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Social norms change quicker when bad behaviour is difficult to ignore

Posted October 12, 2016

Why people still start smoking nowadays? Simply put, they do so, because it is still acceptable – no one is going to address your self-harming behaviour in public, because it is a social norm. But how do these social norms change? A new research from University of Exeter showed that these social norms are more negative towards behaviour, which is difficult to ignore.

Smoking indoors was once completely normal, but nowadays is against the social norms. Image credit: Harris-Ewing collection via Wikimedia, Public Domain

Smoking indoors was once completely normal, but nowadays is against the social norms. Image credit: Harris-Ewing collection via Wikimedia, Public Domain

If everyone around you smoked all the time, starting smoking would be much more likely. But what if you were the only one smoking and everyone would be against that? There are many questions like that about littering, partaking in pollution, harmful traditions and so on. A team of economists, psychologists and ecologists analysed factors that change social norms of such actions as average family size, smoking indoors, foot binding in China, or littering the streets. There are very good examples of switching social norms extremely quickly. For example, people stopped overusing plastic bag almost overnight.

These social norms can be formed to bring a benefit to society. For example, everyone in Amsterdam is using bicycles, which means that a newcomer is also likely to start cycling. When smoking indoors was banned in Norway, Sweden, the UK and elsewhere people really did start coming out to smoke, even though this new law was not enforced in any way. Furthermore, scientists say that even if the ban was lifted, most smokers would still come out to smoke, because social norm has changed.

These ideas are all about vicious and virtuous cycles. We behave like others do, which means other behave like we do and so on. However, these vicious cycles do not remain untouched forever. Professor Karine Nyborg, one of the authors of the paper, said: “Vicious cycles can be stable and hard to break. However, the good thing about them is that they can sometimes be turned into virtuous cycles that can also be very stable”. It is very important, if behaviour, which is not conforming to social norms, is easy to ignore. If it is not, it is more likely to change quicker because of social pressure. Pollution is not easy to see – it is easy to ignore, which means that it is not as likely to be changes soon.

Scientists say that these principles should be taken into account by policy makers. It is not necessarily bans and laws that bring a change. Raising awareness, making the problem really visible is a good way to bring new developments into society too.


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