Luke McGuff (holyoutlaw) wrote,
Luke McGuff

Descriptive and Prescriptive Norms

Remember a couple weeks ago when nearly everybody on Facebook was using the red equals sign to endorse marriage equality? Here is an article posted to Scientific American blogs looking at that from the angle of prescriptive and descriptive norms.

A prescriptive norm tells you what you should or should not do. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t litter. Pay your taxes. Go to church on Sunday. Don’t steal pebbles from the Petrified National Forest.

A descriptive norm tells you what other people are already doing. That’s when you notice none of your friends smoke tobacco any more (or maybe few ever did). Or the sign, instead of saying “don’t steal pebbles” says “most people leave the pebbles to preserve the natural integrity of the forest.”

This isn’t a joke; in fact, it’s a “classic study” that showed how using descriptive norms has a stronger influence on behavior than prescriptive norms. When the signs said “Don’t steal the pebbles,” thievery increased. When the signs said “Most people leave the pebbles,” thievery plummeted. The blog post lists several other ways that descriptive norms have a greater effect on behavior than prescriptive norms.

But what I want to think about here is the use of prescriptive norms to attempt to influence positive environmental behavior. I think there is entirely too much of it.

The crisis mentality of most environmental exhortations I think actually alienates us from the possibility of anything we do having a positive effect. Sure we can drive less, but when the bus you’re on goes slower than all the single-occupancy cars, the next day you’re in a car. On the other hand, we recycle more because we know our neighbors are. And we know our neighbors are recycling more because we see their bins on the street on pick up day.

This is another way in which I think that the tangibility and immediacy of urban restoration comes into play. When we see people working in the park, we see the effects of their actions; when we join them, we see the effects of ours. And from that action we can make the connection to the rest of the world. Working on a small park will have little or no effect on the world, but it will have an effect on the people who see the work, who participate in it, who share the benefits.

Environmentalism is hampered by its heavy reliance on prescriptive norms. The doom’n'gloom drives people away. This is why I almost never post a link to more bad news here. It’s not that I’m Pollyanna/head in the sand. It’s because I want people to know what other people are doing. And as we see more of what other people are doing, we see more of what we can do.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

Tags: commentary, descriptive norms, prescriptive norms, scientific american, urban restoration

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