Changing social norms and behaviors for the sake of the planet and people

By Patrícia Dérer

“It’s just a snowflake in the avalanche, just a drop in the ocean”– we hear these arguments time and again in the fight against global challenges with individual actions. And yet, thousands of environmental activists are working on changing our social norms and individual behaviors with campaigns aiming to create a better world. And they are right to do so. Their attempts include changing consumption patterns away from meat and antibiotics, saying “no” to plastic packaging, promoting fossil-free transportation behavior, and many more.

The recent, rapid successes of the #MeToo movement, the rise of vegan dieting, the similarly rapid shift to eliminate single-use plastics, all give us reason to hope that positive changes in attitudes can spread quickly. In a recent Science article, Centola and colleagues experimentally show that convincing only a quarter of a group can start a persuasive domino effect and change the behavior of the entire group1. This hopeful result stems from the very notion of social norms as patterns of behavior that are self-enforcing within a group: everyone conforms, everyone is expected to conform, and everyone wants to conform when they expect everyone else to conform2. Yet there are tipping points, whereby a sufficiently large minority – the critical mass – can change the societal norm of the whole group abruptly, especially in combination with the right motivating policies3.

The potentials and limits of social norm changes as a means to solve large-scale problems are not yet fully understood, and it is not easy to judge whether patterns of environmentally detrimental behaviors may be broken permanently by changed social norms. For instance, to what extent can norms be changed in different cultural settings (e.g. in secular and in strongly religious societies)? Yet changed and still changing fertility norms and the associated slowdown in population growth in many, but far from all countries appears to be a great example of how change in social norms contribute to meeting large scale environmental and social challenges. In parallel, on the small scale, fewer, spaced births can lead to personal benefits in health and welfare for the family. Thus, the continuation of fertility decline accelerated by family planning programs that include active social norm changes is desirable. In contrast high fertility and associated population growth is detrimental, especially in the context of climate change (read more about the connection between overpopulation and environmental issues here).

Traditionally, most societies have norms that influence or regulate fertility. These include not only ideal numbers of children, but also the normal age of marriage, women’s status in the family and society, and the acceptance of some sort of contraception use. Concerning the latter, contrary to widespread beliefs, in 52 developing countries the unmet need for contraception is not mainly attributed to lack of access. Rather, the evidence suggests that prevailing social norms, informational and socio-cultural barriers are the main causes such as misinformation, false beliefs and myths4,5.

pmc reasons for not using contraceptives
Note: The value for each bar is an unweighted average of responses in 52 countries.
*respondent reported subfecund or infecund
**Includes a small proportion of women citing inconvenience of use of method. Source: (Population Media Center 2018), data based on (Sedgh at al. 2016)

The other question is if there is even a demand for contraception. In many developing countries in Africa, evidence shows that the main driver of contraception non-use and high fertility are social norms related to large desired family size, which can be even larger than the actual total fertility rate. On average, in Western and Central Africa the desired family size is 0.6 children higher than the actual TFR, which may already be very high (compare Niger’s 9.5 ideal versus the actual 7 children per women TFR)6.

ideal number of children and no intention to use contraception
DHS= Demographic and Health Surveys. Source of data: (Sedgh et al. 2016)

Overall, while assuring access to safe and cheap family planning everywhere is important, there are many countries with an urgent need for changing long-established and widely practiced traditional, fertility-influencing norms. Luckily, there are effective tools being used with great success.

Let’s have a look at the most successful organization influencing norms around fertility, gender equality, reproductive health and environmental protection. The Population Media Center is shaping social norms and raising awareness while entertaining their audiences. They have reached more than 500 million people in over 50 countries since starting in 1998. PMC broadcasts mass-media TV soap operas and radio dramas in more than 20 languages using the Sabido technique7. Miguel Sabido pioneered the use of telenovelas to address social issues like illiteracy, teenage pregnancy and high levels of unwanted pregnancies during the 1970s in Mexico. PMC follows this well-researched method based on several psychological and psychosocial theories, creating inspiring shows that encourage the audience to learn positive behaviors and avoid oppressive ones by developing emotional bonds with fictional characters.

pmc_theory of change
The Population media Center’s Theory of change. Source

The shows follow an issue-based process of the hero’s journey with specific supplementary characters that enable role modeling of different perspectives, actions and consequences. Consequently, popular misinformation, rumors and myths (for example, concerning contraception use) can be subverted cost efficiently and without backlash. Arguably, PMC’s most important work is to monitor the impact of their mass-media entertainment. For example, 67% of reproductive health clients in Nigeria cited a PMC radio drama as their primary motivation to visit the clinic. Listeners to a different Nigerian drama knew much better where they could get condoms (96% vs. 64% for non-listeners). The impact is measurable in the field of environmental protection as well: the listeners to a radio serial drama aired in Papua New Guinea were significantly more active in marine conservation activities than non-listeners (22% vs. 8%). PMC works in both developing and developed countries; they are currently doing a great job in the USA to lower unwanted teen pregnancies and abortions, through series that inform adolescents about sexual and reproductive health.

Learn more about the social norm-changing activity of Population Media Center here, or listen to a podcast episode with the founder of PMC, William Ryerson, here!



  1. Centola, D., Becker, J., Brackbill, D. & Baronchelli, A. Experimental evidence for tipping points in social convention. Science (80-. ). 360, 1116–1119 (2018).
  2. Young, H. P. The Evolution of Social Norms. Annu. Rev. Econom. 7, 359–387 (2015).
  3. Nyborg, K. et al. Social norms as solutions. Science (80-. ). 354, 42–43 (2016).
  4. Sedgh, G., Ashford, L. S. & Hussain, R. Unmet Need for Contraception in Developing Countries: Examining Women’s Reasons for Not Using a Method. (2016).
  5. Population Media Center. Understanding and Overcoming Bias Against Contraception: The Case for Social Norm Intervention. (2018).
  6. Madsen, E. What’s Behind West and Central Africa’s Youthful Demographics? High Desired Family Size. New Security Beat 167–190 (2015). Available at:
  7. Barker, K. Broadcasting New Behavioral Norms: Theories Underlying the Entertainment-Education Method. in Handbook of Communication for Development and Social Change (ed. Servaes, J.) 293–326 (Springer, Singapore, 2018).

2 thoughts on “Changing social norms and behaviors for the sake of the planet and people

  1. Bill Ryerson has devoted his life to the Miguel Sabido vision of changing social norms and behaviors and the Population Media Center’s service in many countries is brilliant. No one is better than Joe Bish in finding the news items weekly that chronicle overpopulation with both the good and bad news focused on the goal of population stabilization. Thank you for this valuable blog and highlighting the Nigerian experience. – Bob Gillespie, Population Communication

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