Lecture on how social norms can affect attitudes toward science, Sept. 25

Science communication expert Sharon Dunwoody says social norms may be a gateway to significant behavior change — and social media may be an important part of the toolkit

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The public’s understanding of science can be a simple matter of keeping up with the Joneses. Research on social norms — perceptions of what other people do and think is acceptable — has found that people’s behaviors can be influenced by what peers, friends and family members do. Communications researchers are investigating how these social forces can also affect attitudes toward science.

Science communication expert Sharon Dunwoody will discuss this research and other examples of social norms at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 25 in the Foster Auditorium of Paterno Library. Her talk, “Social norms as behavioral catalysts for science and environmental issues,” will explore the landscape of social norms research and reveal ways social media help foster change related to science and environmental issues.

“We’ll look at how our behavior can change our attitudes, which is a different way to approach messaging,” Dunwoody said. “Social norms turn the traditional notion of behavior change upside down.”

The classic way of thinking is that behavior change starts with knowledge gain, which then fosters changes in attitudes and catalyzes behavior. Dunwoody, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin, says this process is not effective when what a person learns about an issue “leads her to conclude that it does not affect her personally.” And many large-scale science and environmental issues fall into that sphere.

“Climate change is the iconic example,” she said. “There needs to be huge changes at a global level, and yet many of us do not assign much importance to the issue because we feel it does not affect us personally.”

This is where social norms can be helpful. People are influenced by the behaviors of others like themselves. For example, a California energy company sends customers information about the energy consumption of their neighbors. Psychologists have found that if people see that their neighbors are using less energy, their own energy consumption is likely to drop.

The effect is particularly strong when the person is uncertain about what to do, which is quite common. For example, “if there is no trash can nearby but I spot a pile of litter at a street corner, do I add my empty coffee cup to the pile? Many do. Or if I want to rake my yard leaves into the street to avoid killing my grass, but notice that several neighbors are keeping their leaves on their lawns to keep organic matter out of the local lake, do I follow their behavior? Yes.”

“The effect flies under our radar. We start changing our behavior, but may not know why,” Dunwoody said. “If I can get someone who does not care much about climate change to do things that are consistent with a more stable world, they may not buy into the issue at first, but their attitudes may begin to morph over time.”

If social norms change behavior, and Dunwoody says it’s dependent on situational conditions, the person will begin to use his or her behaviors as a cue to what he or she values. Outlets such as social media may serve as important tools in a behavior change toolkit.

“New media outlets are the absolute ideal channels for social norms work,” Dunwoody said. “The whole point of social media is to share what we’re up to, so if you can convince a user that his or her friends care deeply about climate change, you’re likely to get a social norms effect.”

Dunwoody is an expert on the public understanding of science with a particular focus on the role of science, environment and health messages in mass media. She is a fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a past president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Dunwoody’s talk is a part of the SciComm Lecture series, an initiative of Penn State’s Science Communication Program. The program is housed in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications and builds productive research collaborations between scientists in a variety of disciplines with science communications researchers.

Sharon Dunwoody, professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated September 05, 2018