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Using social norms to clean up your community
Issue 79: What trying to get people to pick up after their pooches can teach us about changing behavior more generally
We are in the dog days of summer and The Atlantic Monthly has dogs — well, more specifically, dog poop - on its mind. Writes Kelly Conaboy:
A certain substance is enjoying a renaissance in New York City. In a time of scarcity, it is newly abundant. In a period of economic inflation, it is free and distributed so generously that it might even be on your shoe right now. The substance is dog waste—and lots of people are mad about it.
Conaboy poses the question: “What Kind of Villain Doesn’t Clean Up After Their Dog?” Are these negligent canine companions merely absent-minded? Are they overly distracted by their I-Phones? Having spent too long with their furry friends, have they become desensitized to the unpleasant consequences of doggy digestion (much as parents become immune to the bowel movements of their young)? Or are they malignant psychopaths intent on ruining sidewalks and parks for their fellow citizens?
All of these villainous possibilities might apply, up to a point. But a more interesting hypothesis is that most people who fail to stoop to scoop are not really villains at all, but are responding to what they perceive as relevant social norms.
Conaboy spoke with Matthias Gross, who as a sociologist spent a decade observing the behavior of people walking their dogs in various European cities:
“‘I just found that whole phenomenon, from a sociological perspective, so fascinating,’ Gross told me. He found that people were less likely to pick up early in the morning, but some of those same non-scoopers would scoop in the afternoon. In his report, Gross suggests that people might not actually care about keeping the parks clean as much as they do about being perceived as good citizens.”
Conaboy also interviewed Dom about this pressing problem and asked him what is to be done — what strategies might civic leaders and neighborhood groups employ to reduce the scourge of sidewalk scat?
“‘One of the things that motivates people to comply with the norm is a sense of identity,’ he said. Messaging that New Yorkers are people who pick up after their dogs—unlike the people from all of those other loser cities—might do the trick. What does not work, he said, is emphasizing the number of people who are behaving badly, which suggests that behaving badly is the norm.”
Ok, ok. Enough about dog poop, already. With all of the world’s problems, is this really the issue we need to worry about?
Well, perhaps it’s not the most important problem confronting humanity, but it does illuminate something more general about efforts to get people to act more responsibly. In particular, anyone interested in encouraging large-scale behavioral change — whether to reduce littering, increase healthy eating, attenuate bias in organizations or, yes, get dog owners to pick up after their pooches — must be attentive to a critical distinction between descriptive and injunctive norms.
In now classic research, social psychologist Robert Cialdini noted that many campaigns to change unwanted behaviors adopt an intuitive but psychologically-misguided approach by emphasizing the prevalence of the behavior they want to reduce. Take Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, for example. At the time, visitors to the park were stealing more than a ton of petrified wood every month, permanently damaging a treasured natural marvel. Eager to reduce theft, park officials posted what they believed would be a discouraging sign: “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time”.
Although the message was clearly meant to be discouraging, Cialdini and his colleagues worried that it might in fact be the opposite. By indicating that theft was astonishingly common, the sign communicated that the social norm — or, more specifically, the descriptive norm which captures what people do — was to steal. Much more effective, argued Cialdini, would be to highlight an injunctive norm, which reflects not what people actually do but what they believe people should do.
In an experiment conducted at the park, they compared the effect of signs that highlighted the high prevalence of theft with signs that highlighted an anti-theft injunctive norm. These alternative signs read: “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the Park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest,” along with a picture of a crossed-out lone thief stealing a piece of wood. Having placed discretely marked pieces of wood throughout the park, they observed 4.7 times less theft when the injunctive rather than the descriptive norm was highlighted!
Although it is intuitive to focus messaging on the unwanted frequency of the problem you want to solve, doing so can backfire. Being careful to communicate instead that most people agree with the change you want to make promises to be much more effective. Indeed, in many cases, most people are already doing what you would like them to do and that is worth highlighting. As Conaboy writes:
For a city with an estimated 500,000 dogs, compliance in New York is evidently great. No matter how annoyed New Yorkers might be at the sight of stray feces, they must admit that they are not encountering it at a rate of half a million times a day. Maybe instead of a sign scolding those few dog owners who ruin it for everyone else, what would really be helpful is a sign that says: isn’t it wonderful how we’re all picking up poop?
News and Updates
Speaking of the power of norms, Dom was interviewed by Le Monde for an article about the classic studies on conformity conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s. If your French skills are a bit rusty (as Dom’s are), Google translate does a decent job…
Jay was interviewed by Esquire about why people argue about GOATS — athletes they believe are the greatest of all time.
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