Tipping toward the greater good

Post by Jenny Seifert

How can we end our collective bad habits, like smoking and polluting, and adopt good societal behaviors that benefit humans and the planet?

In a new paper published in the journal Science, a team of psychologists, economists and ecologists shows that when new behaviors are hard to ignore, normative shifts toward that behavior happen faster, pushing us over a tipping point when the “vicious cycle” causing the problem turns into a “virtuous cycle” that solves it.


Yahara 2070’s Connected Communities scenario plays out the crossing of a normative tipping point. Illustration by John Miller/Gray Jay Art.

As lead author Karine Nyborg from the University of Oslo puts it in the press release, “Humans are social animals and we have good reasons to coordinate our behavior with others. But social norms can create vicious and virtuous cycles.”

Virtuous cycles that promote healthy lifestyles, like biking to work or eating less meat, will override vicious ones when the virtuous behaviors are highly visible and perceived as easy and “cool,” creating social feedbacks that reinforce the norm.

Moreover, the authors posit that policy can hasten tipping points to virtuous cycles by making hard-to-see behaviors more visible and by giving people reasons to change their behavior and their expectations of others’ behavior – creating bike lanes and setting higher meat prices are examples.

“A policy that changes material incentives indicates to everyone that others’ incentives are changed, not just their own, making expectations of behavioral changes reasonable. Making behaviors visible to peers can strengthen expected social reactions, but also create beliefs that others expect stricter social sanctions, thus changing their behavior,” as the authors state.

Among the authors of the paper is WSC principal investigator Stephen Carpenter, and he is not the only connection it has with our research.

“In Yahara 2070, the Connected Communities scenario asks if changes in social norms can promote sustainability. The new paper shows social norms can be changed in ways that benefit everyone,” says Carpenter.


Yahara 2070’s Connected Communities scenario plays out the crossing of a normative tipping point. Illustration by John Miller/Gray Jay Art.

Connected Communities essentially plays out the idea of humanity crossing that normative tipping point toward “virtuous” lifestyles that are less consumptive and more sustainable. The Great Transition movement makes such a lifestyle highly visible, changing social expectations. Policies facilitate this shift by creating incentives for sustainable farming and development practices, while social sanctions, like boycotts, deter violators of the new norm. Of course, this scenario is merely a thought experiment and one interpretation of how social norms and values could effect change.

Carpenter is also an author on another recent paper, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, which implies it’s not just policies that can push behaviors and social expectations toward virtuous cycles – the ideas and stories we share with each other also matter.

The second paper showcases insights from a project aimed at finding “seeds” for a good Anthropocene, or existing, place-based initiatives that exemplify sustainability practices and innovations, which could help put us on transformative pathways toward a desirable future.

The authors conclude that collecting real-life examples of transformation can seed scenario exercises, like Yahara 2070, with “bottom-up” ideas that reflect what is important to people. The resulting future visions may be more transformative than those created at a “top-down” level, which are often more pixelated and conventional.

Moreover, the dispersal of transformative future visions can seed collective narratives with possible pathways to a better future, thus creating a feedback loop of transformative thinking that can influence our choices and behaviors.

What both papers – and the Connected Communities scenario – suggest is that transformational change is possible, and making virtuous behaviors and initiatives more observable, easy and cool could push us over the tipping point toward a sustainable future.


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