Shift in social norms is key to sustainable diets

A new study has found that social norms and self-efficacy play a key role in the shift to a sustainable diet, even more important than climate change and health.

Sustainable diets are lower in red meat consumption, which is better for the planet and good for our bodies alike. But while it seems like common sense to embrace a flexitarian diet by limiting red meat consumption to one serving per week and white meat to half a portion per day, for example, research shows that this will be difficult to achieve due to the scale of behavioural change required.

To help accelerate the shift to sustainable diets, researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and the University of Koblenz-Landau used computational models to identify the precise behavioural drivers of widespread dietary shifts. They found that social norms – what they describe as the unwritten rules of behaviour that are considered acceptable in a group or society – and self-efficacy, or the belief in one’s abilities to meet challenges, are the key drivers of population-wide dietary shifts, playing an even more important role than both the perception of climate change and health risk. What’s more, diet changes are especially influenced by how quickly social norms spread in the young population and the self-efficacy of females in particular.

The researchers believe that the results of their study could be used to help design policy interventions or communications campaigns using community-building activities or empowering messages, alongside providing information about climate change and the health risks related to meat consumption.

They now plan to collect more data from sources such as social media to quantify their model and focus on specific cases where cultural values and traditions also play an important role in whether people are willing to adapt their behaviour or not.

“In this way, we get a better understanding of what works to steer the lifestyle changes required for sustainability and climate change mitigation,” says Sibel Eker, lead author of the study.

Image credit: Anna Pelzer via Unsplash

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