Recycling Norms

Posted: 10 Feb 2002

See all articles by Ann E. Carlson

Ann E. Carlson

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

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The recent explosion of legal scholarship focused on the role social norms play in governing collective behavior has largely omitted intensive exploration of one important issue: whether social norms can resolve "large-number, small-payoff" problems of collective action. The resolution of these problems requires heterogeneous groups of individuals with no real connection to one another to change their behavior for little or no economic gain. Many environmental problems, including energy overuse, littering and air pollution, are illustrative. In this Article I examine empirical evidence about a particular large-number, small-payoff collective action problem, solid waste reduction through recycling, to determine whether and how social norms work to induce behavioral change necessary to resolve the problem.

I conclude that despite the optimism among some scholars about social norms management as a promising regulatory tool, our national experiment with recycling suggests that norm creation or management by itself is 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. Governments are likely to have more success in solving such problems through reducing the amount of effort required or by using financial incentives to induce the behavioral change. Norms management can, however, 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. Payoff is most likely if norm management efforts involve labor-intensive face-to-face communication or individual feedback. Even so, the payoff from efforts to strengthen social norms is likely to be lower than the payoff from effort reducing measures and financial incentives.

JEL Classification: KE2, Z13

Suggested Citation

Carlson, Ann E., Recycling Norms. California Law Review, Vol. 89, October 2001. Available at SSRN:

Ann E. Carlson (Contact Author)

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

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