Many of our clients work to promote positive behaviors, such as safe driving, recycling, or reading to children. To help them succeed, we can draw on our understanding of behavior change principles. One principle is the power of social norms.

As social beings, we humans tend to 1) pay close attention to information about what’s normal in a situation and 2) act accordingly or “conform”—much more so than we typically care to acknowledge. We can leverage this principle to provide effective messaging recommendations. For example, if we find that most people already do a desired behavior (say, use a gun safe), then publicizing that normative information (“most gun owners use a gun safe”) is likely to promote the behavior more broadly.

As with much of psychology, though, the devil is in the details. There are different types of norms you can draw on and different situations where normative information is more or less likely to be effective, so let’s dig a little deeper.

The Psychology of Norms

Even without direct messages about norms, we make normative observations all the time, almost automatically: How hard do people seem to try on this class assignment? How closely do people follow the rules at this park? How do people look and act in this club? How often do people ask questions during these meetings? Where are my peers on major milestones—in love, life and career?

Our observation of what other people do often strongly impacts what we do. But, not always. To understand what kind of norm messaging will work and when, let’s begin with the why.

WHY do we care what other people do and follow suit?

A large body of psychological research has shown that norms influence our behavior in two powerful ways. We infer that:

  1. What people do is often the right thing to do—informational influence, and
  2. What people do is a means to social acceptance, or “fitting in”—social influence.

Very often people are legitimate and helpful guides for our behavior, especially when we’re young or doing something new, like exploring a new city or starting a new job. When we’re older and more experienced, we may have a more critical eye to when to follow other people’s lead… though maybe not as critical as we’d like to think.

Consider a classic study as one example. Back in the 1950s, Dr. Solomon Asch made up a simple quiz and had seven adults publicly share their responses, one question at a time. The key was that six of those people were fake participants (working with Asch and instructed how to answer)—and only one person, always in the position to answer second-to-last, was an actual study participant. The quiz had multiple rounds and, importantly, had painfully obvious answers.

Possibly you see where this is going… On key rounds, the fake participants unanimously gave the wrong answer. So, what do the lone actual participants do in this situation? How many, if any, would conform with the fake participants and say the obviously wrong answer?

Even Dr. Asch himself didn’t have high expectations, curious just to see if anyone would conform—yet he found that many participants did conform, approximately 80% giving the obviously wrong answer at least once.  People don’t like to think they would conform to something blatantly wrong, but in the heat of the moment, they often do.

Clearly, beyond the informational value of what other people are doing, norms exert a powerful social influence: people conform to fit in and to avoid social sanctions (and those sanctions, by the way, are real, as communities do often crack down on deviants.)

WHEN do we follow suit—or not?

The tendency to conform is an important point but shouldn’t be overgeneralized. No doubt, under many circumstances, we also have a high capacity and inclination for independent thinking. That goes for both children and adults (which I’m well aware of as the parent of a one-year-old!). Even in Dr. Asch’s quiz scenario, for example, follow-up studies show that people conform less if they also wrote down their answers or if just one fake participant said the correct answer.

Social and power dynamics are very important here. People are less likely to follow along when they are in a position of higher power or if they get the sense that they’re being controlled or manipulated, what is called “reactance.” Conformity also depends on the specific reference group and a person’s relationship to that group. For example, the message we saw earlier, “most gun owners have a gun safe,” is likely to be more meaningful to someone who really identifies with being a gun owner than for a gun owner who isn’t so invested in that identity or group membership.

More broadly, it’s important to remember that people are complex! Norms are just one input among many: Values, attitudes, personality, prior behavior, and habits all play important roles in determining behavior too. If your audience already has strong pre-existing beliefs about a particular behavior, for example, or strongly entrenched habits, normative information will have less power to promote change.

People also care about doing the right thing. It’s not just beliefs about what people actually do that matter—though this often plays a huge and underappreciated role, as we’ve seen. Often, beliefs about what should be done matter just as much or more. Specifically, we can think of normative beliefs in three categories:

  1. What people think others do—our primary focus here, the descriptive norm.
  2. What people think authorities say to do—the injunctive norm.
  3. What people personally believe is right to do—the personal norm.

Taken together, the efficacy of different messaging approaches (e.g., the group you reference, the type of norm you appeal to) is likely to vary depending on who you’re targeting for behavior change and the specific behavior you’re trying to promote.

What key considerations can we distill for practical purposes?? Find out in Norms & Behavior Change, Part 2.