Law and Norms in Collective Action: Maximizing Social Influence to Minimize Carbon Emissions

By Ela, Jed S. | UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Law and Norms in Collective Action: Maximizing Social Influence to Minimize Carbon Emissions


Ela, Jed S., UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy


ABSTRACT

Legal scholars have long argued that informal social norms can solve collective action problems, as long as these problems occur in close-knit groups. This "group knittedness hypothesis" may suggest that social norms, by themselves, will not be able to solve the world's largest collective action problem: anthropogenic climate change. Yet recent scholarship has taken the group knittedness hypothesis too far, suggesting that any attempt to manage social influences in large, loose-knit groups is likely to be relatively ineffective.

In fact, social norms can shape individual behavior even in loose-knit groups, and climate policies that ignore norms may miss important opportunities to reduce carbon emissions. To predict how social norms might aid specific policy interventions, this Comment proposes looking at the visibility of specific behaviors rather than the knittedness of groups. According to two leading theories of the origin of social norms, norms govern the behaviors that people use to compete for social status or economic benefits. Because behaviors must be visible to become vehicles for competition, policymakers may be able to leverage norms by tailoring interventions to the visibility of carbon-emitting behaviors. For highly visible behaviors, where social influences are likely to be strong, policymakers should focus on creating a normative consensus in favor of changing behavior in order to align social influences with the desired policy. In contrast, for lower-visibility behaviors, policymakers must first focus on raising visibility, since visibility is necessary for social enforcement to begin. Finally, for inherently low-visibility behaviors, policymakers must design interventions to work entirely without social enforcement--or simply direct interventions toward other, more visible behaviors.

I.   INTRODUCTION

II.  LEGAL THEORIES OF NORMS
     A. Definitions: Varieties of "Norms"
        1. Social Norms Versus Personal Norms
        2. Positive Norms Versus Normative Norms
        3. Social Norms Versus Social Influences
     B. Reasons for Optimism? Cascade and Collective
        Action Models
        1. Cascade Models: Social Change on the
           Cheap
           a. Dynamic Effects of Norms Models
           b. Sparking Cascades Through
              Interventions
        2. Collective Action Models: Preserving the
           Commons
           a. Game Theory and Behavioral
              Experiments
           b. Empirical Studies: The Group
              Knittedness Hypothesis
     C. Persistent Pessimism: Individual Environmental
        Behavior

III. SOCIAL INFLUENCE AND BEHAVIORAL VISIBILITY
     A. The Ubiquity of Social Influences
        1. Theoretical Origins of Social Norms
           a. The Esteem Theory
           b. The Signaling Theory
        2. Norms and Structure in Large-Scale
           Collective Action Problems
     B. Using Behavioral Visibility to Maximize Social
        Influence

IV.  APPLICATIONS
     A. Higher-Visibility Behaviors: Using Consensus to
        Stimulate Positive Social Influence
        1. Public Information Campaigns
        2. Anti-Idling Laws
        3. On-the-Job Training
        4. Technology Mandates and Incentives
     B. Lower-Visibility Behaviors: Raising Visibility to
        Enable Social Influence
        1. Raising Visibility of Home Energy Use:
           Interventions Targeted Directly at the
           Home
           a. Direct Visibility
           b. Indirect Visibility
        2. Raising Visibility of Home Energy Use:
           Targeting Analogous Behavior in Public
           Locations
           a. Workplaces
           b. Public Accommodations
     C. Inherently Low-Visibility Behaviors
        1. Designing Nonsocial Norms Interventions.
        2. Substituting Higher-Visibility Behaviors

V.   CONCLUSION

I.

INTRODUCTION

Law-and-norms theorists have long acknowledged the power of social influences to determine individual behavior, and some have championed efforts to manage social norms (1) in situations where enforcement difficulties, transaction costs or political realities render other regulatory techniques--such as laws or economic incentives--ineffective or politically unpalatable. …

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