How to use social norms to change people’s behaviours

Note: an assignment I wrote for Social Psychology (part of my MSc in Psychology). The assignment is a position statement that should answer the question: Can social psychology be used to address current societal issues?

Climate change is a global challenge that requires global solutions involving behavioural change and the cooperation of large groups, from communities to nations (Barth et al., 2021; Masson & Fritsche, 2021). Therefore, social psychology is crucial in designing interventions to address specific climate change actions and influence pro-environmental behaviours (Velez & Moros, 2021). Such interventions build on social identity and social norms or target behavioural modification (feedback, framing, choice architecture, nudging) (Nisa et al., 2019). Social norms, commonly categorised as descriptive and injunctive, are internal group rules that indicate appropriate behaviour, inciting approval or disapproval, an unwritten code of conduct. Descriptive norms express the perceived behaviour of most people (what people do), while injunctive norms show what people should do based on a perceived common rule (what most people approve of doing) (Farrow et al., 2017). 

Descriptive and injunctive norms interact effectively to foster energy conservation, as demonstrated by a field experiment on energy consumption in 287 households in California. After matching the households on an average baseline consumption, the researchers randomly assigned half of the households to receive descriptive normative feedback on their consumption compared to the average in the neighbourhood. The other half received the same information plus an injunctive message that used emoticons to categorise the behaviour as desirable (☺) or undesirable (☹). The energy consumed subsequently was the study’s dependent variable (Schultz et al., 2007). 

The households consuming energy above the average reduced their consumption in both conditions. However, the effect did not replicate for the households that had below-average energy consumption: when they received the descriptive information only, consumption increased, creating a ‘boomerang’ effect; the injunctive norm cancelled this effect by signalling which behaviour is socially acceptable, as the households that received both descriptive and injunctive messages kept their consumption under the average. The findings show that descriptive norms act as a magnet, attracting behaviour towards the ‘norm’ perceived as most common. An injunctive norm that shows what is desirable within the group alleviates this effect and promotes behaviour perceived as desirable (Schultz et al., 2007). 

Opower, an American startup, scaled the experiment to 60 million households, one of the most extensive randomised field experiments, bringing long-term energy savings up to 2% from 2008 to 2014 (Allcott & Rogers, 2014). However, despite the success of using social norm interventions (social comparison) to conserve energy, the results are context-dependent: a field experiment in Germany had considerably lower effects sizes caused by the already-lower energy consumption in Western European countries versus the USA (Andor et al., 2018).  

Furthermore, most social norms-related research comes from WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialised and rich democracies) countries and may not apply in other cultural contexts (Nielsen et al., 2020). For example, a one-year study in Korea showed that residents expressed little interest in feedback related to their neighbours’ energy consumption (measured by gazing time on the consumption report), which might indicate no social norms on pro-environmental behaviour. It found that the conservation effect is limited and only appears in medium-size household units, which suggests a lack of generalisability of social norms across cultures and the need to create shared mental models for the group to use social norms to guide their behaviours, build shared sense of social norms (Choi et al., 2021). 

Another factor that influences the impact of interventions through social norms is social identity,  the strong identification of an individual with a group (Berger & Heath, 2008; Schultz et al., 2018; DeDominicis et al., 2017): members of environmentalist groups more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviour (Masson & Fritsche, 2021), while political affiliation is a strong driver of environment-related behaviour, as demonstrated by an analysis of the data of the Opower study: conservatives that were consuming more energy than the average increased their energy consumption following the normative feedback (Costa & Kahn, 2013).

Interventions to promote green behaviours through social norms proved successful in recycling, waste management, energy conservation, and water conservation (Farrow et al., 2017; Cialdini & Jacobson, 2021). Further research should investigate how to adjust such interventions for different sociocultural contexts for countries outside of WEIRD (Tam et al., 2021) and scale up in other domains beyond urban problems (Velez & Moros, 2021).


Andor, M., Gerster, A., Peters, J., & Schmidt, C. M. (2018). Social Norms and Energy Conservation Beyond the US. SSRN Electronic Journal.

Allcott, H., & Rogers, T. (2014). The Short-Run and Long-Run Effects of Behavioural Interventions: Experimental Evidence from Energy Conservation. American Economic Review, 104(10), 3003–3037.

Barth, M., Masson, T., Fritsche, I., Fielding, K., & Smith, J. R. (2021). Collective responses to global challenges: The social psychology of pro-environmental action. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 74, 101562.

Berger, J., & Heath, C. (2008). Who drives divergence? Identity signalling, outgroup dissimilarity, and the abandonment of cultural tastes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 593–607. 

Choi, S., Hwang, S. J., & Denzau, A. T. (2021). Do households conserve electricity when they receive signals of greater consumption than neighbours? The Korean case. Energy, 225, 120292.


DeDominicis, S., Sokoloski, R., Jaeger, C., & Schultz, P. W. (2017). Making energy social: Leveraging smart meters to promote long-term energy conservation. Unpublished manuscript. California State University, San Marcos.

Farrow, K., Grolleau, G., & Ibanez, L. (2017). Social Norms and Pro-environmental Behavior: A Review of the Evidence. Ecological Economics, 140, 1–13.

Masson, T., & Fritsche, I. (2021). We need climate change mitigation and climate change mitigation needs the ‘We’: a state-of-the-art review of social identity effects motivating climate change action. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 42, 89–96.

Nielsen, K. S., van der Linden, S., & Stern, P. C. (2020). How Behavioral Interventions Can Reduce the Climate Impact of Energy Use. Joule, 4(8), 1613–1616.

Nisa, C. F., Bélanger, J. J., Schumpe, B. M., & Faller, D. G. (2019). Meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials testing behavioural interventions to promote household action on climate change. Nature Communications, 10(1).

Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The Constructive, Destructive, and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms. Psychological Science, 18(5), 429–434.

Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2018). The Constructive, Destructive, and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms: Reprise. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 249–254.

Tam, K., Leung, A. K., & Clayton, S. (2021). Research on climate change in social psychology publications: A systematic review. Asian Journal of Social Psychology., M. A., & Moros, L. (2021). Have behavioural sciences delivered on their promise to influence environmental policy and conservation practice? Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 42, 132–138.

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