Humans are inherently social beings and, therefore, in moments of uncertainty, we often look to others around us to understand what behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable. This is one way we learn, and it means we are more likely to mimic behaviour as a way to mitigate risk.
Encouraging behaviour change
Which leads us to social norms: shared standards and unwritten rules of acceptable behaviour. There are two types of social norms: injunctive norms, which is what we think others accept or disapprove of, and descriptive norms, which is what we see others doing. The difference lies in the perception of what we think is approved versus seeing the approved behaviour being performed.
Social norms have been leveraged in numerous ways to encourage behaviour change. A study at a luxury beach resort1 used social norms to encourage guests to behave sustainably by reusing their towel. They created two conditions. The control condition asked guests to leave their towels on the bathroom floor to be replaced, or on the towel rack if they would like to reuse them. This encouraged 57% of guests to reuse their towels. The experimental condition had a sign in the bathroom stating that three-quarters of guests who stayed at the hotel had reused their towels at least once, because they valued conservation. This message increased the proportion of guests reusing their towels to 62%.
Social norms have been used successfully to encourage energy saving, reduce littering, organ donation, encouraging vaccinations and so on. But it’s also important to understand when it doesn’t work.
For example, stating the majority of people prepare in advance for a disaster (which is why it’s important that you need to) didn’t motivate people who already held negative beliefs about preparation2. It didn’t motivate people who didn’t feel they were a part of that majority group due to the attitudes and beliefs they held.
There is also an asymmetrical response in observing approved or disapproved behaviour3. When we see someone following the rules, we are only a little more willing to follow the rules too4. However, if we see someone breaking the rules, we are much more likely to break them. So, seeing someone break the rules (or not follow the norm) is much more powerful in influencing similar negative behaviour, than seeing the approved behaviour.
A study conducted a series of experiments to understand if this effect can be changed depending on group membership3. If you see someone as part of a group you relate to (think either sports team, or club membership), are you more likely to follow the rules if they are too?
The answer: yes!
In the experiment – focused on either donating to or taking from charitable organisations – participants who did not have any group membership were still disproportionately influenced by bad examples and less likely to comply. However, if they had social proximity (group membership) they were equally influenced by the bad and good examples.
This makes a good case that while social norms can be influential, it’s important to understand how to frame them. The research stressed the importance of targeted or localised information, and, importantly for organisational behaviour change challenges, influence can vary depending on whether people feel they are fully part of the group or not.
To discuss how behavioural science can help you to support your colleague, customer or citizen choices around their mental or physical wellbeing, please drop me a line: Aakanksha.Ramkumar@CorporateCulture.co.uk
- Using normative social influence to promote conservation among hotel guests (USA, 2008)
- Ozaki, T., & Nakayachi, K. (2020). When descriptive norms backfire: Attitudes induce undesirable consequences during disaster preparation. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 20(1), 90-117.
- Bicchieri, C., Dimant, E., Gächter, S., & Nosenzo, D. (2022). Social proximity and the erosion of norm compliance. Games and Economic Behavior, 132, 59-72.
- Keizer, K., Lindenberg, S., Steg, L., 2008. The spreading of disorder. Science322 (5908), 1681–1685