How is pro-environmental behavior influenced by social norms?

When I stayed at the Galapagos Islands a few years ago, one striking observation was the state of the backyards owned by the farmers living in the highlands of the Island San Cristobal. The ground behind the farmhouse was full of garbage – plastic packaging, children’s old toys, unused tools…

I was wondering why in an environment which is famous for its unique eco-system and full of signs prohibiting to throw trash away, people behaved in this way. To my inquiry they seemed surprised and responded: this is just what everybody does. So could this behavior be explained by the shared understanding that this conduct was acceptable? Did different social norms cause my confusion?

Pro-environmental behavior ranges from active participation in organizations or demonstrations to the support of public policies (ex. driving ban) and the change in consumption goods. Various types of interventions, like moral approaches to change worldviews, economic approaches like setting an incentive structure or community management that creates shared values may have an impact on environmental behavior. Some argue that only people who are enjoying the comforts and affluences of the developing countries value the protection of the environment as a way of self-expression (Inglehart 1990).

However some governments in developing countries are concerned with environmental issues. In Ruanda plastic bags are forbidden since 2008. Once in a month shops are closed so that everybody can help to pick up garbage and children are taught in school how plastic destroys the environment. These rules, well-enforced by the government, lead to clean cities and clean backyards in rural areas (Krauß 2018).

A clear link between environmental knowledge and pro-environmental behavior does not exist (Kollmuss and Agyeman 2010). There seems to be a gap between good intentions and actual behavior which might be explained by social norms.

Due to a lot of research social norms have a clear effect on human actions (Aarts and Dijksterhuis 2003, Terry and Hogg, 2001). People seem to see the conduct of others as a reference point for their own behavior and often overestimate the extent of their undesirable behavior (Schultz et al. 2007).

These findings gave rise to marketing campaigns focussing on social norms. Instead of only explaining why a certain conduct is not desireable, additional information about how the peer group behaves is provided. For example a field study in a hotel showed, that hotel guests reused their towels more likely when it was mentioned that the other guests generally did so compared to guests that we’re just informed about the importance of environmental protection (Goldstein, Cialdini and Grsikevicius 2008).

In another study households received feedback about their energy consumption plus information about the average consumption in the neighborhood. As a result households that consumed above the average decreased their energy consumption in the short and long term (Schultz et al. 2007).

Stern (2000) states that social norms may have an effect but emphasizes the role of personal attitudes and beliefs, for example the awarness that other people suffer under certain conditions and that a change in the own behavior can help removing these conditions.

As seen in the Ruanda case, not social norms but legal rules that are well-enforced had a huge impact on behavior. These rules can change social norms in the long run which was the case with smoke free areas and mandatory seat belt wearing.

For identifying a target behavior with the best environmental impact and interventions necessary to reach this behavior, more factors as contextual ones should be taken into account. Due to the different forms of pro-environmental behavior and the variety of influencing factors it may not make sense to conceptualize a general theory but look at a specific behavior individually.


Aarts, H. And Dijksterhuis A. (2003), The silence of the library: environment, situational norm, and social behavior.

Goldstein, N.J., Cialdini, R.B., Griskevivius, V. (2008) A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research 35, pp 472-482.

Inglehart, R. (1990). Culture shift in advanced industrial society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kollmuss, A. and Agyeman J. (2010). Mind the gap: Why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behavior? Environmental Education Research 8. DOI: 10.1080/13504620220145401.

Krauß, S. (2018). Land ohne Plastik. Die Zeit online:

Schultz, P.W., Nolan, J.M., Cialdini, R.B., Goldstein, N.J., Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms: Research artivle. Psychological Science, 18, 429-434.

Stern, P.C. (2000). Toward a coherent theory of environmentally significant behavior. Journal of Social Issues Vol. 56, pp 407-424.

Terry, D.J. and Hogg, M.A. (2001). Attitudes, behavior, and social context: The role of norms and group membership in social influence processes. In J.P. Forgas & K.D. Williams (Eds.), Social influence: Direct and indirect processes (pp. 253–270). Philadel- phia: Psychology Press






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