Activist communication traps: Reinforcing the “Descriptive Norm”

No way you humans ought to be the dom­i­nant species on this plan­et,” says Mis­ter Fox, siz­ing us up. “By forest stan­dards, you’re weak, you can’t see much or hear very well, your teeth are bet­ter suit­ed to cook­ies than com­bat, and your claws are a joke — oth­er than that Wolver­ine fel­low. But you’ve got one nice ace up your sleeve” he declar­es, pulling an ace from his sleeve, “You sure know how to tell sto­ries. And it’s through telling sto­ries that you learned the secret that made you the most dan­ger­ous ani­mal on earth: how to coop­er­ate. You learned a form of sto­ry­telling set in the future. The very first plan­ning meet­ing prob­a­bly went some­thing like ‘we’re going to hunt this mam­moth.’ You set the plot. Then you assigned roles and char­ac­ters and then played them out. ‘I’ll run at the mam­moth from behind scream­ing. He’ll run into that val­ley where you jump out from behind a rock with a spear and you and you will roll boul­ders down on him from above.’ Sud­den­ly, you were col­lec­tive­ly more pow­er­ful than a lion.”

Mis­ter Fox is right. But that coop­er­a­tion is hard to main­tain. It takes resources and ener­gy. So evo­lu­tion has made it resilient: we have all kinds of in-built men­tal mech­a­nisms that ensure we behave col­lec­tive­ly. And one of the strongest is the way we adjust our behav­iour to mod­el the behav­iour of those around us. The “descrip­tive norm” is what we per­ceive as “the thing every­one else does” and we’re hard-wired to con­form with it. Doing what every­one else does is easy, nat­u­ral, requires no cog­ni­tive pro­cess­ing what­so­ev­er. Watch any­one walk into a room where every­one is look­ing up at the ceil­ing, you’ll see them look up at the ceil­ing. Walk into a room full of tuxe­dos in your jeans? No mat­ter how com­fort­able those jeans felt on the street five min­utes ago, they feel uncom­fort­able now. You’re out of synch with the rest of the tribe. At a fes­ti­val where every­one is drop­ping their plas­tic cups on the ground? You’re extreme­ly like­ly to take that as per­mis­sion to drop yours.

Mis­ter Fox: “Most of your audi­ence just dis­agreed with you. They’re a bunch of gree­nies. They told them­selves they wouldn’t drop that cup. They don’t lit­ter.”

Ah, and Mis­ter Fox is right. When instead of doing what the crowd does, you seek out a recy­cle bin, you’re fol­low­ing the “Injunc­tive Norm” — the thing you per­ceive as what every­one OUGHT to do. And most of us who are social change mak­ers, pro­gres­sives, envi­ron­men­tal­ists, activists, what have you, do just that. But here’s the thing: it’s HARD. It requires buck­ing the descrip­tive norm, which comes nat­u­ral and requires no thought.

The injunc­tive norm is a rule that your brain eval­u­ates: you shouldn’t eat those cook­ies if you’re try­ing to lose weight; you shouldn’t fly when you can take the train to save car­bon; you should bring your water bot­tle with you when you go out so you don’t buy a sin­gle use plas­tic bot­tle.  And we run those rules through a cog­ni­tive maze that weighs the cost of com­pli­ance again­st the pre­ceived val­ue or ben­e­fit and, whether we know it or not, the essen­tial ques­tion: how dif­fer­ent will this make me from my group? How will this make me a bet­ter or worse match for the group I am in or aspire to be a part of? How will oth­ers per­ceive my suit­abil­i­ty for inclu­sion? What is every­one else in my group doing?

So, for exam­ple, if you’re eval­u­at­ing whether to put on a tie or not, you’re going to eval­u­ate the set­ting you’re head­ing into. Pic­nic? No tie — nobody else will be wear­ing one. Meet­ing at a For­tune 500 com­pa­ny? Tie. Now this may be hard to accept, but we run eth­i­cal injunc­tions through the same test — some­times con­scious­ly, some­times uncon­scious­ly. Some­one who would nev­er, ever drop a piece of lit­ter in a beau­ti­ful park might very hap­pi­ly toss their plas­tic beer cup on the ground at that fes­ti­val lit­tered with beer cups because the organiser’s haven’t pro­vid­ed con­ve­nient recy­cling loca­tions. It might be just as incon­ve­nient to not lit­ter the park, but that key excuse: “every­one else is doing it,” isn’t there in the park, it is in the sta­di­um. You won’t feel like a bad per­son, or look like a bad per­son, by doing what every­one else is doing and toss­ing your beer cup to the floor. You won’t even think of it as lit­ter­ing, you won’t put it through a cog­ni­tive maze. Doing as every­one else does requires no reflec­tion or effort: it’s the eas­i­est rule of social behav­iour and gets rein­forced every min­ute of our lives that we wear clothes like every­one else or imi­tate each oth­ers speech pat­terns or fol­low the rit­u­als of human or cul­tur­al behav­iour from what’s accept­able eye con­tact to how we express our emo­tions.

Now, let’s look at what hap­pens when we hear a piece of activist com­mu­ni­ca­tions like this:

Plas­tics dumped into the world’s oceans may out­weigh fish by the year 2050.

There’s a sim­ple state­ment of fact. For any of us con­cerned about this issue, it’s alarm­ing. It makes us want to do some­thing, to align with those who believe we’re using too much plas­tic as a soci­ety and not recy­cling respon­si­bly and wast­ing the earth’s resources. But it also rein­forces the Descrip­tive Norm: Every­one is throw­ing plas­tic away. Every­one is using lots of plas­tic. And while we may embrace the injunc­tive, there’s a total­ly unfair fight going on in our brains between sev­er­al mil­lion years of evo­lu­tion as a social ani­mal that eas­i­ly, with­out think­ing, wants to con­form to the norm, and that young, inex­pe­ri­enced moral brain, a few thou­sand years old, which sens­es that the group behav­iour needs to change.

At a macro lev­el, activism as usu­al says we need to to present the cur­rent norm as wrong, show how it con­flicts with our val­ues or threat­ens our long term inter­ests, and acti­vate the ratio­nal brain in decid­ing to change behav­iour away from that norm. But the moment we’ve pre­sent­ed the norm, we’ve dis­ad­van­taged our evo­lu­tion­ary pre­dis­po­si­tion to con­form. We’ve cho­sen between two ways of chang­ing behav­iour, and we’ve picked up the slow one.

Let’s say we organ­ise a beach clean up and col­lect all the plas­tic straws from miles of garbage. We build a giant mosaic made of the straws to show just how many straws peo­ple are using, how exces­sive it is, and to punch home the point that we should use less straws. But your work of art sends two sig­nals.  One is weak: “we should use less plas­tic.” It’s weak because it needs to go through the cog­ni­tive maze of group impact eval­u­a­tion, ben­e­fit and loss cal­cu­la­tions, and the weigh­ing of just how much we care about this pro­posed depar­ture from the norm before we embrace a behav­iour change.  But it also sends a strong sig­nal: “every­one uses plas­tic.” And for most of our audi­ences, that’s it, game over. Because when our brains are faced with a con­tra­dic­tion that requires us to make a choice, the eas­i­est option is to ignore the choice. To set aside the injunc­tive norm in favor of the “do like every­one else” norm.

What if, instead of ampli­fy­ing the sto­ry of how bad the oceans plas­tic prob­lem is, we build com­mu­ni­ca­tions around chang­ing people’s per­cep­tion of the norm? What if we change the nar­ra­tive to ampli­fy the rejec­tion of sin­gle use plas­tic? Instead of con­cen­trat­ing on how scary bad the prob­lem is, we ele­vate the coun­ter sto­ry of com­mu­ni­ties that have dras­ti­cal­ly reduced plas­tic use, restau­rants that have stopped pro­vid­ing straws, the world­wide awak­en­ing to the dan­ger of microbeads, the coun­ter­force of peo­ple declin­ing offered plas­tic straws, plas­tic ear­buds, and the thou­sand oth­er exam­ples of peo­ple actu­al­ly tak­ing action to reduce plas­tic pol­lu­tion?

Hack­ing the per­cep­tion of the norm is key to change. It’s only when peo­ple in suf­fi­cient num­bers come to believe change is pos­si­ble that change becomes pos­si­ble. And peo­ple only believe change is pos­si­ble when they per­ceive a crit­i­cal mass of their fel­low cit­i­zens act­ing in ways con­sis­tent with that change. So here we are back at the sto­ries we tell, and how they shape behav­iour.

Con­sid­er this exam­ple of using the descrip­tive norm to shape behav­iour instead of the injunc­tive norm. A com­pa­ny wants to encour­age employ­ees to ride bikes to work. They try telling employ­ees how much health­ier it is, how much it will help reduce the company’s car­bon foot­print, how it will low­er their insur­ance rates. They get a few tak­ers, and put a bike rack in the base­ment. But the num­ber of bik­ers stays steady at those few hard-core edge cas­es. Mis­ter Fox whis­pers in someone’s ear that they should put the bike rack out front, by the main door, so every­one sees the bikes on their way in to work. But the com­pa­ny had big ambi­tions for this pro­gram­me, and the bike rack is huge. Most days, it’s not even half full. Mis­ter Fox points out that doesn’t con­vey the right mes­sage — it says not many peo­ple are bik­ing. So one night he sneaks out and removes half the bike racks. Now when peo­ple walk in they see more bikes than the bike racks can accom­mo­date. Whoa. This bik­ing thing is get­ting big. If every­one else is bik­ing, I should too. The num­ber of bike rid­ers dou­bles.

There’s an impor­tant role for point­ing out prob­lems. But when it comes to try­ing to change people’s behav­iour all of us need to be aware of the need to mod­el solu­tions.

Mis­ter Fox says the Moral of the sto­ry is this: “The real trick of activism isn’t con­vinc­ing peo­ple there’s a prob­lem: it’s chang­ing their behav­iour toward a solu­tion. The eas­i­est way to make a behav­iour main­stream is not to tell peo­ple it should be, it’s to show them that it’s already on its way.”

15 thoughts on “Activist communication traps: Reinforcing the “Descriptive Norm””

  1. RT @FrackFreeYork: Love­ly!
    “The real trick isn’t con­vinc­ing peo­ple there’s a prob­lem: it’s chang­ing their behav­iour toward a solu­tion”

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