Pocket Change Episode 6 with Dr Kim Borg
Social norms - or, what is believed to be 'normal' amongst social groups - play a crucial role in shaping our attitudes, perceptions and behaviours on certain topics. Other than our close friends and family, one of the most pervasive places we get messages of what’s ‘normal’ is the media.
In her research, Dr Kim Borg looked into four specific areas of single-use plastics usage: single-use plastic bags when shopping, single-use plastic straws, disposable coffee cups and disposable plastic containers. According to Kim, "one of the trickiest parts about behaviour change is that you need to have an alternative option that is just as easy, just as convenient, and just as cheap, for people to engage in."
In recent years, COVID-19 and hygiene fears have presented another massive barrier to people adopting behaviours to reduce single-use plastics.
To better understand what the social norms are, and what people are actually doing when it comes to singe-use plastics, Kim conducted a number of studies throughout her PhD to explore what people were doing, what people thought others were doing, and what people considered were the pros and cons to using single-use plastics.
According to Kim, a key element to changing perceptions and behaviours is to talk about norms, "though we do want to talk about the problem, we also want to talk about the solution and emphasise that norms are changing".
Watch the full episode of Pocket Change, Reducing Single-Use Plastics:
Pocket Change is a series of pocket-size videos about a key aspect of behaviour change. Each episode features a BehaviourWorks Australia Researcher explaining their area of expertise in a clear and simple manner.
Grab a coffee, press play, and enjoy Pocket Change.
This month I'm talking to Kim Borg about her day looking at single use plastics, people's behaviours around single use plastics, and particularly the impact of media on our behaviour. So, Kim, our behaviour is affected by each other, but also the media; tell me about your interest in behaviour change and media in particular.
Sure. So for my Ph.D., I was particularly interested in this idea of social norms. So what is a normal behaviour to me? What is a normal behaviour to you? If you're an important person to me, I probably want to do behaviours that I think are normal to you. And in addition to our friends and family who can tell us what's normal, we get signals about normal behaviour from all around us. And one of the big and most pervasive, places we get that message is the media and mass media.
So when it comes to single use plastic, when I started doing my PhD, there was a lot of talk in the media about single use plastics, particularly things like War on Waste and Blue Planet Two. And there was news articles about plastic bags being banned. So there was a lot of media hype about that. But I really wanted to know what all that media hype was doing to our perceptions about norms and more importantly, our behaviour.
So when we're talking about media, you mean everything -social media, print media, movies, documentaries, TV. It's kind of everything?
It's absolutely everything. And there's differing there's different impacts depending on the type of media. So, for example, social media is this weird overlap between our social environment because it's often a lot of our friends and families that we're connected to.
But there's also this kind of celebrity environment, the influencer environment as well. But then you've also got kind of your mass media environment within social media because you can get news articles and you can get, you know, promotional material about movies or TV series. So it's a really all encompassing message that can get multiple effects. So if I as an individual share a news article which is come from mass media, but then my friends and family are seeing that as well, it's sending multiple social signals about what I approve and disapprove of.
So it's a crossover between injunctive and descriptive norms in a way?
Yes. It's this difference between what am I doing? So I'm an individual engaging in different behaviours. Lots of individuals engaging in similar behaviours tells us what the descriptive norm is. So what’s everyone doing. But then on social media in particular, we get a lot of messages about injunctive norms.
And that's the whole idea of what do I approve and disapprove of? And they are often similar, but they can be different as well.
Because of the giganticness of this PhD topic - us, the media, the world, plastics, that sort of stuff, you had to concentrate down really on four particular types of single use plastic.
So the four behaviours I was focusing on were using single use plastic bags when shopping, so very public behaviour, something that was relatively new four or five years ago. It's very, very common now. Using plastic straws when at a cafe restaurant mobile. So again, focusing on the public environment. Using reusable disposable coffee cups of cups, the hot drinks again, when in public environments like going to a café. And using disposable takeaway containers, plastic takeaway containers when buying takeaway food.
So some of those behaviours are now embedded, I would say, as part of social norms. Keep Cups, for instance, is a kind of phenomenon.
One of the trickiest parts with any sort of behaviour change is that you need to have an alternative option that is just as easy, just asc onvenient, just as cheap for people to engage in and for certain behaviours hat are harder than others. This is where we see a disparity in whether people are taking them off or not. So, for example, the difference between plastic straws and takeaway plastic takeaway containers is massive in the alternative options.
Plastic straws; I can use a reusable metal straw whom I can buy a metal straw or a silicone straw folds up neatly. I can take it with me or even more convenient, I can drink straight from a glass and not have to do any preplanning at all. For a takeaway container, there's a few different elements and a few different barriers that are involved, so I might need to have my own take away containers that I take with me to different takeaway outlets. I need to make sure that I'm going to restaurants, cafes, food, places that will actually accept those takeaway containers. There’s usually a bit of an upfront cost as well. If you are buying or own containers that you're taking with you. So there's a lot of different barriers that are going on between those two items.
And certainly when it comes to takeaway containers, there might be legal barriers as well for those particular establishments saying, well, legally we can't; we have to serve it in terms of hygiene and sterilising our own containers.
Definitely. I mean, talking about hygiene, one of the biggest things that we've seen develop in the last couple of years when it comes to single use plastics is COVID. And it was really this perception about reusables as being of potential transmission vessel that has actually seen our use of single use increase in recent years because people got scared. Hygiene factors health became more salient in our consciousness and environment.
So it's a bit disappointing and has set us back a little bit.
So the theme of World Environment Day in 2023 is ‘BeatPlastic Pollution’. Tell us about how you broached the subject or did surveys with people about their use of these everyday items?
Yeah, so I was really interested in not just how social norms influence people's behaviour, but I also wanted to know what is the current social norm? What are people doing when it comes to single use plastics? So I undertook a couple of different research phases and one of the big ones included doing a survey with a random sample ofVictorians to find out what are they doing now, what do they believe other people are doing? What do they believe are the benefits, the pros and cons of using or avoiding single use plastics?
I then also undertook an experiment to see if we did show people images or videos from the mass media that portrayed the plastic problem in different ways. How would that potentially influence their perceptions and maybe even their behaviour and some really interesting findings came out a little of that.
If I oversimplify it, would I suggest that the docos, the videos displayed two impacts, one on volume and one on wildlife?
Yes. The simplest breakdown of the videos that we showed were two that focused on the scale of the problem, how much plastic there is int he environment, how much plastic accumulates in landfills. The other two focus on the impact that plastic pollution has on wildlife. So we had this kind of two elements of the volume of plastic pollution, which sends this indirect signal that plastic use, single use plastic use is very common, the descriptive norm, but also people's reactions to it, which is generally showing disapproval of use.
Right. And the danger of believing that other people are doing this behaviour is that it does normalise that behaviour. Is that a risk of sharing this sort of information or the signals this is sending?
That was exactly what I wanted to test. We talk about this in behavioural science a lot, that if we focus on the undesirable social norm, which in a lot of cases when we're talking about the scale of a problem, we're indirectly signalling that the problem behaviours are very common. And if they're very common, then they're probably normal. And if they're normal, does it matter if I do it as well? Right? Maybe, maybe not.
So how did you test the information and the changes?
We measured people's past behaviour, their beliefs about social norms, the pros and cons of using plastic before they watched the videos. We then randomly showed people one of those four videos as well as a control video that just focused on how plastic is made, so very factual, non-emotive in any way. We then re-measured what people's intentions were, and then re measured their perceptions about the pro sand cons and the social norm elements and looked for differences before and after, differences between the groups, to try and get a sense of whether these different frames of message frames had any impact on people's beliefs.
In short, we found that the biggest change from watching any of these little documentary clips about plastic pollution is that everyone who saw one of those four experimental clips did believe that avoiding plastic was beneficial. They believe they'd feel good if they did it, and it's good for the environment. But when it came to social norms, it was a bit of a mixed effect.
So with one of the impact focus clips that didn't include any of those social, you know, “No, no, we shouldn't do this” messages, we did actually see more people believing that others were using single use plastic. So it did have that boomerang effect that we're worried about with descriptive norms.
However, with the beliefs about whether others approved and disapproved of using single use plastics, the biggest component wasn't whether people were wagging their fingers or not. It was actually who was the messenger. So we had David Attenborough and Craig Reucassel, two well-known media personalities, and then we had two kind of scientists, journalists like lesser known people and the ones with the well-known media personalities actually believed that others were more disapproving of using single use plastic. So again, it comes to this element of mass media can influence our perception about norms.
But a bigger element is really this level of authority or influence of the famous person, the credentials behind it. I think one of the dangers that a lot of communicators fall into is focusing too much on the problem. Because they want to draw attention to the scale. They want people to see this and go, Oh my God, this is horrible, because that's probably what they did when they learned about it.
But as we always say, the audience is not you, right? And it's okay to talk about the problem, but we also want to talk about the solution. And we want to emphasize that even though it may not be the norm now, the norm is changing. So a lot of people didn't think about single use plastics, didn't try and avoid single use plastics ten, twenty years ago.
Now, so many more people are starting to shift. And that's the message that we want to focus on. So this idea of what they call dynamic norms, that the behaviour of others is changing when it comes to single use plastic, which means if others can change, maybe you can too.
Kim Borg, thank you very much.
Thanks for having me, Geoff.
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