Behaviour change theory: social factors

This post looks at social factors that affect our behaviour. It’s part of a series on behaviour change and sustainability, which includes an introduction to behavioural theory and a summary of some of the psychological traits that influence us.

Social creatures
As well as being influenced by our own psychological make-up, our behaviour is deeply influenced by social context. This is true both on a small scale, in terms of being affected by what others think and do, and on a large scale in terms of the norms and practices that dominate a society.

Social psychologists believe that behavioural outcomes are determined by individuals, acting in the context of their social networks. Sociologists go further still, arguing that social norms and structures largely define our behaviour, with little role for the individual. Proponents of ‘practice theory’, for example,  argue that it is not individuals who should be the subject of inquiry, but shared practices such as watching TV, washing and cooking.

Here are some of the social factors that influence people’s behaviour:

Commitment and reciprocity
Commitment, especially public commitments which are monitored by others (such as in weight watchers), can have a strong bearing on our behaviour.[i] When someone has promised in front of others to do something, they are more likely to stick to it without reward or punishment.

We expect others to reciprocate good deeds, such as giving presents, doing favours or making sacrifices. This has implications for government’s own actions – if it fails to display the behaviours it is asking of the public this will go against people’s desire for reciprocity and fairness. [ii]

Messenger
Whether people listen to information depends on who is doing the talking. Demographic and behavioural similarities between the messenger and their audience can improve persuasiveness. Peers (such as friends and family) can also be effective messengers, as they tend to be people we respect and trust. Evidence shows that when an expert delivers information, people are more likely to act on it. [iii]

Ego
People tend to behave in ways that make them feel good about themselves, and that gain approval from others. Social marketeers exploit this by trying to make desirable behaviours sexy or cool[iv] and pointing out the undesirable effects of certain behaviours, for example the fact that smoking can cause yellow teeth and impotence.

Social norms
Social norms “provide implicit guidelines on acceptable behaviour”. We perceive these norms either by watching what most people do (‘descriptive norms’) or by being told what to do (‘injunctive norms’).[v]Many studies have shown that people are strongly influenced by social norms.

In California the company OPOWER has used social norms to get an overall reduction in household energy use of 2.75% over a 16 month period. [vi] OPOWER does this by showing householders how their energy use compares to their ‘efficient’ and ‘average’ neighbours, and indicating through smiley faces how well they are doing.

Telling people about existing social norm can help outliers come into line with the majority. For example telling householders that they are using more energy than the average can help bring their use down (although they are unlikely to move to a smaller house of start throwing out their TVs).

But this kind of intervention will not change the average trend – this can only be done by changing norms. OPOWER goes a step towards this by benchmarking householders’ consumption against an efficient house as well as an average house. It also uses injunctive norms (smiley/sad face) to show whether the householder’s behaviour is approved of.

But much more transformational change is also possible. Sociologist Elizabeth Shove gives the example of the Japanese government’s ‘Cool biz’ programme, which changed norms around temperature and dress in the country’s offices. Before the initiative, wearing suits, ties and jackets in the summer and turning up the air-conditioning was normal. The government wanted to change this so it used its own influence as an employer (it stopped heating and cooling its buildings between 20 and 28oC); called on the support of diverse organisations (using business leaders, department stores and clothing manufacturers to design and promote light-weight summer clothing); and capitalised on the media profile of ministers and ambassadors (by using them as models).

In combination Shove says these moves have helped to redefine lightweight clothing and natural cooling as being normal. The programme “has had a significant impact on collective behaviour in less than five years,” she says.[vii]

Governments and businesses also need to make sure they don’t accidentally promote norms that undermine their aims. For example Professor Robert Cialdini points out that since “the devastating floods of 2008 The [UK] Environment Agency website continues to report that the majority of homeowners who are entitled to receive their Free Flood Warning Service have failed to do so.” This risks making such behaviour seem normal and therefore acceptable, the opposite message to that which the EA wants to put out.[viii]


[i] Professor Imran Rasul and Myra Mohnen, University College London, October 2010, Memorandum to House of Lords subcommittee on behaviour change, Science and Technology Committee Behaviour Change Written Evidence from N-R, http://www.parliament.uk/documents/lords-committees/science-technology/behaviourchange/BCwrittenevidenceNtoR.pdf

[ii] Institute for Government, 2010, MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy, http://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/images/files/MINDSPACE-full.pdf

[iii] Institute for Government, 2010, MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy, http://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/images/files/MINDSPACE-full.pdf

[iv] For example Global Cool: http://www.globalcool.org/about

[v] Professor Imran Rasul and Myra Mohnen, University College London, October 2010, Memorandum to House of Lords subcommittee on behaviour change, Science and Technology Committee Behaviour Change Written Evidence from N-R, http://www.parliament.uk/documents/lords-committees/science-technology/behaviourchange/BCwrittenevidenceNtoR.pd

[vi] Professor Robert Cialdini, Arizona State University, and Steve Martin, Influence at Work, September 2010, Memorandum to House of Lords subcommittee on behaviour change, Science and Technology Committee Behaviour Change Written Evidence from A-C, http://www.parliament.uk/documents/lords-committees/science-technology/behaviourchange/BCwrittenevidenceAtoC.pdf

[viii] Professor Robert Cialdini, Arizona State University, and Steve Martin, Influence at Work, September 2010, Memorandum to House of Lords subcommittee on behaviour change, Science and Technology Committee Behaviour Change Written Evidence from A-C, http://www.parliament.uk/documents/lords-committees/science-technology/behaviourchange/BCwrittenevidenceAtoC.pdf

About Sylvia Rowley

Sylvia was the editor of Green Alliance's blog from 2010 to April 2013. She is an assistant producer on Al Jazeera English's flagship environmental show, earthrise, and an award-winning print journalist who writes for publications including the Guardian, the Evening Standard and New Scientist. She was previously a policy adviser at Green Alliance.
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3 Responses to Behaviour change theory: social factors

  1. Pingback: Behaviour change theory « the Change Samurai's Blog

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