become persuaded and decide to change, it starts to become a reality.”

Source: Stanford “Changing Behaviors May Be Easier When People See Norms Changing.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 6 October 2017. <http://neurosciencenews.com/norms-changing-behavior-7677/>.

Original Research: Abstract for “Dynamic Norms Promote Sustainable Behavior, Even if It Is Counternormative” by Gregg Sparkman and Gregory M. Walton in Psychological Science. Published online September 29 2017 doi:10.1177/0956797617719950

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