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Recycling Norms

73 Pages Posted: 26 Jul 2000  

Ann E. Carlson

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: 2000


The recent explosion of legal scholarship focused on the role social norms play in governing collective behavior has omitted intensive exploration of one hugely important issue: whether social norms can resolve "large-number, small-payoff" problems of collective action. These problems are characterized by large, heterogeneous groups of individuals with no real connection to one another, and where the behavioral change necessary to solve the collective action problem has little individual economic payoff. Many environmental problems are illustrative: energy conservation, littering, air pollution reduction through car pooling. Non-environmental problems like jury service, blood donation and even voting present other examples. In this article I examine a particular large-number, small-payoff collective action problem and its resolution - solid waste reduction through recycling - to determine whether and how social norms work to induce individual behavioral change necessary to resolve the problem. I review extensive empirical evidence about recycling, and, drawing from social norms legal literature, game theoretic work about public goods contributions and empirical evidence about common pool resources, make the following conclusions. First, despite the optimism among some scholars about social norm management as a regulatory tool, our national experiment with recycling suggests that norm creation or management is by itself not likely to be terribly effective in resolving a large-number, small-payoff collective action problem if the desired behavioral change is relatively inconvenient or requires significant effort. Norm management is instead likely to be most effective in encouraging behavioral change that requires relatively low effort. Second, governments are likely to have more success in solving such problems by either reducing the amount of effort required or using financial incentives to induce the desired behavioral change. Third, norm management can have some payoff where a collective action problem requires relatively high effort behavioral change if governments or other norm managers can succeed in converting some low or moderate believers in the norm to true believers. Empirical evidence shows that those who are deeply committed to a norm are likely to exert more effort than those who are not. Finally, norm management efforts that encourage face to face communication may be most successful in inducing positive behavioral change, a finding consistent with findings from public goods experiments.

These insights, if accurate, have significance across a number of different areas. If governments or other agents of social change need to rely on the altruism of many individuals in order to resolve a social problem, an understanding of the relationship between effort, norms and financial incentives can guide their efforts. So, too, can evidence about how effective various methods for norm management may be. If the blood supply is low, for example, it may be more efficacious to make blood donation easier through more convenient donor sites than merely to exhort potential donors to give blood. If an organization does rely on exhortations for blood donation it may be more effective to rely on personal contact than widely broadcast messages. Large-number, small-payoff collective action problems are among our most daunting to resolve given the lack of incentives for individual behavioral change and difficulties in monitoring and enforcing individual behavior. Understanding the role social norms might play in their resolution is an important first step.

Suggested Citation

Carlson, Ann E., Recycling Norms (2000). Stanford/Yale Jr. Faculty Forum Research Paper 00-08. Available at SSRN: or

Ann E. Carlson (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Room 1242
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476
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