The power of social norms

One of my favourite things is to see solar panels on a house, and then see that the neighbours either side have them too, and the house opposite. You see it with people keeping chickens or driving hybrid cars too – visible changes that make things normal, and therefore easier for others to do.

“There are few influences more powerful than an individual’s social network and the
social norms that people are surrounded by” say Climate Outreach in their report Mainstreaming low-carbon lifestyles. “Where there is no social or cultural norm around a particular low-carbon behaviour, it sends a powerful signal: this type of behaviour is not typical or widespread.”

We can see social norms at work in environmental behaviours such as recycling, which is taken for granted as a responsible thing for households to do. Or to see attitudes on the move, consider meat and dairy in Britain at the moment. The soy or oat alternatives in the office kitchen fridge are evidence of changing social norms.

Conversely, in middle class circles it’s normal to own and drive a car, or to fly off on holiday. With very little behaviour change around transport, it’s hardly a surprise that transport emissions aren’t falling. It’s normal to get a new phone on a regular basis, buy new clothes when you need them, and turn up the heating if you feel cold. All of these behaviours will come into question if Britain is to reach zero carbon.

Unfortunately, there are powers at work against the formation of social norms. Here are three:

Virtue signalling. We all know what it looks like when someone lords their lifestyle choices over others, and it’s not pretty. But cries of ‘virtue signalling’ have become a knee-jerk reaction, particularly on the internet. That suppresses people’s willingness to talk about their choices, or to express their enthusiasm for something.

I had a depressing conversation with someone recently who was buying a car for the first time. They had considered a hybrid, but “didn’t want people to think I was one of those people.” They knew it was a better choice, but the fear of being judged for making a good choice was apparently more powerful than the instinct to make the good choice in the first place.

Ironically of course, shouting ‘virtue signalling’ at other people can be a form of signalling in itself.

Modesty. This is something that was pointed out to me by Jeremy Kidwell, an academic who has studied Christian environmental movements. In a recent paper he suggests that Christian groups can “under-report their accomplishments and the footprint of their work on the basis of a common religious conviction which we have termed a ‘culture of modesty’.”

This is the opposite problem to annoying show-off greens, and it’s not exclusive to Christians either. Some of the people making the most ambitious lifestyle changes prefer not to talk about it, and so nobody knows. They’re setting an example that friends and family might follow if more people knew about it. Jeremy’s challenge was one of the things that encouraged me to write more about myself this year, and I still don’t think I’ve got that balance right yet.

Silence. Most importantly, every culture has subjects that are talked about and those that aren’t. In many places there is a social silence around climate change. It rarely comes up, and when it does people make glib jokes or change the subject. This has very real effects. For example, Climate Outreach point out that “while most people in the UK are in favour of renewable energy technologies, they don’t think other people are.”

Talking more about the climate and our own lifestyle choices helps others to understand how widespread those views are. People can see that they’re not acting alone, and that there is a cumulative effect to all those choices.

In short, speak up. Be sensitive, but don’t be shy.


  1. Yes I suffer from all those afflictions. I’ve got an electric car but don’t like talking about it, just in case people think I am bragging and have got money to spend and have invested in a Tesla. In fact I have got a renault zoe which is as attainable as a small family saloon car. It is extremely hard to talk about climate change with friends and family as it engenders huge feelings of guilt and pressure and I have ended up feeling very upset. Friends have also been extremely negative about my actions – again assuaging their own guilt I think – with comments about China and India – and I have had to bite my lip on many occasions. And comments about lithium batteries and the Congo etc. So I have tended to avoid the subject. I have a colleague who has just organised a small climate change march in her own village and she has had to contend with very caustic comments – from people in her own community who should know better.

    1. Yes, I think displaced guilt can be very oppressive. People know they should be living differently, and it makes them feel better about it to tear somebody else down. But all those little changes are drops in the bucket, and we don’t necessarily see the impact they can have.

  2. I find myself not wanting to alienate otherwise “good” people for their poor environmental choices in particular single use plastics. But, I know it is a combination of personal, corporate and government responsibility to move the needle on these things. As a part time Lyft driver, I would love to see ridesharing companies offer an eco-friendly option of vehicle to consumers who are interested in reducing their carbon footprint.

    1. I like the idea of an eco-friendly option for lift-sharing. I see that with our online grocery deliveries, and am almost always able to pick a time slot when the van is in the area. That would be a good example of normalising low emissions shared transport and making it more visible.

      Knowing when to challenge people is tricky, because there are definitely times when it’s the right thing to do! We don’t want to judge anyone, and that’s why modeling different choices is so important. If I take my own cup to the coffee shop with a friend, they see the action without me ever having to point it out.

  3. Thanks for making a very important point. I’ve always felt a little apologetic about harping on the need to avoid plastic, segregate waste, etc. But I still say it, in an apologetic way. So people at least listen, even if they think, here goes that loony again. Of late I feel there is something, some awareness, if not a willingness to do something, stirring deep underneath in our community. I just hope it doesn’t take too long to surface.

    1. I think I probably get that too – ‘here we go again’. But I always try and be an enthusiast for the solution rather than a nag about the problem, and hopefully that’s less annoying!

  4. There is nothing low carbon about keeping chickens in your garden or anything other form of animal agriculture. The area of land required to grow the feed, to turn into chicken meat or ovulation is vastly more than just growing plant protein in the first place.

    Egg laying female chickens have been bred to ovulate at least 20 times more than naturally. Many of them get ovarian cancer within a couple of years. And the ones that survive are discarded when, like human females, their fertility first declines and then ceases.

    And what is the life expectancy of a male egg laying chicken?

    Hens are in the picture at the top of the blog post. The first para says that (ab)using hens for their periods is an environmentally responsible choice. Placing this promo for animal agriculture in an article that is otherwise about electric cars is particulary deceitful and irresponsible.

  5. I take your point about chickens Laura, and I’ve written before about how chickens are the most abused animal on the planet. I wouldn’t rule out keeping them entirely though, especially if you can take rescued battery hens and give them a good life post-abuse.

    I don’t agree with your characterising this post as deceitful however. The post is about social norms, and I offer chickens as one example of neighbourhood normalisation. It’s not a ‘promo’ for it sneaked into a post about something else. I like chickens. I like their naturally inquisitive nature, which comes across well in the photo I chose for the header. Chickens are social creatures and they like to know what’s going on, so it seemed like a good fit for a post about human social behaviour.

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