When social norms interventions produce boomerang effects

Social norms interventions are often used to promote prosocial and pro-environmental behaviour. According to this study, however, such interventions can also produce a boomerang effect.

2019.02.12 | Merete Elmann

A large body of research supports the idea of using social norms communication to promote pro-environmental and pro-social behaviour. Simply put, information about other people’s behaviour is used in attempts to change people’s attitude and behaviour. The present study, co-authored by the MAPP Centre, examined the effectiveness of such social norms interventions in everyday consumption choices – in the supermarket. Here, the researchers examined sales of seafood products before, during, and after an informational campaign that was designed to increase purchases of sustainable seafood in two countries, Germany and Norway.

Interestingly, the expected increase in sustainable seafood purchase could not be attributed to the promotional intervention. That is, in Norway, there was no increase of sustainability-labelled seafood sales when descriptive information about other people’s behaviour was added to the promotional signs. Further, in the German informational campaigns, contrary to the scientists’ expectations, results showed that the social norm messages led to a significant fall in the ratio of sustainability-labelled seafood sold - a so called boomerang effect.

Thus, in contrast to prevalent research supporting the power of social norms, this study found a negative (boomerang) effect for the social norms interventions. The possibility that the consumers did not notice the interventions could be ruled out.

In the light of social norms interventions, these new findings suggest that social norms interventions - recently often perceived as “the Holy Grail” for behaviour change - are not as universally applicable as suggested in the literature. According to this study, they even can produce boomerang effects - the opposite of what one would expect.

Isabel Richter
Twitter: @ocean_isabel

John Thøgersen

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