Using “Dynamic Norms” On Menus To Make Change
Whether we like it or not, most or us are creatures that tend to want to fit in with the crowd. Whether it’s at school, work, in sports or recreational activities, cultural activities and everywhere in between, we find comfort in knowing that we’re on the same page with other people. Of course, this applies to our food choices as well. The notion of “veg stigma” is something that researchers are beginning to explore in earnest, because we’ve long known intuitively that eating is a social activity, and that food choices often overlap with what we think will help us fit in with people in our social group.
This study set out to understand dynamic norms as they relate to vegetarian meal choices at restaurants. “Dynamic norms,” in this instance, refers to messages regarding something becoming more widely adopted. They stand in contrast to “static norms,” which are merely a statement about something being popular. For example: “40% of households are signed up for our energy savings program” is a static norm, while “the number of households enrolled in our energy program grew by 10% last year” is a dynamic norm.
Research shows that messages containing dynamic norms may lead more people to adopt a behavior compared to those containing static norms, and the researchers wanted to test this theory regarding vegetarian meal choices at restaurants. The norm would be delivered via a short note on a restaurant menu. This would be an inexpensive and easy way to increase sales of vegetarian meals if the dynamic norm messaging is effective. This would be a win not only for animal advocates, as fewer animals would be killed for food, but also for restauranteurs, as vegetarian meals generally have much higher profit margins.
Several different venues were tested: a university café catering primarily to students, staff, and faculty that serves classic American fare (burgers, fries, sandwiches), an online service that delivers healthy meals, primarily to businesses, and a high-end Italian restaurant. None of the restaurants changed their menus for this study; only existing vegetarian options were used, but vegetarian options were clearly marked on menus. The researchers would add a dynamic norm message about the increasing popularity of meatless meals to the menu on random days and record the subsequent changes in vegetarian meal selection. They ran multiple analyses to attempt to avoid a “spillover effect,” where participants who ate at a restaurant on a dynamic norm day would visit the restaurant again on a control day and possibly affect the data.
In the university café, the dynamic norm message appeared to result in an increase of 1.4% in vegetarian orders among diners who ordered at least once before from the restaurant but had no effect on those who were visiting for the first time. The online lunch ordering service abruptly ceased business partway through the study, and therefore the data gathered did not meet statistical requirements. The Italian restaurant saw an increase of 2.2% in vegetarian orders during dynamic norm days during lunch, but a 3.7% decrease in vegetarian orders on dynamic norm days during dinner. The researchers hypothesize that dinner orders were more likely to be placed by those in large groups and those of higher socioeconomic status, who in past research have shown pushback against dynamic norm messaging.
The researchers then conducted several online tests to determine whether dynamic norm messages like the ones used in the field tests were reaching the audience effectively – were they being seen, and if so, were people feeling coerced? The researchers found that a note placed at the top right corner of a menu was only noticed by 35% of respondents, with less than 30% reading the note in full. Furthermore, most believed the note to be aimed at vegetarians, not meat-eaters. When testing for coercion, most respondents did not feel pressured or annoyed by the notes, but there was a minority of around 8% that did feel strongly coerced. Again, respondents believed these notes to be aimed at vegetarians, not meat-eaters. Making the note pop somehow, such as with color, increased the percentage of respondents that noticed and read the note. Changing the wording of the note to specifically target non-vegetarians improved recall of the contents among respondents, as well.
While these changes might not seem substantial, it’s important to remember that they can be made very easily and for very little cost. Widespread adoption of these notes could have a significant effect, even if each individual note did not result in massive changes in preference. Further research could examine messaging styles to improve visibility and comprehension, which could then be used in field tests at more restaurants. Animal advocates should consider lobbying restaurants to include these dynamic norm messages on their menus.
Be sure to check out our Faunalytics Factsheet on Using Dynamic Norms Effectively, which cites this study.