Newsletter 14 Oct '22
Virality needn't only apply to pandemics, tweets and memes; Individual action on climate change could prove equally contagious
In inter-connected social networks like ours, socially contagious behaviors follow similar patterns to viral diseases. Small behaviors that seem tiny when viewed in isolation can have massive flow-on effects, rapidly spreading through entire populations in a phenomenon called ‘non-linear cascading change’.
In my last newsletter, I talked about the false binary of individual versus systemic change. I argued that our society is a complex network system, in which individual actions and bottom-up lifestyle changes are a crucial tool in society’s fight to decarbonize. The potential social contagiousness of these individual actions is a huge part of why they’re so important. When we personally model emissions-reducing behaviors– like installing rooftop solar panels on our house, and then buying and charging an electric vehicle from our home-generated solar energy– we increase the likelihood that those proximate to us will follow our lead and do the same. This social contagion effect occurs without the need to persuade or harangue people about the various benefits of the behavior in question. You don’t need to convince people of either the altruistic or self-interested reasons for installing solar or buying a solar-charged EV. The truth is, we are a highly social species, and we all have a tendency to copy one another’s behavior, regardless of whether the behavior is financially or environmentally meritorious. One standout example of this was a 2012 study which looked at trends in rooftop solar installation around California. After a decade of research, they found that the key determinant of whether a household was more or less likely to install rooftop solar panels was neither panel price, household income, nor perceived value, but rather how many of your surrounding neighbors had rooftop solar panels. It was a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ phenomenon that was incredibly powerful, and this effect was visible even when taking things like voter preferences into account– meaning less environmentally-inclined people installed solar panels because their neighbors had, regardless of whether they were voting for the Tea Party or the Greens. This effect has been replicated in more recent studies with massive sample sizes.
"Behavioral modelling is arguably more persuasive and effective than any well-meaning pamphlet on the threats of climate change "
It’s not just rooftop solar panel installation that has been proven to be socially contagious. Dietary changes and exercise regimens are too. You are more likely to be in a healthy weight range if your peers are, and the converse is true too. This has implications for pro-environmental behaviors like the adoption of plant-rich diets– comprised of foods which require fewer resources to cultivate and are less carbon intensive to produce. We’ve already seen these socially contagious diets spread around Australia, with an increasing and consistent trend towards the reduction of red meat intake amongst a majority of the Australian population, and one of the fastest growing vegan populations in the world. The social contagion of exercise routines also suggests we can influence people’s choices to pick low-carbon impact modes of transportation, like cycling and walking. So your decision to serve up some Impossible Burgers at your next BBQ with friends, or to start cycling to work, or to supply your newborn with only second-hand toys from the local street library, all have a potential flow-on effect that is much bigger than you can measure. We don’t yet know exactly which behaviors are socially contagious, or how contagious a behaviour may turn out to be. Our best guess is that it’s probably determined by the interconnectedness of your social network, and some hidden factors in the behavior itself– including how visible the behaviour is to observers, the minimum number of people in a network that need to display the behavior for it to catch-on, and perhaps some unconscious attribution of social status or value attached to the behavior.
One final point that’s worth making is that we don’t need everyone to be on board for pro-environmental behaviors to spread rapidly through our community. We don’t even need a majority of the population. We just need a critical mass of people: a committed minority, like those of you reading this.
Better yet, this ‘critical mass’ may actually be much smaller than you think. It’s hard to put a number on it, and research in this area is still in its infancy, but some believe you only need around 25% of a social network on board to change the majority’s viewpoint or behavior. Trying to deliberately engender this type of cascading social change is the opposite of hard tech; it deals squarely with demand-side climate change mitigation measures rather than supply-side innovations. So if you are a dedicated environmentalist, take heart– even an initially small group of passionate individuals in disparate parts of the world can leverage the mechanics of social change. We just need the people who care to take meaningful and visible action in their own lives first. Together, these small changes have the potential to create a cascading wave of influence– accelerating shifts to clean energy, reducing overall consumption, and encouraging the early adoption of zero emissions technologies and services that could, in turn, inspire mass adoption. Thanks for reading,