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Science publication co-authored by Wander Jager: Strong visual cues help drive social tipping points

17 October 2016

Scientists investigating how societies have tipped from cycles of destructive behavior, like smoking or foot-binding, to healthier behavior, show that social norms can cross tipping points faster if policy-driven new behavior is difficult for others to ignore. The results have implications for policy design to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for example.

Behavioural change in societies is mostly a slow process over many generations, even when our habits are killing us. If your friends, family and colleagues smoke, chances are higher you smoke too.

Wander Jager
Wander Jager

Major changes in social norms

In the journal Science, a team of economists, psychologists and ecologists, among who FEB researcher Wander Jager, analysed major changes in social norms that buck this trend, like the end of high fertility rates, smoking indoors, foot binding in China, or littering the streets. Unravelling the causes of such tipping points – when things change rapidly and unexpectedly in a complex system – might help find solutions for some of the world’s biggest challenges, for example, climate change, biodiversity loss and gender equality, and lead to more effective governance.

Lead author Karine Nyborg from the University of Oslo says: ‘Humans are social animals and we have good reasons to coordinate our behavior with others. But social norms can create vicious and virtuous cycles.’

Cycling in Amsterdam

The interdisciplinary group of authors who met for the annual Askö meeting in Sweden organized by the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, applied the concept of tipping-points to how groups conform to one behavior, then shift rapidly to a new norm.

‘Smoking and foot-binding are examples of vicious circles when we for social, economic, political or practical reasons want to behave like others and our expectations could be self-fulfilling. Virtuous circles, like cycling in Amsterdam, behave in the same way, promoting good habits and healthy lifestyles’, says co-author Therese Lindahl at the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics. And, this leads to more policies to widen cycle paths, forcing greater car congestion resulting in more drivers joining the ranks of cyclists: the virtuous cycles are reinforced.

Anti-smoking laws

When anti-smoking laws in Norway, Sweden, the UK and elsewhere were introduced they triggered a change in social norms, say the authors. Although formal enforcement was limited, smokers began expecting social sanctions and started to go outside to smoke, even in unregulated areas like private homes.

‘Very soon smoking indoors became a social taboo’, says Nyborg. If the smoking ban were removed, the new norm would in all likelihood remain. But the paper points out the Greece’s attempts, introduced in 2010, failed, possibly due to people’s low expectations that the new rules would be enforced. ‘When taking all factors into account, individuals tend to want to behave like most other people.’ This is an essential ingredient of effective policy, the authors say. Conformity, they write, affects fundamental decisions in people’s lives.

Difficult to ignore

It seems that a policy may reach widespread adoption quicker if it changes behavior in a way that is difficult for neighbours, friends, family and colleagues to ignore. The researchers use curbside recycling as an example. If neighbours see others leaving out their bins then this will encourage them to too. Similarly, if water is scarce and hosepipe bans in force, lush green lawns will be frowned upon and this disapproval will be an important factor in people’s decision to water a lawn.


Conversely, greenhouse gas emissions, whether individual or from companies, are largely invisible. Misuse of antibiotics is also not easy to observe. If new behavior is out of sight, it is also out of mind. Without visual clues that this behavior is happening “there may be no tipping points” say the authors and new stable norms probably won’t emerge without effective policies to increase visibility.

Behave like others

What we eat, for example, is not entirely dependent on the cost of food, its taste or its health benefits. Social norms are a big factor, for example how many others around the table are vegetarian, so policies to encourage a shift towards low-meat diets, for health and sustainability reasons, should account for triggers that could drive rapid change. ‘Tipping points arise when individuals prefer, all things considered, to behave like others’, the authors write.

‘A potentially powerful role of policy is to provide reasons for people to change their expectations about the behavior of others’, they conclude. The authors warn global climate change will not be halted by social norm changes alone. But a big problem can be broken down to many smaller parts and social norms identified to assess leverage points to shift from vicious to virtuous cycles.

More information

Contact: Wander Jager, Associate Professor, Managing director of Groningen Center for Social Complexity Studies (GCSCS)

The full article could be read here.

Last modified:31 January 2023 2.06 p.m.
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