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Understanding behavior is key when trying to make people change them. As behavioral experts we know that making people aware of the problem isn’t going to make them change their behavior. Knowledge of the plastic soup problem doesn’t even make me stop buying single use water bottles, and I’m most certainly aware of the problem and motivated to change my behavior. 

There’s a lot more to behavior than just awareness. We’ve known this for quite some time now, and still, with the plastic soup problem, we try to make people aware of the problem and urge them to make a change. In order to make an impact, we need two things. Awareness that something is a problem that requires change and a basic understanding of the underlying principles of behavior and how they affect the way we behave. In this blog I will hopefully teach you something about one of those underlying principles or our behavior: the influence of other people.

The influence of other people

There are a lot of underlying principles of behavior that unconsciously affect the way we behave on a daily basis. One of those underlying principles is the influence of other people. 

When we are uncertain or when we don’t care that much, we tend to be influenced by the behavior of others. Copying the behavior of others is something we’ve done for a long long time. In the ancient ages, sticking with the (behavior of) the group kept us safe. 

Nowadays, social information can affect individuals for a variety of reasons. We may wish to fit in, avoid social disapproval or seek self-esteem. In psychological literature two types of social norms are being distinguished: descriptive norms and injunctive norms. Whereas descriptive norms refer to what most people do, injunctive norms describe what most people approve of doing. Both have a great influence on our behavior. 

Especially with online purchases this is an important insight to keep in mind. Online we don’t have a tangible product that we can try or feel. Therefore, a lot is uncertain. Does it work as promised? Is it the best solution to my problem? Here, the opinion of others gives us the certainty we need to get us to purchase a product or good online. 

Social norms in sustainable behavior: does it work there as well?

The fact that other people influence our behavior is widely demonstrated, in scientific experiments as well as in practice. Examples can be found in influencing consumer behavior, the way we handle our finances, our alcohol consumption and, last but not least, our sustainable behavior. What other people do and think matters a great deal to us.

Take the reuse of towels for example. In a study that examined what motivated hotel guests to reuse their towels, different messages were being tested. The one that worked best told hotel guests to join fellow guests who stayed in that specific room, of which 75% used their towels more than once, to reuse their towels and help to save the environment. This message produced a 33% increase in towel-reuse participation compared to the standard environmental appeal.

In an article by Rutger Bregman, social norms are discussed in the purchase of solar panels. He talks about Google’s ‘Project Sunroof’, where you can see who has solar panels on their roof in your area (in the United States at least, it hasn’t been launched in Europe yet). One thing that immediately catches the eye, is that these panels don’t randomly appear in neighborhoods. They appear in clusters. Another study he discusses in his article is one that found that the bigger and more visible your green power generation installation, the higher chances are that people will copy you.

And finally, whether we litter or don’t litter depends on our environment. There seems to be more littering in a littered environment than in a clean environment. In addition, when seen littering by someone else in a littered environment we are tempted to litter as well.

The potential of social norms and plastic free living 

The same principle could work for the way we use plastics in our daily life. Communicating that most people use their own reusable coffee cups or water bottles influences our own tendency to perform such behavior. The more we see people use refill systems, the more we will copy it. And the moment we visit a webshop for plastic free products and it is being shown how many others are looking at the same products as we are or when we see reviews of previous customers, we are more tempted to buy as well. Especially when we identify with these people. 

The beauty of this principle is that it is incredibly easy to apply. Therefore, the potential of social norms in promoting plastic free living is huge. We believe more companies could make use of such insights if they knew how to use it. 

Hopefully, this blog (and the many that will follow) inspires you to improve your plastic free business and to use behavioral insights in order to do so. Because the moment customers choose the plastic free way of living, is the moment where these businesses grow. The moment these businesses grow, is the moment we stop the leak of plastic waste flowing to our oceans! 



Mentioned studies: 

  1. Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of consumer Research, 35.
  2. Bollinger, B., & Gillingham, K. (2012). Peer effects in the diffusion of solar photovoltaic panels. Marketing Science, 31(6), 900-912.
  3.  Cialdini, R.B, Reno, R.R., & Kallgren, C.A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 1015–1026.