How redefining “normal” can change behavior


Eating habits tend to be deeply ingrained – and therefore difficult to change. | iStock / zoranm

Gregg Sparkman was thinking a few years ago about how you could encourage people to eat less meat. While a doctoral student in psychology at Stanford University, Sparkman knew that animal husbandry is a major contributor to global warming, producing about 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the world. As politicians procrastinated on carbon taxes, this was an area where ordinary people could make a real difference in their own lives.

But how could you get people to change their behavior, especially with something as personal and deeply ingrained as eating habits? If you were trying to create a public service advertising campaign, like the ones used to discourage smoking a few years ago, what exactly would you say? How would you form your message?

You can use ethical arguments. But people hate to be lectured, and it could cause a backlash. You might dwell on the dire consequences of inaction, but everyone has heard them before. In addition, scare tactics worked for tobacco use because smokers controlled their fate; with the rise in sea level, people tend to believe that individual sacrifices will not make a drop of a difference.

Corn Sparkman had an idea. He also knew that social perceptions strongly influence individual choices. What would happen, he wondered, if you just let people know that others were already starting to eat less meat. No preaching, no judgment – just awareness of a trend, even an emerging one. He called it “dynamic standard messaging”.

To test his idea, Sparkman enlisted the help of a restaurant on the Stanford campus called Bytes Café. As customers lined up, he made them fill out a survey that forced them to engage with his simple message. The result? More than a third of those who received the Dynamic Standard’s message ordered a vegetarian meal, compared with around 20% of those who did not.

Clearly, the dynamic standard approach had potential. But Sparkman’s method wasn’t exactly scalable. “You can’t have a lot of impact by approaching people in restaurants and grocery stores and having them fill out questionnaires,” he says.

Sparkman, now a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, along with Neil Malhotra, Edith M. Cornell professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, decided to try a more practical approach: just add a note to the menus of the restaurants. With three other Stanford researchers – Thomas N. Robinson from Stanford School of Medicine and Elisabeth weitz and Gregory M. Walton from Stanford University’s Department of Psychology – they conducted nine separate experiments in the field and online, varying their focus and approach to see what worked best. the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment funded the early stages of the research with an Environmental Venture Projects grant.

As they report in a new article, the results were less dramatic, in part because most diners in their experiments never read the note. But the simple message still had a positive bump – almost at no cost, Malhotra says. “It shows that you can apply this idea of ​​dynamic standards on a very large scale, to encourage widespread change.”

The power of standards

“Humans are social animals,” says Malhotra. “We are very sensitive to what we consider to be the standards of our group. We often think of them as the unwritten rules of society, but Sparkman says psychologists use the term “social norms” in a broader sense, as simply our perceptions of what other people think and do.

“We conform to social norms not only because of peer pressure, but because the behavior of others is a key source of information for us,” says Sparkman. “We tend to think that if most people are doing something, it’s probably a good idea. We will give him the benefit of the doubt. This information therefore has normative status.

For example, if other people in a group we identify with make certain choices, like driving around the suburbs in giant gas guzzlers, we learn to see this as normal behavior and are not ashamed to do the same, even if we don’t I don’t feel obligated to do so.

Of course, marketers understand the power of standards. That’s why TV commercials show people of all ages and ethnicities enjoying a product, carefully checking each demographic box. This is why political campaigns organize ready-made opinion polls – not to inform their strategy, but to persuade undecided voters to join the parade. Parents of teenagers call it the “everyone’s doing it” argument.

Static or dynamic standards

But that obviously wouldn’t work for meat consumption, because eating meat is the norm in the West. Only about 3% of Americans identify as vegetarians, and the ritual of the roast is deeply invested with cultural significance and emotion.

“So it was a difficult problem,” says Sparkman. “How do you get people to change their behavior when it is actually counter-normative? ”His idea was to focus not on what social norms are today, but on how they evolve. Then you could exert social influence,“ not to strengthen the status quo but to questioning ”- in a sense, reversing the polarity of the effect.

“So instead of saying that X percent of people don’t eat meat, which is a static view, you are pointing out that more and more people are choosing meatless meals,” he says. The hope is that the public will think, this is how the world moves, and I want to stay in tune with the times – thus conforming in advance.


Humans are social animals. We are very attentive to what we consider to be the standards of our group.


Neil malhotra

Importantly, the message did not to tell about people what to do, says Sparkman. “Basically it was just, ‘We’ve noticed this trend, so we have a variety of meatless options. “” That turned out to be wise; when they then tested a more stringent, prescriptive approach – saying, in effect, “People change, and so should you” – the results were much less positive.

Although researchers have been working on this dynamically-normed messaging idea for several years, it has yet to filter down to real-world influencers, Malhotra says. “Classical marketing work on social influence is well within the static norm. “

But Malhotra sees a lot of potential. “If you don’t want to be misleading, static standards are only useful in certain areas,” namely those where, by definition, most people are already on board. “Dynamic standards apply to a lot of other things, especially where you want to achieve large-scale social change. “

Know your audience

Still, it’s not a panacea, says Sparkman. “On the one hand, it’s important to know who you’re referring to when developing a standard statement. People are more sensitive to the example of others whom they see as similar. So instead of saying “Most people do this,” it might be more effective to say “most Americans” or “most people under 30,” depending on who you’re trying to hit.

But it can be limiting. In one of their field tests, at another popular Stanford cafe, the Axis and the Palm, Sparkman found that conversions were mostly from customers who had a Stanford ID. Others, mostly tourists and visitors, may have assumed that the usual benchmark was cafe patrons, which excluded them. Likewise, in other studies, a third of all test subjects said they thought the post was intended for vegetarians, so they likely ignored it.

There is also a risk of side effects. In one case, researchers had positive results from lunch customers at an upscale restaurant, but when they extended the test to dinner hours, they found that meat consumption had actually increased. . “That was if they were like, ‘Hey, I can choose this. You can’t tell me what to do, ”Sparkman says.

One theory, supported by previous work, is that more expensive dining attracts a richer clientele, and high-income people don’t like to feel like they’re following the masses. Or it may just be a limitation with certain settings, says Malhotra. More than lunch, dining out is a special occasion for socializing and having fun, and people may be in a less receptive state of mind.

On the flip side, one of the researchers’ concerns, whether menu notes could cause bad will towards establishments, was not an issue. “We found that people gave restaurants really positive things because of the rating,” says Sparkman. Customers generally viewed this gesture as proof of a thoughtful company that cared about the health of its customers as well as the environment, and they expected the food to be better too.

Act normal

Through a number of field tests and online experiments, Sparkman and Malhotra have also researched ways to improve the success rate of this type of campaign. One of the biggest issues was how to get more people to simply notice and read the post.

Surprisingly, a banner that spanned the width of a menu didn’t turn out to be better than a small note. In fact, what has worked best is designing it to look like a post-it and moving it to the top left corner, so that it looks less like a normal part of the menu. “It suggests that someone made a special effort to tell you something, and you are Assumed to read it, ”says Sparkman.

Yet without a way to force engagement, as in Sparkman’s first study using questionnaires, there may be limitations inherent in this approach. That doesn’t worry Malhotra, however.

“What is a good intervention? he asks. “People tend to look at how big an effect it is. But this figure is really only a numerator; you have to consider it against the cost. If it’s really, really cheap and easy to do, then why not do it? “

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