The cover of the Sunday New York Times magazine screamed, “Are your friends making you fat?” You may have seen the studies talked about in this article. The notion is that we adjust and normalize our behaviors based on the behaviors of those around us. So if we hang out with a lot of people who overeat, we may, eventually, begin to see larger portion sizes as normal and begin to put on pounds ourselves. Or if a few of our friends quit smoking, we may do so as well. The story also mentions a study that suggests a three-degrees-of-separation pattern: that the friend of a friend in a social group could be influenced to change his behavior as well.
The studies aren’t foolproof and aren’t 100% conclusive. But I found myself wondering if sustainability could work the same way. In other words, could sustainable choices be motivated at a three-degrees-of-separation level simply by infiltrating social groups and convincing a few people to make different choices? To some degree, this is the idea behind Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point and it’s what marketing firms mean when they talk about targeting “thought leaders.” But, like the data on obesity and smoking, I don’t know that we’ve actually proven this will work.
Positive Energy and other firms like them have an approach that proves out peer pressure/keeping up with the Jones’ works as a behavior change mechanism. (In other words, if you learn that your energy consumption is higher — and thus the check you write every month to the utility company is bigger — it will motivate you to change your behaviors.) And there have been studies showing that hotel messaging stating that “a majority of the people who stayed in this room opted to not have their towels washed,” fares better than the standard, “please conserve and save the planet” message. But I don’t know that we’ve actually seen data to suggest, as the New York Times article reports, that normalizing sustainability in a social circle will motivate everyone in the circle — and the friends of people in the circle — to change their ways.
I’ll put this out there to everyone reading this: If you know of such a study, let us know about it. If not, we may look for some partners and tackle it ourselves. It’s fascinating stuff and could be the key to elevating sustainability to a mass scale.