“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.”