This weekend I went shopping and shaved my legs.
To those of you who don’t know me, you might be thinking to yourself, “That’s not interesting. That sounds like a normal weekend to me.”
But to those of you who do know me, you know that is abnormal behavior for me. Not only do I abhor shopping, but I have not shaved my legs in four years.
Why am I blogging about this? Because I am fascinated by what motivated me to commit these abnormal behaviors: social norms.
In other words, my abnormal behavior is actually normal for most people, and therefore I felt compelled to change in order to fit in.
An affluent city, Munich is crawling with trendy people. Thus, since arriving, I have felt like a frumpy American with my slowly out-dating wardrobe, which has motivated me to acquire the trendy European look.
As for the shaving, sure, both German and American women shave their legs. So the normative pressure to do so is no different here than when I was in the US. But what probably motivated me to “become normal” in Germany is tied to my self-consciousness as “foreign” and my desire to draw as little attention to myself as possible.
So, what does shaving my legs have to do with saving the planet?
My prosaic anecdote was intended to set the stage for what I really want to talk about: social norms and environmental behavior. If we apply social norms to motivating people to adopt planet-friendly habits, they can work pretty much the same way.
In fact, there is a growing body of research to back this up. Perhaps the most well-known scholar to unearth the power of norms in environmental behavior change is psychologist Robert Cialdini. For example, he and his colleagues found social norms to be the strongest push for Californians to use less energy in their homes and for hotel patrons to opt to reuse their towels to save water and energy.
Social norms are not just an American thing. German researchers found that, in a variety of contexts, Germans were most influenced by the people around them in their environmental behavior choices, and a Michigan State researcher suggested peer pressure motivated Chinese farmers to convert cropland back to forests.
If we all were to do a little self reflecting, we might recognize how our own behavior–environmentally related or not–has been influenced by our family, friends, colleagues, neighbors and community members. If social norms continue to prove to be a potent factor in encouraging environmental behavior, the possibilities for creating a mainstream transformation in how humans treat the planet are abundant (I think so, at least).
That said, I do recognize the irony that both shopping and shaving aren’t considered “environmentally friendly” activities…
“Social Norms: An Underestimate and Underemployed Lever for Managing Climate Change”
“Social norm strategies do work — but there are risks involved”