What we at r3.0 are reading (3)

8 min readJun 26, 2023

Social Norms & Social Tipping Points — A Review of the Latest Research

Part Two

By Bill Baue

Contextual Note: In Part One of this piece, we reviewed one recent paper in the emerging literature on social norms and social tipping points, co-authored by Jenn Cardinal, one of the speakers in the 10th International r3.0 Conference’s final Session, Tipping into Prosocial Norms — Triggering beneficial social norm tipping points to avert adverse tipping points. In Part Two here, we review a number of other important studies in this growing body of research to further contextualize the underpinnings of this Conference Session.

On 22 June 2023, Nature Sustainability published a study finding that adverse ecological tipping points are substantially more likely to occur (38–81%, to be precise) than previously believed. Far from being an anomaly, this research fits into a much longer history of increasing awareness of adverse real-world tipping points — or non-linear phase-shifts — that emerge in ecological and social systems.

A parallel trend is the recognition that tipping points in social systems — or more precisely, social norms — can shift in both directions: namely, not just in a negative or adverse direction, but also in a positive or beneficial direction. The notion of thresholds applying to desirable outcomes developed between the 1950s and 1970s; perhaps most noteworthy, Harvard Professor Erica Chesworth’s “3.5% rule” — which “refers to the claim that no government has withstood a challenge of 3.5% of their population mobilized against it during a peak event” — dates back at least a decade. Theoretical research estimating the percentage of a population that can trigger a tipping point in social norms dates back to at least 2011, and estimates have ranged from 3 to 10 to 40 percent.

Theorizing tipping points in social norms is one thing; proving that they exist through empirical experimentation is quite another. Accordingly, the 2018 publication of “Experimental evidence of tipping points in social convention” by UPenn researcher Damon Centola and colleagues represents a landmark development in this line of inquiry. The study asserts:

“The findings provide direct empirical demonstration of the existence of a tipping point in the dynamics of changing social conventions.”

A more recent piece by Giulia Andrighetto and Eva Vriens proposing “A research agenda for the study of social norm change” summarizes the dynamics of tipping points in social norms quite nicely:

“To reach tipping points a small minority of committed individuals should be willing to transgress existing norms [44]. These committed individuals have a low threshold for change and do not let their behaviour be affected by opposing social expectations or social sanctions [46]. They generally have strong personal normative beliefs in favour of the new, desired social norm (i.e. high norm sensitivity), are autonomous in their decision making and are less sensitive to the (perceived) risk of deviating from an established norm. By (repeatedly) demonstrating behaviour in disagreement with the existing social norm, they may slowly change empirical expectations of others, who start observing more norm violations and — depending on their personal normand risk sensitivity — may or may not be willing to follow suit. Then, once the tipping point is reached, large-scale change in both behaviour and normative expectations follows [42]. In other words, while early movers act out of (a change in) their personal normative beliefs, after passing the tipping point the large majority follows not because of a change in their personal normative beliefs, but because of a change in social expectations. The crucial question is, thus, how many people have to adopt a new norm before tipping occurs and social incentives reverse.”

Rewind to the Centola et al empirical findings from 2018, which were surprisingly precise:

“When the number of confederates was roughly 25% of the group, the opinion of the majority could be tipped to that of the minority.”

While this finding of a precise tipping point in social norms under experimental conditions clearly carries deep significance in many diverse instances, arguably the most significant implications apply to the potential to leverage positive tipping points in social norms to help avert negative tipping points in ecological and social systems: the symmetric counterbalance is appealingly poetic.

Research on positive tipping points to counteract negative tipping points is a relatively recent — but exceedingly hot! — line of inquiry that was put on the map by the 2020 study by Ilona Otto et al entitled “Social tipping dynamics for stabilizing Earth’s climate by 2050.” In the Tipping into Prosocial Norms Session at the r3.0 Conference, co-author Avit Bhomik will present on this study, which discusses and evaluates

“the potential of social tipping interventions (STIs) that can activate contagious processes of rapidly spreading technologies, behaviors, social norms, and structural reorganization within their functional domains that we refer to as social tipping elements (STEs). STEs are subdomains of the planetary socioeconomic system where the required disruptive change may take place and lead to a sufficiently fast reduction in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.”

The study identifies 6 social tipping interventions and associated social tipping elements, as illustrated in the below figure:

While these specific interventions and elements are interesting, the more significant aspect of this study is the assertion that we humans can consciously intervene in social systems to purposefully trigger positive social tipping points (STPs) in order to avert negative tipping points in earth systems and social systems. But this is far from a simple task, as Drs Andrighetto and Vriens explain in their research agenda article:

“When designing interventions to move a large enough minority to the tipping point, the success depends on identifying and targeting the right mechanisms driving behaviour. As long as tipping point models follow an abstract descriptive and predictive approach with little attention paid to the mechanisms through which the outcomes are brought about, it is difficult to explain why we observe what we observe [52]. This inhibits, among others, the generalization of the results to other contexts and the derivation of broader implications for the predicted behavioural patterns. Thus, when the aim is to reach the tipping point, we need not only to locate it, but also to diagnose what sustains the dominant behaviour. For instance, if preferences rather than social norms drive behaviour, social norm interventions are not effective [53]. But if it is indeed social expectations underlying the decision making, those expectations may be changed through the toolkit of norm-based interventions.”

These kinds of questions are precisely what make the positive-social-tipping-points-to-counteract-negative-tipping-points line of inquiry so hot! This heat is evidenced by the convening of an entire conference dedicated to this line of inquiry (see here for a great comprehensive summary of the event by Carbon Brief), and more recently, the launching of a series of articles on positive tipping points from Positive News.

Also, the heat has resulted in some healthy skepticism and scrutiny — most visibly, Manjana Milkoreit’s 2022 examination of the potential negative aspects of the positive social tipping points trend, entitled “Social tipping points everywhere? — Patterns and risks of overuse”:

“Drawing on a well-established definition for tipping points, and a qualitative review of articles that explicitly treat social tipping points as potential solutions to climate change, this article identifies four deleterious patterns in the application of the STP concept in this recent wave of research on nonlinear social change: (i) premature labeling, (ii) not defining system boundaries and scales of analysis, (iii) not providing evidence for all characteristics of tipping processes, and (iv) not making use of existing social theories of change.”

Milkoreit traces the risk of “deleterious patterns” back to the very emergence of the positive social tipping points as a concept:

“In one of the earliest social science contributions using the terminology of social tipping, Moser and Dilling’s “Toward the Social Tipping Point: Creating a Climate for Change” (2007), the authors changed two fundamental assumptions regarding social tipping compared to tipping points in ecological, climate or Earth systems. First, they implied that nonlinear change dynamics could be desirable, even necessary, for societies. Since then, many sustainability scholars have differentiated normatively positive and negative tipping, but tended to focus on desirable social tipping in their research (Stadelmann-Steffen et al., 2021; Tàbara et al., 2018; Totten, 2012). Second, Moser and Dilling assumed that tipping processes could be intentionally induced — deliberately activated — rather than passively experienced. These two changes in perspective completely flipped the script. Suddenly, we no longer looked at tipping points only as threatening, potentially even catastrophic events in nature that appear largely unstoppable, to some extent unpredictable and out of our control. Instead, we welcome and look for them as much-needed policy tools at our disposal to speed up our responses to climate change and move along the transformations demanded by publics and decision-makers around the world.

These two assumptions — desirability and intentionality — are risky. They imply a possibly false sense of control and agency with regard to highly complex processes in social-environmental systems that are likely characterized by emergence and surprise. At the moment, there is little confidence among scientists and policy makers in our ability to predict and avoid climate tipping; let alone manage its social impacts. Yet, there is a curious degree of confidence in our collective ability to initiate and control rapid and radical change in social systems. Our attitudes toward control of social tipping processes is even more puzzling, given that our understanding of social systems is significantly weaker than that of natural ones (Bernstein et al., 2000) and that their complexity tends to be higher (van Ginkel et al., 2020; Winkelmann et al., 2021).”

With these caveats and cautions in mind, research is marching forward — as is practical application. Recently, the Dutch climate change activist Femke Sleegers initiated the Social Tipping Point Coalition, which advocates for widespread action to trigger positive STPs. For example, in 2021 the Coalition sent a letter to Dutch government leader Mariëtte Hamer imploring her to “accelerate climate policy with a strategy that provokes social tipping points.” The letter elucidated:

“A Social Tipping Point Strategy is an integral climate strategy that can bring the 1.5-degree target of the Paris Agreement more quickly within reach. This can be done by strategically deploying social tipping point measures that accelerate and reinforce each other. These measures will lead, for example, to a growth in knowledge and social support, more citizens’ initiatives, price reductions on existing sustainable technology and shifts in the energy market which will make fossil fuels less attractive. The measures within this strategy reinforce each other, cost the government hardly any money and sometimes even generate revenue.”

Ms Sleegers will speak in the Tipping into Prosocial Norms Session at the r3.0 Conference expounding on the promise and challenges of practical implementation of STPs.

And stepping back, the notion of “activating restorative norms” frames the overall Conference, as we collectively explore the potential of applying our human agency to help steer the formation — and transformation — of social norms into a mechanism for cultivating evolution toward regenerative and sustainable cultures that operate in harmony with the natural systems that we are a part of. It may be an audacious goal, but do we have any other alternative?

Here’s Part 1 of this 2-part mini series:




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