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Social norms as solutions: Policies may influence large-scale behavioural tipping

This article in Science explores the importance of social norms as a factor in sustainable behavioural change. It notes that formal institutions can drive behaviours that positively influence, for example, environmental and public health outcomes (examples given include lead pollution and acid rain). However, in many instances, it is not possible to enforce collectively desirable outcomes. Social norms, so the authors argue, are a key entry point to meaningful change in relation to many global issues.

In particular, the article discusses the role that tipping points can play in large scale behavioural change. Further, they argue that social norms do not arise in a vacuum, but instead can be meaningfully affected by policy.



Climate change, biodiversity loss, antibiotic resistance, and other global challenges pose major collective action problems: A group benefits from a certain action, but no individual has sufficient incentive to act alone. Formal institutions, e.g., laws and treaties, have helped address issues like ozone depletion, lead pollution, and acid rain. However, formal institutions are not always able to enforce collectively desirable outcomes. In such cases, informal institutions, such as social norms, can be important. If conditions are right, policy can support social norm changes, helping address even global problems. To judge when this is realistic, and what role policy can play, we discuss three crucial questions: Is a tipping point likely to exist, such that vicious cycles of socially damaging behavior can potentially be turned into virtuous ones? Can policy create tipping points where none exist? Can policy push the system past the tipping point?



Nyborg, K., Anderies, J.M., Dannenberg, A., Lindahl, T., Schill, C., Schlüter, M., Adger, W.N., Arrow, K.J., Barrett, S., Carpenter, S. and Chapin, F.S., 2016. Social norms as solutions. Science, 354(6308), pp.42-43.

Read full article here (paywall). 

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17 Nov 2016
Photo: Amy West, Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0
Photo: Amy West, Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0