Leveraging Social Norms For Animal Advocacy
When we think of things like “peer pressure,” the thought is often a negative one: we might think of a school lesson about resisting peer pressure if a friend offers us drugs or alcohol, or suggests we engage in some other risky behavior. No doubt, peer pressure can be a dangerous thing when it comes to younger people and the various boundary-pushing that younger folks are often wont to do. Indeed, peer pressure generally manifests itself in a context where the source and the target may be doing something unhealthy, or even illegal.
There is a flip-side to the idea of peer pressure, however, and it’s one that is starting to gain some ground among animal advocates and those who are pushing for broad dietary change. It’s called “social norms messaging” and, rather than working to push people towards taboo behavior, it seeks to increase positive behavior through normalizing language and other positioning.
Before pushing further into the concept of social norms messaging, let’s look at the definition of a social norm. In short, social norms are common customs or informal rules that guide behavior in society. Descriptive social norms describe behavior in a given situation — either how the majority of people behave or how a notable minority behaves.
Norms can be described in static or dynamic terms. Static social norm information communicates the current popularity of certain behaviors, whereas dynamic (or trending) social norm information communicates how the behavior of other people is changing over time. We see both types of messaging all the time in the media, and they often sound something like this:
A new study shows that millions of Canadians are reducing their meat consumption, a pattern which is expected to increase…
The part about millions of Canadians is static norm information, while the part about an expected increase conveys dynamic information.
Social norms messaging can also work in practical, everyday use settings, with the use of menu defaults. If you go to a sandwich shop and all of the standard sandwiches are veg, with the option to pay more for the addition of meat, that menu is establishing the veg option as a type of social norm — the meat options are still on offer, they just aren’t set as the default, and you have to “pay extra” to get them.
If both examples seem subtle, that’s because they are. Social norms messages are not subliminal, but they work by making subtle reinforcements to a particular positioning of a topic, and they do so in plain sight.
Why Do Social Norms Work?
Social norms messages work because, as much as some people really like to stand out from the crowd, being part of the crowd is still a powerful thing. There will always be contrarians, but generally speaking, if the crowd is moving in a particular direction, most people will move in that direction as well because they don’t want to get left behind. Dynamic social norms in particular have the power to contagiously inspire change because of their effectiveness, and because they work better for those notable minority behaviors, which is most of what we deal with in animal advocacy. Dynamic norms work on several leverage points:
- The fact that many people are changing can communicate that change is possible for oneself. Change is hard, and breaking old habits is one of the most difficult things we can do. When we see or hear of people making changes in their lives, especially en masse, we start to feel less alone in our efforts and like we’re part of a social shift.
- When others change, we conclude the issue is important, and important enough to change for. Similar to the above, maybe some part of us feels like we care a lot about animals, but we’re worried about how our opinion might affect us socially. When we see that lots of other people see the issues we care about as important enough to act on, we get energized and might feel like we’re tapping into a collective energy to make the world a better place.
- Others’ changes show us it’s normal for people who have never done something before to start. Sometimes the hardest thing for us to do is just take the first step towards something new. Life is full of inertia, and so pushing ourselves to do something we’ve never done is not just difficult — it can be scary and anxiety-provoking.
- We expect trends to continue and become norms in the future, so we conform to those expected norms. Social norm messaging can scratch the itch in our brains that wants us to be ahead of the curve. This point works on a kind of “early adopter” mentality where people are interested in “getting in on the ground floor” so that they can be already on-board when the time comes.
We can see above that dynamic social norms work on a mix of inspiration, aspiration, and conformity that make the messages so powerful, even when they are subtle. They communicate not just what is possible, but what is valued, and what might not be normal now, but may be normal in the future.
How To Use Social Norms Messages Effectively
Dynamic social norms can be used to encourage behavior change — even if the desired behavior is not currently typical. Here are some tips for using dynamic norms to maximum effect:
Dynamic norms are more effective when people identify with the group mentioned and when you can avoid it being seen as being about an ‘outgroup.’ In other words, you want to make people feel included in the change being made, and see the potential for themselves to be part of it. For example:
AVOID: “We’ve noticed that some people are starting to eat less meat.”
USE: “We’ve noticed that our non-vegetarian customers are starting to eat less meat.”
In the first example, someone reading it may assume the message is about vegetarians, and since they are not vegetarian, the message doesn’t apply to them. In the second example, non-veg customers are called out more specifically — this means that meat-eaters can see themselves in the message, and are told that many others like them are reducing their meat consumption, which can inspire them to do the same.
Using norms can sometimes backfire. Keep in mind that social norms messaging works on subtle nudges, not on outright telling someone what they should do. Highlighting the freedom of consumer choice can be helpful in reducing this problem. For example:
“Have you heard? Our customers are choosing less meat and more plant-based dishes.”
DO NOT ADD: “And you should too!”
ADD: “We make great plant-based dishes to support our community’s choices.”
Make the message visible. There is lots of research out there on advertising, placement, and visibility. On a basic level, if you’re placing your social norms messaging on a menu, use the top left-hand corner ,and a different background colour so it stands out more.
An Easy-To-Share Factsheet
At Faunalytics, we’re always striving to make our work as accessible and readily useable as possible. If what you’ve read above is compelling, we’ve compiled a condensed version of this into an easy-to-share factsheet below. Clicking on the share button at the bottom of the graphic will allow you to easily spread the word on social media. If you’d like to download a static image of the graphic, you can click here and save it to your mobile phone or desktop computer.
Special thanks to Faunalytics’ Summer Research Practicum Student Joy McLeod, who drafted the factsheet and conducted the background research for the factsheet and blog post.