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URPP Social Networks

Values and Sustainability

What prompts people in social networks to change their values and behavior in a sustainable way? Researchers from the University Research Priority Program (URPP) Social Networks have developed new theories and methods to analyze the complex links between individuals and a network.
Text: Brigitte Blöchlinger, Translation: Michael Jackson
Professor René Algesheimer (middle) and his team (photo: Angela Straub)
Professor René Algesheimer (middle) and his team (photo: Angela Straub)

“What really interests me is marketing for social impact,” says René Algesheimer, co-director of the University Research Priority Program (URPP) Social Networks and professor in the Department of Business Administration. His research is designed to help us better understand how people and organizations can be encouraged to behave sustainably. This is an approach to marketing that aims to deliver social change.

He and his URPP colleagues from a variety of disciplines examined the links and interactions between different stakeholders and their social networks. The researchers gave the term social network a wide definition: it could refer to any entity with stakeholders that have links to one another. Examples included online platforms such as Instagram or TikTok and their followers, but also offline networks such as students within a class or alliances of nations that work together in specific areas such as migration (Schengen Area) or security (NATO).

Key results

In different social networks, the URPP researchers identified the key people (influencers) who were driving social change. “These people think, feel and act independently and influence the network,” emphasizes Algesheimer. For example, if a society wants to promote the sustainable use of resources, these influencers play a key role. They “nudge” other people in their social networks to change their behavior as well until ultimately the majority of people “shift” or follow suit.

Connections and their interactions
Algesheimer is convinced: “We’ll only be able to tackle the world’s crises and shape social change in a positive way if we analyze and understand the connections and interactions between people and the global patterns that emerge from them.” People never live in a vacuum, they continuously and reciprocally influence each other and their social networks. 


The social relevance of social networks can’t be overstated.

René Algesheimer, co-director of the URPP Social Networks

A key finding of the URPP is that when people change their behavior, they do so because their values and attitudes have also changed. Algesheimer states: “Values are the guiding principles in a person’s life, they’re taught to us from an early age, and in adulthood they help us to process and assess the things that influence us every single day.” This ultimately shapes an individual's “own opinion” on issues within society. And this in turn forms the basis for the way they behave. 

The group developed new tools to explore the values and opinions that shape human behavior. Their questionnaire for examining values is now the most frequently used worldwide; they also created an image-based questionnaire for small children who are not yet able to read and write; this makes it possible to find out which values and attitudes children follow.

Developing and changing values
The URPP researchers used the new tools to conduct several long-term studies into the value systems of adults and children. For example, in Switzerland they investigated how students’ attitude toward the integration of refugee children in school classes has evolved. 

Or they analyzed how values develop in German-speaking Swiss school classes with different grades and educational opportunities, and compared the results with how students in Poland develop their values. One of the conclusions was that children in schools combining different cultures and social classes develop more stable value systems and achieve more stable levels of performance (grades). 

The URPP also focused on the promotion of sustainable behavior in social networks. Most individuals do actually know what they need to do to live more sustainably – flying less, for example. But they don’t act accordingly. The URPP researchers used the example of CO2 compensation payments to examine how the process of changing values of individual people in social networks actually happens and how sustainable behavior can be encouraged. They did this by working with a number of Swiss companies like the online retailer Digitec Galaxus. 

Sowing seeds rather than planting
“Social change usually starts off with a small number of people who have real charisma and persuasive power,” says Algesheimer. These people may be visionaries, influencers or, in research groups, the nominees for a Nobel Prize. If they change their behavior and champion a new social norm – such as no longer flying – and highlight this, they will gradually persuade the other people in their social network to reconsider their behavior as well. “These seeders figuratively sow the seeds that enable a thriving garden to grow.” 

The URPP researchers also combined to form a social network with a real dynamism. (Photo: TBS)
The URPP researchers also combined to form a social network with a real dynamism. (Photo: TBS)

For the seeds to flourish, the connections need to be right. Algesheimer compares the way this works to the creation of a permaculture garden, where it’s also important to seed the right plants next to one another, making sure that they positively influence and support one another and don’t compete for nutrients or water, for example; if this is done correctly, the garden as a whole will be able to thrive. On the other hand, simply “planting” new instructions or values will not deliver the social change that is desired. For social change to happen, the change in behavior needs to be sustained and consistent and seep into the structures of the given entity until – to stick with the example – it's no longer fashionable to fly all over the world. 

Echo chamber and unpredictability
Digital networks have become omnipresent over the last twelve years during which the URPP Social Networks has been running. And they operate to their own rules. For example, it is common to see views or news suddenly being shared by countless people and going viral – creating what are known as echo chambers. And this is often the case even if this news is not actually read in detail or is simply skimmed over. “When and how digital social networks will take off is difficult to predict – apart from in the case of influencers like the singer Taylor Swift with her millions of followers.” 

What’s correct, what’s incorrect?
For example, it was hard to predict how people would respond to Covid-19 in 2020. A range of different opinions about this novel virus and then the mRNA vaccine quickly started circulating on all the social networks, with many opinions being portrayed as facts or championed by self-proclaimed experts. The dynamic swathe of opinions and beliefs that surfaced and were then quashed again became a real problem when governments tried to implement measures to tackle the pandemic. “Once there is a certain level and complexity of information, it’s almost impossible for individuals to decide what’s correct and what’s incorrect.”

Changes over time
According to Algesheimer, the new method developed in the URPP now makes it possible to predict how specific triggers or mechanisms will disseminate in specific social networks over time.

Social relevance

“The social relevance of social networks can’t be overstated,” says Algesheimer with conviction. The connections between stakeholders and networks aren't just influencing the lives of individual people, but are also having an impact on collective life, organizations, nations and increasingly the world as a whole. 

The new method now makes it possible to predict how specific triggers will disseminate in social networks over time.

René Algesheimer, co-director of the URPP Social Networks


The URPP Social Networks is noted for its innovative methodical approach. Economic research has long made a distinction between microeconomics and macroeconomics. The URPP researchers have now brought these two levels together. They combined microeconomic methods such as behavioral experiments and qualitative studies with macroeconomic simulation tools that can highlight the collective response or a collective change in values. 

This combined methodical approach makes it possible to depict actions at an individual level over a specific period of time and link them to those at the collective level. This reveals the complex, dynamic interactions between the micro level and macro level.

The highlight

Algesheimer’s biggest highlight over the last twelve years of research has been – the University Research Priority Program itself. “The level of support and trust we’ve received from the University of Zurich has been tremendous. Receiving funding for twelve years of research to develop something you believe in and enjoying complete research and academic freedom is simply tremendous and the greatest gift any researcher can be given.”

What comes next

The URPP researchers want to use the knowledge gained from the URPP Social Networks in future to show politicians and business figures specific ways of producing social change to deliver greater sustainability. 

Blockchain Center
A spin-off from the URPP Social Networks is the UZH Blockchain Center, which was launched in 2019. Its director Professor Claudio J. Tessone was previously assistant professor in Algesheimer’s research group. The UZH Blockchain Center boasts 65 UZH researchers and preeminent international scholars from the blockchain community who conduct research in informatics, business, finance, law, regulation, cryptography, and the digital arts.

E-learning module
The new method for researching social change that was developed in the URPP has been incorporated into teaching since last fall. The theoretical and practical knowledge is taught online on the University of Zurich's OLAT e-learning platform and offline by teaching staff in the classroom. 

Even though the URPP Social Networks has now concluded, the new method will continue to be developed. “It would be great if our approach could become established as the standard method used in economics,” says Algesheimer. 

The change lab
Algesheimer is currently working hard at UZH to establish a “competence center for delivering social change” and is looking for sponsors. In his proposal, he outlines an integrated approach to studying and managing social change that is specifically designed to deliver the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The initiative wants to help create sustainable, integrated and functional societies by bridging the gap between theories on behavior modification on the individual and the collective level through participative research and by providing findings that could be implemented by political decision-makers.