Reducing meat consumption by communicating new trends

Dynamic norms are trends of particular behaviors becoming more popular. Communicating such norms can be a good nudge to ignite behavior change. This has successfully been done to increase vegetarian food choices in restaurants – but the details matter.

American researchers tested adding dynamic norm messages regarding meatless food choices on menus and ordering tablets in lunch cafés, online restaurants and fine-dining restaurants, as well as in numerous online survey panel experiments designed to tease out which details matters. They found small but in many cases statistically significant effects from these cost-effective nudges – plus a large effect when the nudge was administered instead through a fake survey (which however isn’t a very practical approach). In one case, though, communicating the dynamic norm to affluent dinner guests actually misfired, decreasing ordering of vegetarian food as compared with control days.

Among other sub-findings from the online experiments, the researchers conclude that the visibility/placement of the nudge matters and that there is also a case to be made for tailoring the message to speak to non-vegetarians in particular, in order to appeal to the target group’s in-group and since patrons may otherwise think that the information is not directed towards them.

The success of the nudge shows that using minority behavior as social proof can trigger change too, as long as that minority behavior seems to be on its way to becoming common. The dynamic norm message broadcasts collective efficacy and makes recipients believe that personal behavior change is both possible and compatible with their identities and that it is seen as important by others. however, effect sizes seem to be small and there are no guarantees that the initiative won’t misfire.

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