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The source is the message: the impact of institutional signals on climate change–related norm perceptions and behaviors


With mandates and taxes to mitigate climate change proving politically challenging to implement, some scholars and policy makers have started looking to social norms as a vehicle for large-scale behavioral change. This raises the question of whether formal institutions or organizations are able to influence social norms and behavior. We designed a randomized experiment with a sample of 3627 American residents to investigate how social norm perceptions and behaviors change in response to institutional signals about climate change, and how this varies with signal source. We found that institutional signals, in particular when originating from science or business actors, shifted perceptions of descriptive social norms about climate action. Institutional signals also influenced intended pro-environmental behaviors, but did not increase personal contributions to environmental causes, suggesting that a shift in perceived norms may be insufficient to drive personal action, especially when it involves personal costs. Our study not only emphasizes the importance of institutional signals and messengers in changing perceptions of social norms, but also highlights the complexities involved in norm interventions ultimately aimed at influencing behavior.

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Data and code will be made available by email request to the corresponding author.


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S.M.C would like to thank the organizers and participants of the 2018 Norms and Behavioral Change Workshop at the University of Pennsylvania for helpful feedback on an earlier version of this paper.


A.R. acknowledges support by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant no. P1SGP1_174939). S.P. acknowledges research support provided by the European Research Council under the European Community’s Programme “Ideas” – Call identifier: ERC-2013-StG / ERC grant agreement no. 336703 – project RISICO “RISk and uncertainty in developing and Implementing Climate change policies.”

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S.M.C., S.P., A.R. and E.U.W. designed the study. S.M.C., S.P. and A.R. programmed the questionnaire under the supervision of E.U.W. S.M.C. analyzed the data, based on feedback from S.P., A.R., and E.U.W. R.F. did the specification curve analysis. S.M.C., S.P., A.R., R.F., and E.U.W. drafted and approved the final version of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Sara M. Constantino.

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Constantino, S.M., Pianta, S., Rinscheid, A. et al. The source is the message: the impact of institutional signals on climate change–related norm perceptions and behaviors. Climatic Change 166, 35 (2021).

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  • Social norms
  • Social influence
  • Climate change
  • Environment
  • policy
  • Institutions
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