Download this Paper Open PDF in Browser

Order without Social Norms: How Personal Norm Activation Can Protect the Environment

67 Pages Posted: 31 May 2005  

Michael P. Vandenbergh

Vanderbilt University - Law School


This Article tackles a leading problem confronting norms theorists and regulators: how can the law induce changes in behavior when the material costs to the individual outweigh the benefits and there is no close-knit community to impose sanctions for failure to change? Because private individuals and households are now surprisingly large contributors to environmental problems ranging from toxic pollution to climate change, environmental policy makers face compelling examples of these negative-payoff, loose-knit group situations. This Article suggests that internalized personal norms, rather than social norms, are the most important initial target of opportunity for influencing this kind of behavior.

Drawing on the social psychological literature, the Article develops a theory of environmental norm activation that identifies the changes in beliefs necessary to activate personal norms. The Article goes on to suggest the contours of an innovative regulatory reform that will enable the norm activation process to occur. It urges the adaptation of an existing reporting scheme, originally developed for industrial polluters, to require publication of an annual profile of toxic releases by individuals and households. The dissemination of this information will address negative-payoff, loose-knit group situations by activating norms that affect behavior directly, and it will generate civic support for government investments that make behavior change less expensive and more convenient for individuals to adopt. The Article concludes by identifying the implications of its theory and methodology for a wide range of regulatory areas in which individuals are sources of social risks.

Keywords: Environmental Law, Regulation, Social Norms, Personal Norms, Social Influences, Toxic Chemicals

Suggested Citation

Vandenbergh, Michael P., Order without Social Norms: How Personal Norm Activation Can Protect the Environment. Northwestern University Law Review, Vol. 99, No. 3, pp. 1101-1166, 2005. Available at SSRN:

Michael P. Vandenbergh (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States

Paper statistics

Abstract Views