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Cultural evolution of normative motivations for sustainable behaviour

A Publisher Correction to this article was published on 18 June 2018

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An emerging literature on the evolution of culture can offer new explanations for how norms encourage or obstruct sustainable practices. In particular, dual-inheritance theory describes how interactions between genetic and cultural evolution give rise, in part, to prosociality. Based on this theory, we identify the concept of normative motivation — internalized desires to follow and enforce norms. We discuss the utility of this concept in progressing two major research agendas across the social and behavioural sciences: the impact of motivation on cognition and normative behaviour, and the influence of norms on the policy process. Key contributions from considering norms from this evolutionary perspective include: (1) an improved model of the motivations that lead individuals to follow norms, (2) clarification of how and when incentives successfully generate motivations favouring sustainability and (3) new ideas for leveraging the influence of norms in public policy beyond financial incentives and education campaigns.

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Fig. 1: Descriptive versus injunctive norms.
Fig. 2: Dual-inheritance theory of normative motivation.
Fig. 3: Motivations for following descriptive versus injunctive norms.

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Change history

  • 18 June 2018

    Owing to a technical error, this Perspective was originally published without its received and accepted dates; the dates ‘Received: 29 November 2017; Accepted: 9 April 2018’ have now been included in all versions.


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The authors are grateful to B. Mihalec-Adkins, A. Roach and E. Ozgumus for their research assistance and to the Social Cognition of Social Justice Lab and participants in the Purdue University Center for the Environment Workshop on New Perspectives on Sustainability and Resilience for feedback. The authors also thank D. Kelly and A. Zabala for their helpful comments. Finally, the authors thank S. Bond and M. Lifton for help with figures, as well as the Purdue Center for the Environment and Department of Psychological Sciences for financial support for this work.

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T.D., E.P.H. and L.R. contributed equally to the conceptualization, research and writing of this Perspective.

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Correspondence to Leigh Raymond.

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Davis, T., Hennes, E.P. & Raymond, L. Cultural evolution of normative motivations for sustainable behaviour. Nat Sustain 1, 218–224 (2018).

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