Peer pressure plays major role in environmental behavior

EAST LANSING, Mich. — People are more likely to enroll in conservation programs if their neighbors do — a tendency that should be exploited when it comes to protecting the environment, according to a pioneering study from Michigan State University.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to focus on the phenomenon of social norms in the context of China’s conservation efforts, said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, University Distinguished Professor and study co-author.

The study focused on a mammoth government initiative called Grain to Green that pays Chinese farmers to convert cropland back to forest. While money is a key factor in whether people sign up for the voluntary program, peer pressure also plays a surprisingly large role, Liu said.

“That’s the power of social norms,” Liu said. “It’s like recycling. If you see your neighbors doing it, you’re more likely to do it.”

A representative survey of households in China’s Wolong Nature Reserve for giant pandas found that both government payments and social norms had “significant impacts” on citizens’ intentions of re-enrolling in the Grain to Green program.

“In other words,” the study says, “people’s re-enrollment intentions can be affected by the re-enrollment decisions of their neighbors and tend to conform to the majority.”

Xiaodong Chen, MSU doctoral student and lead author on the study, said government officials should leverage these social norms along with economic and demographic trends when deciding how to support conversation programs such as Grain to Green.

“We found that, without considering the social norm factor, the conservation payments may not be used efficiently,” Chen said. “But if the government considers social norms as they decide where to invest money, they could possibly obtain more environmental benefits in communities that are more supportive of these programs rather than those that aren’t.”

Added co-author and MSU professor Frank Lupi: “Simply by taking account of the social norms, more conservation can be obtained from limited conservation budgets.”

Liu, director of MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, is an internationally renowned scientist who investigates coupled human and natural systems, including complex interactions among pandas, people and policies in China.

Also contributing to the study was doctoral student Guangming He.

Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation, NASA, National Institutes of Health, MSU Environmental Research Initiative and Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station.

The PNAS paper is available to the public at

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