HomeBehaviour changeHyper-local, visible action is key to encouraging green living

Hyper-local, visible action is key to encouraging green living

This is a guest post by Oliver Payne, an advertising professional who founded the behavioural communications agency The Hunting Dynasty, and wrote Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour: 19 Ways To Ask For Change

Talk to any communications specialist and they’ll tell you how important social norms are in driving behaviour. This is correct, but a little broad. Norms – or the implicit and explicit rules that govern a society – come in many varieties. Both the injunctive norm (what we’re told is approved of), and the descriptive norm (what we see others doing) can help persuade us to act more sustainably.

Show and tell
In 2003 Cialdini et al examined the effects of aligning descriptive and injunctive norms on recycling behaviour, using specially designed adverts placed on an Arizona regional public service television network.[i] (Yes, real adverts on a real TV network.) The ad was carefully crafted in two important ways. Firstly, it showed a majority of people both engaging with recycling and speaking approvingly of their behaviour – in this way they exposed the descriptive condition (showing viewers what other people tend to do). Secondly, it showed the actors speak disapprovingly of a single individual who failed to recycle – in this way they exposed the injunctive condition (telling the viewer what is generally approved of), and aligned it with the descriptive.

These ads increased recycling by over 25% compared with similar areas where the ad never played. The effect was strong.

While this test does not separate pre-existing attitudes, humour, and other factors that may have influenced recycling, they found an intriguing difference in how injunctive and descriptive norms seem to affect us.  The injunctive norm  – expressed by actors speaking disapprovingly of a single individual – affected people’s conscious assessments of the ads’ persuasiveness by making them ‘think’ about the message. However, the descriptive norm– evoked when people were shown to be recycling – ‘influenced intentions directly’[ii] by evoking a more raw, instinctive understanding of common behaviour and as a consequence required less overt ‘thinking’.

This means that what government or businesses tell people is important, but what they show people is more powerful still. And this isn’t confined to TV ads alone – the world in which we live can influence our intentions directly.

Does this mean that communicating can’t just be left to the communications department? It depends how broadly you define communication.

Make it visible
In 2003 a new chief executive turned the membership-based car sharing company Zipcar from an American three-city-only operation into the billion dollar global behemoth it is today by stopping the practice of picking-up parking spots anywhere-and-everywhere and starting to focus on small areas and saturating them with Zipcar rentals and marketing.[iii]

This hyper-local approach stopped the messages from getting lost in the informational ‘noise’ of the city, but also created highly visible geographical clustering of Zipcar rentals: a new local ‘normal’ was born. ‘This membership-based car sharing behaviour must be the done thing (descriptive norm), and generally approved of (injunctive norm) if it’s so prevalent’, one thinks. The cars are their own normative poster.

But curbside appearance is not the province of rental cars alone.

Solar panels go viral
Bollinger and Gillingham looked at solar panel uptake in California in relation to local marketing, social learning, and imagery. Local marketing was sporadic and had little effect on uptake. Social learning helped in the sense that builders were ’passed on’ from neighbour to neighbour, but the last effect – imagery – was fascinating: they found solar panels serve as large ‘image motivators’ advertising approval of the behaviour. This effect appeared to be so strong that the diffusion of solar panels through a community wasn’t dependent on homeowners’ desire to be green: The geographic clustering appears to occur at both a zip code and neighborhood level, and does not simply match the density or the “greenness” of the zip code.’ [iv]. In a hyper-local sense, getting solar panels appeared to be what people did (descriptive norm), and something they approved of (injunctive norm).

This effect is rarely evoked by home efficiency improvements; many are invisible, such as cavity wall insulation, loft insulation, and boiler upgrades. Stephanie Simon in the Wall Street Journal concurs ‘The problem, from a conservationist’s perspective, is that much of the environmentally friendly behavior we engage in doesn’t help set social norms because it’s invisible to others.’[v]

Invisible behaviours
What are the implications for behaviours that are commonly performed but invisible to the wider community? Where prevalent behaviour is invisble but desired, simply highlighting it can ‘influence intentions directly’[vii] by challenging our understanding of common behaviour.

For example, the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team has been trialing the effect of exposing hidden behaviour in relation to tax compliance. One intervention informed (truthfully) those people who hadn’t yet submitted a tax return that most people in their local area had already paid. This saw returns up by 15% (totaling an extrapolated £160 million to the Exchequer over the six-week trial period).

The downside? You have to make sure you keep exposing the behaviour. With TV ads about recycling this can become frighteningly expensive, frightening quickly, as they eat expensive air-time for fun. The real-world examples can be much more cost efficient as they are ‘on display’ for free: the Zipcar rentals are locally parked and locally driven; the neighbours’ solar panels are there every time you come home.

So what does this mean? When it comes to getting sustainable behaviours to take off, what governments or businesses show/do can be more important than what they say.  And taking a hyper-local approach, with a high density of visible stuff happening in one area, can improve your chance of success.

[i] Robert B. Cialdini, ‘Crafting normative messages to protect the environment’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(4), 2003, 105–9.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Stephanie Clifford, (1 Mar, 2008), How Fast Can This Thing Go, Anyway?, Inc. Magazine, Online,

[iv] B. Bollinger and K. Gillingham, ‘Environmental preferences and peer effects in the diffusion of solar photovoltaic panels’, Yale, December 2011, p.30

[v] S. Simon (18 October 2010), ‘The secret to turning consumers green. It isn’t financial incentives. It isn’t more information. It’s guilt’, Wall Street Journal, online,

[vi] UNDERSTANDING AND MOTIVATING ENERGY CONSERVATION VIA SOCIAL NORMS Project Report: 2004 FINAL REPORT Robert Cialdini, Ph.D. Wesley Schultz, Ph.D. Arizona State University California State University, San Marcos, p.6

[vii] Cialdini, ‘Crafting normative messages to protect the environment’

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.