The research, to be published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) this week, is the first to focus on the phenomenon of social norms in the context of China's conservation efforts, said scientist Jianguo "Jack" Liu of Michigan State University (MSU).
"Much of the marginal cropland in rural communities has been converted from agriculture to forests through the Grain-to-Green Program, one of the largest 'payment for ecosystem services' programs in the world," said Alan Tessier, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Division of Environmental Biology.
"Results of this study show that a community's social norms have substantial impacts on the sustainability of these conservation investments," the expert added.
While money is a key factor in whether people sign up for the voluntary program, peer pressure also plays a surprisingly large role, Liu said.
"That's the power of social norms. It's like recycling. If you see your neighbors doing it, you're more likely to do it," he said.
A representative survey of households in China's Wolong Nature Reserve for giant pandas found that both government payments and social norms had "significant impacts" on citizens' intentions of re-enrolling in the Grain to Green program.
"In other words, people's re-enrollment intentions can be affected by the re-enrollment decisions of their neighbors and tend to conform to the majority," says Liu.