The Effect Of Social Norms On Meat Consumption
Previous research shows that it can be useful to highlight if a behavior is normative—or practiced by the majority—when trying to promote it. Challenging, however, is discouraging normative behaviors. Likewise, promoting counter-normative behaviors is challenging because they are practiced by a minority of the population.
The authors of this article hypothesized that to encourage individuals to adopt a certain behavior it would be more effective to describe it as a dynamic norm, or one that changes over time, as opposed to a static norm. More specifically, if individuals are shown that a minority (i.e., counter-normative behavior) is gaining in popularity, they are more likely to adopt that behavior in anticipation of it becoming normative in the future.
The authors of this study conducted five experiments, four of which focus on limiting meat consumption. In each, participants were presented with a static and dynamic message about the percentage of Americans who are making an effort to limit their meat consumption. The static message stated that 30% of Americans make an effort to limit their meat consumption, which describes the current state of a behaviour. The dynamic message stated that 30% of Americans had started to limit their meat consumption over the past five years. This statement is dynamic because, though the statistic is the same, the description focuses on a change in behaviour over time. (It’s worth noting that the 30% figure is not from evidence-based data; rather, it was derived from participants’ estimates during a pilot study.)
In the first three studies, which were conducted online, the results showed that participants who read the dynamic statement reported more interest in reducing their own meat consumption than participants who read the static statement. The potential that limiting meat consumption could become a future norm appeared to inspire them to adopt that behavior, too. The authors also found that participants who read dynamic statements were more likely to believe that others were putting more effort into limiting their meat consumption. In other words, the focus on change over time appeared to convey increased effort. In addition, that uptick in perception of effort also increased participants’ estimates of the amount of importance others ascribe to limiting meat consumption. This, in turn, increased their own interest in reducing meat consumption.
In the final study, the authors looked at actual meal orders. They presented similar static or dynamic statements about limiting meat consumption to patrons waiting in line at a café. As hypothesized, participants presented with the dynamic statements were more likely to order a meatless meal than participants presented with the static statement. These findings demonstrate the effectiveness of using dynamic messages to reduce individuals’ meat consumption.
For animal advocates, the study suggests that it’s best to describe counter-normative yet desirable behaviors like veg*ism in terms of a future norm. Talking about how the behavior has increased over time appears to make people believe it will be increasingly common in the future, that others are willing to put effort into it, and that it’s important.