What messaging do you think works better: “Help save the environment,” or “Join your fellow citizens in helping to save the environment?” If your answer was the second choice, then you’re in agreement with research that shows specific messages — the right specific messages — are much more likely than abstract messages to shape behavior. At SGA, crafting the right messaging is what we do. Whether it’s recycling or water conservation, we have a good understanding of the psychological drivers of pro-environmental behavior.
In celebration of World Parks Week, we want to share our approach on how to establish positive environmental behavior changes as social norms in protecting one of our most cherished national treasures: parks. While we encourage more people to visit parks or appreciate nature more, we want them to do so in an environmentally-friendly manner. How can this be achieved? By making environmentally-conscious behavior a social norm. From our years of experience, we have learned how to harness the power of social norms and social motives to encourage behavior change. When people are figuring out what to do in a new situation, they take their cues from what seems to be other people’s normal behavior — the social norm. Thus, messages that say, “Everybody’s doing it!” to promote conservation-minded actions tend to be most effective.
Norms can be injunctive (i.e. most people approve of taking steps to protect parks) or descriptive (i.e. most people take steps to save parks). Our experience has shown that creating a social norm works best when injunctive norms are aligned with descriptive norms (most people both approve of this behavior and actually do this behavior). To apply this principle to protecting our parks, instead of saying “Stay on trail,” we would make it a social norm and say, “Join the many who have stayed on the trail to help protect the park and natural vegetation.” Even a slight variation in wording can shape behavior powerfully. That’s why crafting the right messaging is important.
So the next time you want to want to encourage behavior change, think about adopting the power of social norms into your messaging. Given the urgency of conserving natural resources, this approach can help all interested parties, public and private, to more effectively promote pro-environmental behaviors.