July 8, 2009

Peer pressure has environmental role

A U.S. study suggests people are more likely to become involved in conservation programs if their neighbors are also involved.

Michigan State University Professor Jianguo Liu said his study is the first to look at social norms in the context of China's conservation efforts. The study focused on a mammoth government initiative called Grain-to-Green that pays Chinese farmers to convert cropland back to forest.

Liu said while money is a key factor in whether people sign up for the voluntary program, peer pressure plays a surprisingly large role. That's the power of social norms, he said. It's like recycling. If you see your neighbors doing it, you're more likely to do it.

Doctoral student Xiaodong Chen, lead author of the study, said government officials should leverage social norms, along with economic and demographic trends, when deciding how to support conversation programs.

We found that without considering the social norm factor, conservation payments may not be used efficiently, Chen said. But if the government considers social norms as it decides where to invest money, it could obtain more environmental benefits in communities that are supportive of (the) programs than in those that aren't.

The study appeared in the June 29 early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.