Social conformity and mobility choices

Habit is a very strong force in resisting change even where the argument for behavioural change is compelling. The advertising industry claims that reliance on awareness raising of a product or service will have a muted response. Appeal to the values and basic emotions of different generations will generate a better impact in the mobility field. Therefore, one must conclude that change is not driven by knowledge and insight, but through emotionally perceived values – socially conditioned. Knowledge is not enough.

• Innovating in smaller groups can produce better results than innovating into an overall population as the feelings of belong and responsibility within the small group is stronger.

• Change is not driven by knowledge and insight but through socially conditioned, emotionally perceived values – knowledge is not enough.

• It is important to sell values that appeal to different generations and basic emotions.

• The advertising industry suggests that awareness raising only of the characteristics of the (mobility) product and service to target groups will produce a muted impact.

• The mobility decision-making process involves strong social influences that have little to do with the functional value of the mobility.

The mobility decision-making process, whether it be a decision to change and purchase a particular type of mobility, the purchasing decision moment itself for product X or Y, the decision to use or rent mobility, and finally the mobility experience, all involve strong social influences and have little to do with the functional value of the mobility. In the neo-classical model people’s preferences are independent of others but this is not the case in reality. Some decisions are made at the level of the group (for example, as seen in studies of activity based scheduling between household members). People also compare with others, or with society in general, when obtaining information, taking decisions or when evaluating the consequences of decisions.

Mobility innovators need to be sensitive to social dynamics in developing products and services.

For example, innovating into smaller groups can produce more success than innovating into an overall population; as the feelings of belonging and responsibility within the group are stronger. In this context we can return to the example of mobility sharing. In the UK, Liftshare have over half a million registered car poolers. Rather than take the step to develop a population wide ‘open’ service, they have chosen to develop common awareness-raising tools, but applied within ‘closed social networks’ in workplaces – and with considerable success.

Research shows that conformity to group behaviours is very strong; and the social pressure to conform to the views of one’s immediate peers is strong. These social norms have strong impacts on how choices are made. For example, collective conservatism can develop, even if the rationale for it becomes outdated: in addition, traditions persist because people think others like it. In this context we need to distinguish between fashion, tradition and habit. Fashionable mobility is on the competitive edge – buy an electric car, an electric ‘plugboat’, use Uber etc. Tradition is well explained by the persistence of the post-war attachment to cars for 60 years; despite growing congestion. Habit in mobility is a very strong force in resisting change, even where the argument for behavioural change is compelling.

Social, as opposed to individual, values and norms generate a critical mass of choices; which then acts as its own dynamic. Models of mobility choices that ignore this dynamic will produce misleading forecasts.

There are two types of social norms that can have significant influences on behaviours; descriptive and injunctive:

“Descriptive norms – describe what most people do in a certain environment: thinking that the majority must be right (called the social proof heuristic). It can have both desired and undesired effects – encouraging conformity to the social norm, or strengthening the reaction to it.

Injunctive norms – these only promote the desired behaviour. They inform people what they should do, and what might happen if they do not conform.”

In situations where the (morally correct) injunctive norm is violated, then the descriptive norm appears to be the most accurate predictor of behaviour – norm abiding or norm violating. In the case of norm violations, situational cues are important to reinforce the norm (for example speed warning signs).

Our mental lives are entwined with social lives and ‘social norms’. These are strong influences in the formation of our beliefs, values, perceptions and attitudes. This combined force can have both positive and negative outcomes for individual and social well–being.

“Conforming behaviour that says, ‘well if that’s what people do, it must be right’. In contrast, other social norms that say ‘this is what you should do’ and ‘this is what will happen if you do not’”

Conformity breeds habit. Habitual mobility decisions require less cognitive effort and have been shown to have strong resistance to change policies. In the treatment of ‘anti-social’ habits (addictions), psychiatrists and psychologists now believe there are strategies to combat habit.

“In the past decade, our understanding of the neurology and psychology of habits, and the way patterns work within our lives, societies and organisations has expanded in ways we could not of imagined 50 years ago. We now know why habits emerge, how they change and the science behind their mechanics. We know how to break them into parts and rebuild them into our specification. Transforming a habit is not necessarily easy or quick, but it is possible – and now we understand how” – Duhigg (2013)

In this context, mobility behaviours are among the most challenging and complex social (rather than anti-social) habits to change; and will perhaps prove the hardest test for the new intelligence.

Transport planners have pursued a number of progress traps in the attempt to get large changes in mobility behaviour: The most recent one being Personalised Travel Planning. Rather similar in logic to neo-classical economics, the vast numbers of mobility decision makers are held constant; isolating (from a very large screening sample) the usually small minority that has indicated the ‘realistic’ possibility to change. The stimulus to change is provided by travel information and a visit from a transport-planning officer to indicate ‘what are the best options for them’. Changes (usually short term) in the behaviour a small proportion of this latter group are then mis-reported against the initial large screening sample of the population. In the absence of other methods, and as justification to the considerable costs incurred, much is at stake to prove this method works. Recent projects within the European Commission’s Intelligent Energy Programme (SWITCH, PTP Cycle, CHUMS) are applying PTP to specific groups of people (people at ‘life change moments’ making short car journeys, potential cyclists, and potential car poolers). In all cases, the application and results are, not surprisingly, disappointing. Deeper insights are needed.

More promising progress has been made in the area of social awareness-raising campaigns on mobility issues; though the direct impact on changing mobility behaviour is often difficult to measure, unless the campaign supports a specific new innovation to increase market share – or by stimulating change through participatory actions such as gaming and fun activities (for example the Beat the Street exercise with school children).

The advertising industry will claim that, for over 10 years, it has understood the basis on which people change behaviour and possibly break habits. Raising awareness only of the characteristics of the (mobility) product and service to target groups in society will have a muted impact. Factual points are just side issues they argue. What is important is to sell values – values that appeal to the drives of different generations and values that appeal to basic emotions that evoke family, maternal love, fidelity, security, status, triumph, performance etc. In the current social model favouring the ego, the impetus for change is the positive impact on the individual’s well-being – that is, change which conforms to current social values, but where the individual is the primary beneficiary. In contrast, in many cases some emotions and beliefs are so engrained in individuals, cultural and social mores that change options cannot be contemplated at all (what the psychologist terms ‘cognitive dissonance’).

It is here that the wider context of mobility mind-sets is significant. Change is not driven by knowledge and insight; but through emotionally perceived values, socially conditioned – knowledge is not enough. Messages to change mobility behaviour will only be effective if they latch on to deep rooted emotions. Such emotions are barely conscious and deep rooted but highly influential. Through social interaction, kinship networks and other social bonding; these deep rooted emotions can also reflect the emotions of peer groups and of whole cultures. “Longer term changes in (mobility) behaviour and in life in general will not come about through rational knowledge but through emotionally charged values; not through the cerebral cortex but through ‘gut feelings’” (Verhaeghe, 2014).

  • DUHIGG, C. (2013). The power of habit. Random House books, London.
  • Verhaeghe, P (2014). What about me? The struggle for identity in a market based society. Scribe publications, London.

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