Social influences on mobility choices

Research has shown that people’s preferences are not independent of others, but that conformity to group behaviours and agreement with the views of others is strong. This impacts choices including transport and travel behaviour choices. This need to conform can result in collective conservatism even when the rationale for a decision or choice is outdated.

• Once mobility becomes privately owned it becomes a possession and reason for its purchase goes beyond the simple function of getting from A to B.

• One example by which social influences can have a great impact is by generating a critical mass of users to make a public transport route viable.

• The exchange of mobility experiences is a primary subject of dialogue which emphasises that mobility is more to a person than actual movement.

• Collective conservatism can develop even if the rationale for it becomes outdated.

• Research shows that conformity to group behaviours and to agree with the views of others is strong.

Mobility choices and group conformity

There are numerous ways in which social interaction affects economic behaviour in general and in transport. 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 shown by activity based scheduling between household members). People also compare with others when taking decisions or evaluating the consequences through 3 channels (see Abou-Zeid & Ben-Akiva, 2011):

  • People obtain information from others;
  • People seek approval from others;
  • Downward comparison may make one feel happier and vice versa and affect future choices.

Research shows that conformity to group behaviours is very strong; and conformity to agree with the views of others is also strong, even if the individuals hardly know each other (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). This has strong impacts on choices. For example, collective conservatism can develop, even if the rationale for it becomes outdated: in addition, traditions persist because people think others like it. This point is particularly important in the success of transport soft measures (Sunitiyoso et al., 2011). Being a member of smaller groups produces stronger incentives than being a part of the overall population, as the feeling of belonging and responsibility within the group are stronger. Therefore, soft mobility measures, for example, should be local and personalised.

“Conformity and social influence plays a large role in the acceptance of new types of vehicles”

Using social influences can have a significant impact on the transport system, for instance by generating a critical mass of users that make the use of public transport modes on given routes viable (Dugundji and Gulyas, 2008). So we can say that models of mobility choices that ignore social influences are likely to produce misleading choice parameters. Most mobility surveys collect no information on social networks.

An important contextual element that might support or weaken one’s personal norms is the social norm. Two types of social norms have been defined; 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).

“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’”

Our mental lives are entwined with our social lives and ‘social norms’ are strong influences on the formation of our beliefs, values, perceptions and attitudes – these social forces can have positive and negative outcomes.

Mobility gives image and positive self-esteem

Mobility gives image. Your possessions and behaviour in society provide a ‘projected personality’ and your ‘identity’ (defined by others, not by you). This can either be done in the form of conforming your behaviour to that of the group (with bonding and protective advantages), such as accepted fashion or social expression, or through individual expression as a fashion innovator and initiator of a new group – social experimentation.

The expression of your lifestyle is through your appearance, your behaviour and the possessions you have that support them.

Once mobility becomes privately owned, it becomes a possession and the reasons for purchasing and using it go far beyond the simple function of getting from A to B.

It takes on a highly useful, mobile expression of your projected personality, and therefore as people define your identity, in a way that you cannot do so well with the static possessions in your house.

Where mobility possessions express higher relative freedom, then they are socially powerful tools. Car ownership is of course the primary example, a dominating factor defining differences in social status between people. In this context, the hormone testosterone and socio-sexual competition in the traffic environment is more predominant than the release of Oxytocin, the sharing and bonding hormone. In many social peer groups, peer group pressure expects a certain level of mobility from you; resulting in your group acceptance or your marginalization.

Perhaps this pattern, still dominant, is changing through new generations of digitally empowered people.

“Expensive mobility possessions, providing status and power could be being replaced by the status and power achieved through purchasing the latest new laptop or smart phone, ‘applications’, or through the content and power of your Facebook page – perhaps a far safer environment to express your competitive edge”

Public transport, in countries where the aspiration for car ownership is strong, is seen as ‘poor person’s mobility’. However, in the new digital world, public transport is the perfect environment for self-expression through appearance, and for displaying your connectedness with the new society through smart phone and laptop use – at the bus stop, in the airport, on the train and so on. Of course this excursion into self-expression hides the huge intrinsic value that mobile devices bring to extend the time for socializing, for leisure, and for working.

“Mobility possessions (or lack of them) play a major role in projected personality to peer groups”

Mobility can be used in conversation to lay down relative status (and power); and therefore to command respect from people and peer groups. People meeting for the first time pass signals to each other to establish relative status. While in the past, one’s occupation may have been the first signal to pass on, in the modern world, these signals are more likely to emphasize mobility freedoms, mobility status, and strong IT connectivity.

“In the new world, your peer group may not demand a high performance car from you, but they will demand high performance connectivity”

The exchange of mobility experiences is also a primary subject of dialogue. Of course, this should not be surprising, given the increasing volume of mobility for leisure and business travel; but it serves to re-emphasize that mobility is more to a person than actual movement. This is essential intelligence to those planning and designing mobility products and services. It is something that psychologists in the car manufacturing sector have been working with for years, but which now needs to take the foreground with all stakeholders in the wider mobility economy.

  • ABOU-ZEID, M. and BEN-AKIVA M. (2011). The effect of social comparisons on commute well-being. Transportation Research A, 45, 345–361.
  • DUGUNDJI, E. and GULYAS, L. (2008). Sociodynamic discrete choice on networks in space: Impacts of agent heterogeneity on emergent outcomes. Environment & Planning B, 35, 1028-1054.
  • SUNITIYOSO, Y., AVINERI, E. and CHATTERJEE, K. (2011). The effect of social interactions on travel behaviour: An exploratory study using a laboratory experiment. Transportation Research Part A, 45, 332–344.
  • THALER, R.H. and SUNSTEIN, C.R. (2008). Nudge, Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Yale University Press.

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