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Sustainability

Aart de Zeeuw in Science

In the most recent edition of Science (Oct. 7, 2016) features an article co-authored by Aart de Zeeuw: ‘Social norms as solutions. Policies may influence large-scale behavioral tipping’, by K. Nyborg et al.

Climate change, loss of biodiversity, antibiotic resistance, and other global challenges pose major collective action problems. However, there are often vicious cycles in a society: mutually reinforcing behaviors and expectations resulting from social (dis)approval that make it hard to break damaging behavioral patterns. What is required are tipping points toward virtuous cycles, self-reinforcing social norms. The good news is that these self-reinforcing expectations and behaviors have a stabilizing effect. However, to give a tipping point a chance of success requires a policy supporting social norm changes.

There are many examples: bicycle lanes or charging points for electric cars help to make the use of different transport systems the norm. That indoor smoking is no longer the norm may be due to the limitation of places where smoking is permitted. Conversely, if it was easier for people to have healthy eating habits, healthy diet variation could become the norm and other people would want to conform.

The concept of tipping points has long been known to ecologists, but it is a new insight in the social sciences to perceive policy as effecting tipping points in social behavior, whereby self-reinforcing expectations of other people’s behaviors and attitudes can provide stability.

See also: Sccience