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Stanford University School of Medicine

Want to change a behavior? Realize that others are changing, Stanford research suggests

Last year, Joe regularly ate meat. Bacon, burgers and wings were among his favorite foods. But this year, he's into kale, carrots and lentils. What happened?

Well, he changed. And when that change is multiplied by hundreds — José, Josie, Jo and Yousef have all joined in — societal norms change. Healthful veggies are in, greasy meat is out.

But how does that happen? A pair of Stanford psychologists decided to find out by conducting a series of four experiments on meat consumption. Interestingly, they found that if you know others are changing, you are more likely change yourself.

For example, one experiment found that diners in a Stanford cafe were more likely to choose a meat-free meal after reading a statement explaining that others "are starting to limit how much meat they eat," a phrase indicating a change is in progress, versus those who read a statement that some people "limit how much meat they eat."

First author Gregg Sparkman, a graduate student in psychology, explains in a Stanford news release:

Just learning that other people are changing can instigate all these psychological processes that motivate further change. People can begin to think that change is possible, that change is important and that in the future, the norms will be different. And then, if they become persuaded and decide to change, it starts to become a reality.

The researchers also examined whether these "dynamic norms" apply in other areas, such as water use. In Stanford residential laundry rooms, they tested the effects of two different signs encouraging conservation. One read: "Most Stanford residents use full loads! Help Stanford conserve water!" Its dynamic partner, conveying change, read: "Stanford residents are changing: Now most use full loads! Help Stanford conserve water!"

In the laundry room with sign #1, consumption dropped 10 percent, compared with nearly 30 percent following the posting of sign #2.

"Showing how norms are changing can give people a model of how they can change too, and lead to a circumstance where many people change," said senior author Greg Walton, PhD, associate professor of psychology.

The research appears in Psychological Science.

Previously: Precision policy: Bring out the best health behaviors with targeted programs, Advice for changing health behavior: "Think like a designer" and  Smartphone app detects changes in mental health patients' behavioral patterns in real time
Photo by Thomas Hawk

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