Social Influence a Key Factor to Behavior Change in Transport

Our interactions with friends and family have a strong impact on our transportation decisions. Photo by Andreas Blixt.

The Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis (ITS-Davis) found that consumers heavily base their decisions on social influence. John Axsen, a post-doctoral researcher involved in the study, says that policymakers need to consider social influence in addition to price adjustments and information in order to change behavior, especially in regards to transportation.

“Our interactions with friends, families and coworkers affect the way we make decisions, how we value the environment, and how our lifestyle relates to our purchase decisions,” Axsen explains. “Car buyers are not just rational ‘automatons’ affected by price and the availability of product information. Social influence does matter.”

Although social networking tools have been recently considered in marketing schemes, policymakers are yet to incorporate social influence into policies, ITS reports.

“Individuals can really change their value systems, their priorities in important ways in a relatively short amount of time, given the right social conditions,” Axsen explains at the 2011 International Transport Forum on Transport Society in Leipzig, Germany. “This goes against some of the more conventional perspectives that individuals are these rational beings that are really just influenced by price and information—socially isolated in their decision making.”

Axsen further adds that any given individual is open to changing behavior towards an environmentally friendly practice. All it takes, as his research shows, is support in their network of friends and family.

According to Axsen:

“Conventional policy really just emphasizes two levers to change behavior. One is to change the price of the thing you’re trying to get people to buy, so if you make hybrid vehicles cheaper people will buy them. The second lever is through information. So governments will often try to diffuse, disseminate information to try to change people’s behavior. But really the social influence lever is ignored by policy and it should really be looked at more seriously. Understanding how an individual interacts with their friends and family, and how that can change their behavior.”

The International Transport Forum, an intergovernmental organization comprising 52 member countries convened by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) recently awarded Axsen with the “Young Researcher of the Year Award,” for his study on the intersection between societal influence and transportation. His paper titled “Interpersonal Influence within Car Buyer’s Social Networks: Developing Pro-Societal Values through Sustainable Mobility Policy,” was chosen from among 40 nominees throughout 16 countries.

“John Axsen’s paper is well suited to change the perspective of politicians responsible for transport and to broaden their bases of decision-making,” said Dr. Anreaas Scheuer, a jury representative and the Parliamentary State Secretary for Federal Ministry for Transport, Building and Urban Development in Germany.

To finalize his theories, Axsen interviewed 40 individuals in 11 different social networks in northern California. Based on the interviews, Axsen’s study identifies five theoretical perspectives on interpersonal influence, as explained by the Green Car Congress:

Contagion. In contagion, influence is transmitted through the point-to-point flow of information—i.e., interpersonal influence as the unidirectional flow of functional information. When a new vehicle technology comes to market, early adopters or experts help transmit information to build the general public’s awareness of the product or practice.

Contagion, notes Axsen, neglects important nuances of interpersonal influence. One criticism is that functional information is not the only type of information shared.

Conformity. Conformity addresses individuals’ perceptions of others’ thoughts and actions, and may best apply to symbolic benefits (private and societal). Conformity includes threshold models, where an individual’s threshold is the proportion of the relevant social system that must engage in the behavior before the individual will join. Thresholds may vary according to the strength of ties with other individuals, Axsen says, s well as physical proximity, structural equivalence, and other factors. However, while conformity conceptualizes the influence of thresholds, it neither represents specific interactions between members of a social group nor explains social norms arise or change.

Dissemination. Axsen applied dissemination—defined as “diffusion that is directed and managed” by an organized group—to the provision of societal benefits. As an example, collective action seeks to explains how motivated individuals interact and collaborate to provide societal benefits that would not have been provided otherwise. Collective action approaches look for the appearance of a critical mass: a small group with strong interest in the societal benefit that is willing to contribute resources to sustain more widespread action.

Dissemination may best apply to interpersonal influence concerning societal-functional and societal-symbolic benefits, Axsen suggests.

Translation. Translation is how consumers figure out the personal benefits and costs of the technology. “In this process there is ongoing negotiation between yourself and individuals in your social network. You might ask, ‘I know hybrid cars exist but will they save me money? Will they save the environment? Will my friends make fun of me?’ Working through this process is complex, and it occurs over time and through repeated interactions,” Axsen says.

Reflexivity. Reflexivity—the dynamic, continuous, selfaware process of defining and expressing oneself—is how consumers relate that technology to their personal values. “We found that, under the right conditions, consumers will start to change their values and potentially commit to a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle,” Axsen says, especially when an important reference group, such as family or co-workers, also supports that value. The reflexivity process counters traditional marketing models that assume people’s values are firm and unchanging.

The adoption of an innovation offering societal benefits, e.g., a PHEV, may be one component, or trial, of a more fundamental shift towards a societally-conscious lifestyle, Axsen notes. After adoption, a user may solidify or modify their initial interpretations of the vehicle. Thus, similar to translation, the innovation and its social context are subject to continuous uncertainty and revision of interpretations and meaning.






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