Changing the world by changing social norms – ScienceDaily


Professor Karine Nyborg from the Department of Economics at the University of Oslo is joined by an international team of eminent economists, environmentalists and psychologists as co-authors of the article “Social norms as solutions” published in Science.

With Kenneth Arrow, the Nobel Laureate in Economics on their team, Nyborg et. Al. Argue that changing social norms can help solve even major global problems, as politicians play an important supporting role. But they need to know when to act.

The smoking ban – a good example

According to Nyborg, the Norwegian anti-smoking law is a good example of a political initiative that has led to a radical change in social norms. Despite the fact that the smoking ban met with strong opposition before its introduction, it became a big hit, much like a rolling snowball.

“Vicious circles can be hard to stop, but if they can be achieved, they can turn into virtuous circles just as stable and hard to stop as well. This is the good news, ”says Karine Nyborg.

Want to be like the neighbor

She points out that politicians are in a position to help us change self-fulfilling expectations.

“Virtuous and vicious circles occur when, for social, economic or practical reasons, we prefer to behave like others. This can make our expectations self-fulfilling: if you think that most electric cars will be gone in a few years, you may fear that the network of charging stations will be reduced, and therefore be reluctant to buy an electric car. Indeed, buying a gasoline car can seem risky. By clearly stating their investment priorities, policies can provide an important guide that promotes the most environmentally friendly initiatives, ”argues the professor of economics.

High proportion of Norwegian electric cars

Likewise, Norway’s electric car policies, which are often criticized for being unreasonably expensive, have not only lowered the price of electric cars and made them a more practical automotive option. According to Nyborg, the policies also appear to have heightened the expectations of Norwegian motorists that Norwegian roads will continue to see a high proportion of electric cars in the years to come. It is therefore reasonable to expect good continuous availability of charging stations and other services.

Karine Nyborg and her co-authors base their arguments on the belief that human beings are social animals and that there are good reasons for us to coordinate our behavior with others.

To eat together

“In a meat-eating community, vegetarians will be troublesome to the cook, and their refusal to eat the same food as others can be interpreted as a sign of social distancing. In a community of vegetarians, meat eaters will encounter the same problems. Therefore, it may be more convenient and enjoyable to acclimate to the standard local diet, whether or not it contains more or less meat, ”she explains.

The fact that human beings are beasts of burden may therefore be the key to changing social norms. If you grow up in a city where motorists are well taken care of in all respects, people get into their cars without even thinking about it. If you grow up in a city where cyclists are welcome in every way, with a plethora of cycle paths and a culture that promotes cycling, choosing to cycle is easy. If cyclists vote for pro-bike politicians, it will contribute to virtuous and vicious circles.

On a swedish island

The article published in Science is the result of an annual seminar on ecology and economics organized on an island in the Swedish archipelago by the Beijer Institute of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

“Interdisciplinary cooperation is difficult, but exciting,” says Nyborg.

“It’s easy to talk to each other, often because we use different definitions of words and concepts. Psychologists are interested in individual and situational differences. Economists are more interested in reciprocity between individuals and society. Environmentalists contributed with their ideas. in the dynamics of tipping points, that is, the point where a vicious circle turns into a virtuous circle. Discussing the issues in our effort to come to a common understanding has been extremely rewarding, ”she said.


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