Social norms inform people about what others do and approve of. Two conditions must be met for social norms to influence behavior. First of all, there has to be a social expectations by people around a norm. And secondly, people actually have to care what others think of these norms. Loud and long phone calls violate the social norms in trains, and so do loudly playing music in parks, colleagues occupying a workplace while being in meetings the whole day, and late mergers that merge especially late when traffic on a highway has to merge from 3 to 2 lanes. So what can you do to change anti-social behavior in public places?

Golden Behaviors

– Nudges for a Healthy Lifestyle –

Reading time: 10 minutes

I was traveling by train from Haarlem to Dordrecht. It takes a little over an hour. It is the perfect opportunity to do some reading or get some work done, since there are no distractions. I like the silence and the slightly rocking motion of the moving train. I enjoyed the ride until a guy in his twenties a few chairs away from me started a phone call to explain in utter detail why he broke up with his girlfriend. Or his boyfriend, that was not entirely clear to me. But all the other details were.

I felt that this was quite inappropriate to share such personal details in a public space. Even more so, because I only have limited choice to move elsewhere. Also, it was quite loud. I was sitting just a few chairs away and could clearly understand every word he said. I felt the urge to join the conversation. That would obviously be inappropriate, but so was his phone call. For me it violated the social norms in trains: you can use your phone, but your phone use should not disturb others.

Many people make phone calls during their ride, but most of them try to keep it short and shallow, not to bother others. They try to adjust their volume, but on the other hand, they don’t feel they have to be completely silent. Two people travelling together might be having louder conversations than they are having on the phone. However, most people agree that loud or very intimate conversations on the phone violate the social norms in trains.

Social norms explained

Social norms are implicit, specific rules, shared by a group of individuals, that guide their interactions with others. These social norms often include not invading someone’s personal space. Loud phone calls with personal details can be seen as verbal invasions of our personal space. There are also situations that violate our personal space in a physical way. Here are three social norms that are aimed to reduce physical invasions of our personal space:

Avoid sitting next to someone on trains. If there is a vacant row, you do not sit next to someone, but sit in the empty row. In Dutch trains there are often pairs of seats facing each other. In that case you do not sit next to someone, but also not directly opposite to someone. You take a seat diagonal to the other person in order to avoid invading their personal space. Respecting personal space of others is also the reason, that people remain standing even if chairs are unoccupied.

Standing facing the doors in elevators. Elevators are small, confined spaces, where you easily violate others’ personal space, especially when many people are onboard. It would be awkward standing face-to-face one meter apart with someone you don’t know. It would also be awkward with someone you do know. For both of you. When there are fewer people in the elevator, this social norm is more relaxed and people will also show more relaxed postures.

Don’t eat from another person’s plate in restaurants. If you have finished your own plate and join eating from someone else’s plate without asking, that would violate that person’s personal space. The least you should do is ask permission before you take a bite.

Social Expectations

Professor of Philosophy and Psychology Cristina Bicchieri argues that such social norms are dependent on social expectations. Expectations about what is appropriate in such situations leads us to behave in ways we may not consider without these expectations. There can be two types of social expectations. First, there are empirical expectations. If you expect these behaviors are done by others, then this is a descriptive norm. Second, there are normative expectations. If you expect these behaviors are done by others and are also approved of by others, then this is a normative (or injunctive) norm.

People are usually more likely to follow descriptive norms than normative norms as you can see in the picture below, that I took at Schiphol Airport not too long ago. People are smoking just outside Schiphol Airport, because everyone else is doing it there (descriptive norm). They are smoking right next to the sign “Smoke-free area” (normative norm), even with law enforcers standing right next to them.

Smoking is prohibited at Schiphol Airport, but you could have fooled me!

Conditionality of preferences

If you do not believe a behavior is done by others, but just believe a behavior meets your needs, this is your own custom. If people themselves do not care about these social norms, people will be unlikely to be persuaded by the social norm. People who have long telephone conversations in the train may feel this way: it meets their needs to be able to discuss at length the reasons why they broke up. That is not conditional upon the opinions of their fellow passengers on that same train. The passenger on the phone just feel that this is a perfectly fine conversation to have on a train with everybody listening in.

If you believe this is the right thing to do, but you do not think a behavior is done by others, then it is your own moral rule. If people think others do not care about these social norms, people will be unlikely to be persuaded by communicating that social norm. People who have long telephone conversations in the train may feel this way: other people are doing the exact same thing, so why should they be an exception? So they are observing many passengers that do not seem to follow these moral rules. They feel that this entitles them to have a conversation on a train with everybody listening in.

Only if people care what others think of them

In order to communicate a social norm that effectively influences behavior, people should not only believe this behavior is done by others (social expectations), but they should also care what others think of them (conditionality of preferences). Otherwise, communicating the social norm will not be effective.

This is what I saw at a local trailer park in Haarlem: people frequently place waste next to the container as they have done in the picture below. In an effort to minimize that behavior, the municipality communicates the social norm for placing waste next to the container. They attached a sticker to the container that says: “Most people put their waste in the container. You will do the same, right?” Will they care about expectations of others?

Communicating the social norm is not likely to change behavior here

Apart from placing waste next to the container (not the social norm), people also frequently make fire in an oil drum (also not the social norm). Even if they believe that others are putting their waste in the container (social expectations), it is unlikely that the care about what others think of them: their behavior is not conditional upon the approval of others (conditionality of preferences). So, the two requirements for effective norm nudging are not met. That means, that communicating the social norm about putting waste in the container is not likely to change their behavior.

Using effective norm nudging to change anti-social behavior

There are many examples where researchers have influenced behavior using norm nudging. Psychologist Robert Cialdini was one of the first to use social norms to reduce littering. In several experiments he showed that a descriptive norm reduced littering. Some of the subjects in their study saw someone dropping a flyer on the floor of a parking garage. Others did not see such littering behavior. When the subjects arrived at their car, there was an identical flyer behind their windshield whippers. The researchers measured to what extent the subjects dropped their flyer on the floor. When they say someone else littering, the subjects littered 54% of the time, compared to 32% when they did not see someone else littering. This showed that seeing others perform a certain behavior influences our own behaviors as well.

More recently, Managing Director Michael Hallsworth and his colleagues of the Behavioural Insights Team alerted tax payers in the United Kingdom that the majority of taxpayers pay on time. They send a letter to people who where late paying their taxes. In this letter they indicated that most people pay their taxes on time (descriptive norm). Paying taxes on time improved with 4% and more than £9 million in taxes was collected as a result of these messages.

Professor Hunt Allcott of Stanford University and his colleagues provided households with electricity consumption that was compared with their neighbors. The Energy company OPOWER mailed Home Energy Report letters (HERs) that compared a household’s energy use to that of similar neighbors (descriptive norm). The letter also provided energy conservation tips. In the course of two years, they mailed around 600.000 households, which reduced energy consumption with around 2%.

American cognitive psychologist Goldstein and his colleagues told hotel guests that most other guests reuse their towels. They placed different signs in hotel rooms. In some rooms the sign merely said: ‘By reusing the towels you help in saving the environment.’ In other room they added a social norm: ‘75% of our guests in this hotel participated in our environment project.’ Reuse of towels in the latter rooms increased from 37% to 44% by communicating this social norm.

Improving wellbeing in the public space

The common finding in these studies is the communicating the descriptive norm can be effective in changing anti-social behavior in the public space. So, if we want to consolidate the social norm of not making long phone calls on public transportation, than we could make the descriptive norm more salient. The Dutch Railways (Nederlandse Spoorwegen) once made a social norm more salient by changing the silent compartment into a reading compartment. In the silent compartment you are supposed to be silent. By laying down a carpet and attaching reading lamps and bookshelves, the compartment looks just like a library (all was done using stickers). And what do you normally do in a library? Right: be silent. The Dutch Railways could use similar interventions to discourage people to have loud and intimate conversations on the phone.

Secrets Revealed: How Social Norms Shape Your Behavior in Public Klik om te Tweeten

Niels Vink (1975) is author of Golden Behaviors and behavioral designer. He uses insights from the behavioral sciences to explain why people often act against their own interests. As a behavioral expert, he explores how you can nudge your behavior for a healthy lifestyle. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior.

When you have been inspired to start and maintain your Golden Behaviors, reach out to me.

Source of top image: Brisbane Times


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