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How social norms are often a barrier to addressing climate change but can be part of the solution

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 August 2020

Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA
*Correspondence to: Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment, 86 Olden St, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ08540, USA. E-mail:


We argue that the behavioral challenges posed by climate change are fundamentally problems of social influence. Behaviors that perpetuate climate change are often opaque in their consequences; thus, we look to others to infer how to act. Yet unsustainable behaviors, like driving and eating meat, are often the norm; conformity to such norms is a major hurdle to a more sustainable world. Nonetheless, we argue that social norms can also be a powerful lever for positive change. Drawing on two streams of recent research, we show that well-implemented social norm strategies can motivate positive steps even in the face of a negative current norm and even in individuals’ private behavior absent the judgment of others. First, appeals to dynamic norms – information about change in others or trends in norms over time – can lead people to conform to the change itself, even if this change violates current norms. Second, framing normative appeals in terms of an invitation to work with others toward a common goal can increase the motivation to join in. Despite ubiquitous unsustainable norms, careful theory-based representations of social norms can help us make progress on climate change.

Copyright © The Author(s) 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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How social norms are often a barrier to addressing climate change but can be part of the solution
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How social norms are often a barrier to addressing climate change but can be part of the solution
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