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Changing behaviors may be easier when people see norms changing, Stanford research finds

Stanford researchers found that people are twice as likely to order a meatless meal when the cafeteria sign notes that people are changing their habits and eating less meat. (Image credit: kzenon / Getty Images)

Oct 6 2017

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In the News, Students

In a study, people ate less meat and conserved more water when they thought those behaviors reflected how society is changing. The findings could point to new ways of encouraging other behavior changes.

Whether it be for the environment, one’s health or other important causes, convincing people to adopt new or uncommon behaviors can be difficult. One reason is that societal norms powerfully reinforce the status quo.

Stanford researchers suggest a subtle shift in messaging can help. In new research that appeared Sept. 29 in Psychological Science, they find that focusing on how norms are changing can help people alter their behaviors.

“One question we’re interested in from a psychological standpoint,” said Gregg Sparkman, a doctoral student in psychology at Stanford and the paper’s lead author, “is how social change happens. What leads people to overturn a status quo?”

He points out that although change usually happens slowly, it does happen, and perhaps more frequently than we notice. For example, seat belt use was once a nuisance, but now it’s standard practice. Smoking in restaurants and other public places was once commonplace, but has declined.