Social tipping points
Social norms are the conventions that define the acceptable standards of behaviour in our society. They are the sources of law and the ultimate drivers of legislation. For example, sentiments are shifting away from fossil fuels; the moral pressure on large emitters are growing and driving a surge in global climate policies and legislation (Green, 2018). At the same time, businesses and governments are being exposed to an increased risk of litigation which, in turn, impacts their behaviour and actions.
Social norms are also prone to tipping points, and far-reaching social change can indeed occur as a result of the beliefs and actions of a committed few. Various studies have demonstrated that a tipping point known as social contagion is often at work in social change. Lenton et al. (2022:4) defines this as “The positive feedback [loop that] occurs when adoption of a norm or behaviour makes it easier for the next person to adopt it, through imitation”.
This idea builds on the acknowledgment that we are more likely to adopt the behaviours and beliefs embraced by our peers. Once a sufficiently large number of those peers adopts a new behaviour and reaches a critical mass, a committed minority of individuals are able to overturn established behaviour and drive social change (Centola et al., 2018). For example, widespread acceptance of meat substitutes – if accompanied by acceptable cost levels and easy access – may trigger a change in behaviour and social norms around global diets. Changes in behaviour, institutions or social norms are typically interlinked with changes in environmental, economic, geopolitical or technological systems.
Centola, D. et al. 2018. Experimental evidence for tipping points in social convention. Science. 360(6393):1116-1119. DOI:10.1126/science.aas8827.
Green, F. 2018. Anti-fossil fuel norms. Climate Change. 150:103-116. DOI:10.1007/s10584-017-2134-6.
Lenton T.M. et al. 2022. Operationalising positive tipping points towards global sustainability. Global Sustainability. 5. DOI:10.1017/sus.2021.30.