Exploring the impact of descriptive norms on pro-environmental behaviour in a university campus

  • Elaine Gallagher

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Climate change and the environmental consequences of human behaviour are topics of increasing importance both on a local and global level. In recent times, greater focus has been placed on the necessity to reduce individual behaviours which are detrimental to the environment. In line with this, the current thesis aimed to evaluate the effectiveness of using a descriptive normative intervention to impact environmentally significant behaviours in the context of a university setting. Social norms have been shown to be a highly effective mechanism for behaviour change in previous research, while also being relatively easy toimplement and target wide audiences, and were therefore deemed a suitable method to employ to meet the aims of the thesis. Early research in the thesis explores the use of a simple descriptive norms intervention to reduce energy consumption in the chemistry labs. Using normative information about others universities’ lab behaviour, it was found that lab users significantly reduced the amount energy wasted through leaving fume hoods open when not in use. In order to ensure that this change in behaviour was not confounded by the presence of the researcher, a replication was conducted. This replication appeared to show less convincing responses to the social norm, with possible interpretations of this discussed. This raised the question of how social influence functions in the absence of an audience or monitor, leading to the novel issue of private behaviours. Subsequent exploratory research indicated that individuals have misperceptions relating to a range of consumptive behaviours, with greater uncertainty about how others behave in private, in particular. These findings illustrated the importance of descriptive normative feedback to correct thesemisperceptions, as well as the impact of monitoring and visibility to regulate behaviour. This led to a further field study which targeted the private behaviour of showering. A descriptive normative intervention was applied to determine if normative influence was effective in private settings. It was found that norms functioned effectively to impact shower duration, with those told they were taking shorter showers than the norm increasing, and those told they were taking longer showers than the norm decreasing their shower time. The thesis concludes that in settings such as the workplace or other contexts where there is no personal incentive to change, behaviour change may be possible through the application of descriptive normative interventions. The thesis also points out the importance of the field of private behaviours for future exploration in terms of environmentally beneficial outcomes.
Date of Award26 Jun 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorBas Verplanken (Supervisor) & Ian Walker (Supervisor)


  • psychology
  • behaiour change
  • environment
  • Social Norms and Social Capital
  • Social influence

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