Research Summary

Seeding Social Norms About Energy Conservation Among Girl Scouts

Social Norms Messaging as a Tool for Conservation Behavior

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

Retail business is known for its advertising savvy, much of which is underpinned by research on how people make decisions and what influences those decisions. Recently, other organizations have also been taking advantage of this savvy and applying it to ethical and moral issues. Two examples are the U.S. government’s antismoking campaign, and WWF’s branding of the panda in efforts to save endangered species. Yet, these techniques have not been widely adopted in the field of environmental education. This study considers the implementation of one such technique—social norms messaging—in an energy conservation program and examines the impact the technique had on attitude and behavior changes in students.

Social norm messages provide information about a behavior and are categorized in two ways: descriptive and injunctive. Both types of norms are important and frequently used tools in programs designed to influence environmental and other prosocial behaviors. Descriptive norms describe or give information about the social norms around a behavior and encourage people to regress to the norm, or average, which can have opposing effects. In the case of environmental issues, this most often means citing the average usage of a resource by community members by using statements such as, “The average American home uses 911 kilowatt hours of electricity a month.” Those who use more than the described average may then attempt to use less and become average, while those who use less than 911 kilowatt hours of electricity a month might feel justified in using more energy, while still remaining within the average range. An injunctive norm, by contrast, can be used to counteract this effect by applying a moral framework. Saying “Responsible people turn off the lights,” for example, invokes a moral framework and, as such, may counteract the actions of those who may have used more energy because they felt they could do so and still be average.

For this study, researchers investigated three groups of middle school Girl Scouts (aged 9 to 12) who had participated in an energy conservation program called Girls’ Energy Conservation Corps (GECCo). The three Girl Scout troops were studied sequentially; following each group’s study, the researchers made further refinements to their study protocol. During the GECCo program, all of the study participants played the same card games about energy use, made a mobile about the energy cycle, and learned ways to track their own energy use. All of the participants also received a GECCo Girl Scouts patch upon completing the program.

During the energy-related intervention program, girls were given an initial survey to establish a baseline energy conservation score on a scale of one to five. Three weeks after they had completed the program, the first set of girls (n = 37) were randomly sent one of two postcards in the mail. Half the girls received a postcard with a descriptive and injunctive norm (i.e., “Did you know, over three days, the typical Girl Scout switched off 15 lights?” and “Girl Scouts think saving energy and fighting climate change is a good thing.”). The other half received a postcard with a generic “Save energy” message. About a week later, the girls then answered a survey about their conservation activities over the past three days, their attitudes toward the environment, and their views of social norms about conservation. This information was supplemented with parent and group interviews. The researchers used these data to examine the differences in attitudes and behaviors between the girls who received injunctive social norm messaging and those who did not.

At first, the researchers did not find any significant results. Given this, they decided to analyze their results in a new way by splitting the troops into two groups: those who initially reported higher levels of energy conservation and those who reported lower levels of conservation. This more-detailed investigation showed that the scouts who were originally participating in more energy conservation behaviors were encouraged to keep participating by the injunctive social norm message. By contrast, those who received the control message of “Save energy” maintained or decreased their energy usage, particularly if they were already successfully conserving energy. In short, the injunctive social norm message had a significant positive impact on girls who were already participating at a high level in conservation behavior.

Researchers repeated a similar process with a second group of Girl Scouts (n=27). Based on feedback from the first group, the researchers slightly modified both the survey and the experimental injunctive social norms postcard. They also significantly changed the control postcard by omitting the GECCo symbol and simplifying the message. The girls were surveyed one week after receiving the postcard. Although behaviors did not change significantly, attitudes (often an indicator of and precursor to behavior) did change. Based on a 5-point scale, the injunctive social norms group increased their attitude score by 1.88, while the control group dropped 3.71 points compared with their initial survey scores.

For the final group of Girl Scouts (n=53), the postcards and surveys were further refined. Instead of receiving one postcard, each girl received three postcards with specific instructions to put the cards in the kitchen, in the bathroom, and in their bedrooms. Most significantly, however, the researchers administered the postcards a full year after the girls attended the intervention program. Two weeks later, the girls completed a survey. This study showed no significant findings for behavior or attitudes.

The results from the first group studied suggest injunctive social norm messaging may have more of an impact on energy conservation behavior of students who are already engaged in conservation behavior. The results of this study, as a whole, also suggest that time between the completion of the program and the follow-up postcards impacts the effectiveness of social norm messaging. The first and second groups were administered the followup postcards three weeks after the program and found positive effects for injunctive social norm messaging on environmental attitudes (and negative effects on the generic messaging). By contrast, the third group was administered the postcards a full year after the program and found that injunctive social norm messaging had no effect on attitudes. The most effective timing for followup through injunctive social norm messaging, therefore, is worthy of further study. In particular, follow-up may be most effective when administered immediately following program completion, which was not tested in this study.

The Bottom Line

Social norm messaging can be an effective tool for encouraging pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors. There are two types of social norm messages: descriptive and injunctive. Descriptive social norms share information about the “normal” behavior or resource usage in one’s community, such as, “The average house on your block uses 100 gallons of water per week.” By contrast, injunctive social norms use ethical, social, and moral frameworks to promote certain actions such as, “Do your part to help the drought: use less water.” Research suggests that messaging that includes both descriptive and injunctive norm messages are the most effective. This type of messaging can also be used as follow-up to encourage student attitude and behavior change after an educational program by, for example, sending postcards or emails. This type of follow-up may be most effective if undertaken within the first few weeks after a program is completed, rather than months or a year later.