Promoting the adoption of public goods that are not yet widely accepted is particularly challenging. This is because most tools for increasing cooperation—such as reputation concerns1 and information about social norms2—are typically effective only for behaviours that are commonly practiced, or at least generally agreed upon as being desirable. Here we examine how advocates can successfully promote non-normative (that is, rare or unpopular) public goods. We do so by applying the cultural evolutionary theory of credibility-enhancing displays3, which argues that beliefs are spread more effectively by actions than by words alone—because actions provide information about the actor’s true beliefs. Based on this logic, people who themselves engage in a given behaviour will be more effective advocates for that behaviour than people who merely extol its virtues—specifically because engaging in a behaviour credibly signals a belief in its value. As predicted, a field study of a programme that promotes residential solar panel installation in 58 towns in the United States—comprising 1.4 million residents in total—found that community organizers who themselves installed through the programme recruited 62.8% more residents to install solar panels than community organizers who did not. This effect was replicated in three pre-registered randomized survey experiments (total n = 1,805). These experiments also support the theoretical prediction that this effect is specifically driven by subjects’ beliefs about what the community organizer believes about solar panels (that is, second-order beliefs), and demonstrate generalizability to four other highly non-normative behaviours. Our findings shed light on how to spread non-normative prosocial behaviours, offer an empirical demonstration of credibility-enhancing displays and have substantial implications for practitioners and policy-makers.
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This research was made possible by US Department of Energy (award DE-EE0006128), the Templeton World Charity Foundation (grant no. TWCF0209) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency NGS2 programme (grant no. D17AC00005). The authors thank S. Carattini, C. Moya and M. Hoffman for their helpful feedback on drafts of this manuscript, and D. Banko and C. Borden for research assistance.
Nature thanks A. Grønhøj, L. Stanca and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.