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Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Christakis’

These past two weeks spent traveling in France and Italy convinced me even more about the role of culture and society in shaping individual behaviors. Most interesting was to observe how both I and Prad adapted our behaviors to fit the different customs in each country. Prad, who usually protests vigorously the slightest whiff of cigarette smoke back home, thought nothing of taking strolls on the smoke-filled Parisian sidewalks. In Italy, we quickly learned to conform to the practice of drinking bottled water at the restaurants. Two examples of the power of social norms, relative to individual environmental choices.

This raises the question of how to bring changes in normative behaviors, that will support sustainable lifestyles, across cultures. According to Horne, “New norms are thought to emerge when costs of compliance with existing norms become too high relative to the rewards“. Montgomery weighs concerns of costly normative actions against concerns of morality or social opinion. Though unlikely to change their behavior when norms become costly, individuals will praise those willing to do so; after a few have tested the waters, a domino effect of individuals who harbor less fear of social sanction will follow. If these innovators receive social approval, individuals will continue to participate in new strategies in order to gain recognition. Christakis‘s research similarly points to the social nature of behavioral changes.

On the green front, several trends are emerging that should give us hope. First, is the growing acceptance of the idea of green as universally cool and no longer the claim of a few treehuggers. The social sanction for behaviors such as biking, recycling, carpooling, using mass transit, recycling, to name just a few, has tipped towards the positive. Concurrently, rising gas and energy prices, are making it harder and harder for people to maintain their old behaviors. SUVs, boats, superfluous driving no longer make sense for the majority of Americans. Other adaptive behaviors are stirring, as in urban gardening, and driving more slowly.

Because time is of the essence, we would do well to consider strategies to accelerate this movement:

First, are opinion changing strategies, including all mass media and communication campaigns. Every green drop counts. What I write here in this blog. What you write, either in your own blog, or as a commenter on others’ blogs. What you say in casual conversations to your friends and coworkers. What you ask from your elected representative. What you communicate through your example, as in here and here. What the “we” and the “Together” people do. What Barack Obama, and other leaders declare is important. What the New York Times, and the rest of the press put on their front page. What Arianna Huffington chooses to promote. It all matters.

Second, are cost raising strategies, in relative terms, either through the offering of new, lower cost options, or the raising of the costs of existing options, whether volitional or not. Rising gas and energy prices are an example of the latter. And so are various forms of carbon tax. Smart technologies such as more fuel efficient cars or home energy efficiency solutions work on the other end, through the promise of higher financial rewards, and social acceptance.

Third are direct behavior shaping strategies such as evolved from Pierre Chandon‘s research. Chandon‘s study, ‘When Does the Past Repeat Itself? The Role of Self-Prediction and Norms.‘ tells us that ‘by predicting our behavior, we can actually reinforce good habits and break bad ones‘, a sophisticated twist on the power of self-fulfilling prophecy. What this means for our problem, is that by asking people such simple questions as ‘Do you bike, do you carpool, how often and how long do you walk, do you turn off your lights, do you hang your clothes to dry, do you eat fresh food?’ chances are it will increase the likelihood of them engaging in these behaviors. Conversely, by not mentioning other negative behaviors such as driving, using dryer, eating processed food, etc, they will be less inclined to perpetuate those. 

This is just the beginning of a long list. My main point is, thought leaders on climate change and other global environmental issues with a human factor component, need to spend more time exploring such behavior shaping strategies, based on the available body of research on normative behaviors.

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Some very exciting research in the field of social networks psychology, could revolutionize the way green ventures approach citizens. The latest study, by Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School, and James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, reports on the social factors in quitting smoking. It was published this morning in the New England Journal of Medicine, and is already creating ripples throughout the media, starting with the New York Times. From the study’s abstract:

The study examined the extent to which groups of widely connected people quit smoking together.

The results showed that:

  • Whole groups of people were quitting in concert 
  • Smokers were also progressively found in the periphery of the social network
  • Smoking cessation by a spouse decreased a person’s chances of smoking by 67% Smoking cessation by a sibling decreased the chances by 25% 
  • Smoking cessation by a friend decreased the chances by 36% 
  • Among persons working in small firms, smoking cessation by a coworker decreased the chances by 34% 
  • Friends with more education influenced one another more than those with less education. 
  • These effects were not seen among neighbors in the immediate geographic area.

Conclusions are :

  • Network phenomena appear to be relevant to smoking cessation. 
  • Groups of interconnected people stop smoking in concert, and smokers are increasingly marginalized socially.

These results are similar to results of a prior study from same authors on obesity. The network effect is at work not just in the halting of negative behaviors, such as smoking or unhealthy weight gain, but also in the spreading of positive life changes such as happiness. The latter will be documented in a forthcoming study by the authors on,’The Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network’.

The implications for climate strategies are obvious. Behavioral change conservation efforts, will work best if focused on groups, not just individuals. This is a confirmation of the research done by the ‘Nudge‘ team at University of Chicago. The smoking study also shows which clusters to focus on. Friends, as in Facebook or Twitter, coworkers as in Carbon Rally, spouses as in family systems

Thanks, Meryn, for all the links

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