This sign in Arizona’s Petrified Forest was having little impact:
“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.”
However, after some sign experimentation, they understood why. Researchers tried out 2 kinds of signs.
- Paired with a picture of visitors admiring and photographing a piece of wood, the sign asked people to leave wood in the forest.
- Paired with a picture of a person taking wood, the sign asked people not to remove wood.
Their conclusion? Because the signs conveyed different social norms, the first one was more successful than the second in generating desirable behavior.
Similarly, the same researchers looked into why a group of homeowners had not reduced energy usage when asked either 1) to reduce resource use, 2) help future generations, or 3) save money. However, they did respond more proactively when told, “The majority of your neighbors are regularly undertaking efforts to reduce energy. Please do it too.”
Again, the same conclusion. The key is establishing a social norm. People seem to engage in a requested behavior when they find out that everyone else is doing the same thing.
Where does all of this take us? Flip an issue to the positive side to get the behavior you want. Say that most people pay taxes, a lot of us conserve energy, and many individuals vote to get more people to do the “right” thing. Also, econlife looks at how a health insurance mandate and social norms could be connected.
In “Following the Herd,” Chapter 3 from Nudge and in this Freakonomics podcast, you can hear more about how social norms shape our behavior. And, for a more academic discussion about the Petrified Forest experiment and others, you might enjoy this paper written by a group led by Robert Cialdini.
Finally, are you a follower? When asked, participants in social norm experiments emphatically said no. And yet, the data in the experiments indicated the opposite.