Public Service Announcement: we need to align social norms to activate acceptable behaviour

Public service announcements (PSA) such as government advertisements, often try to activate socials norms in order to produce societally beneficial behaviours/results. Think of any health or environmental message such as ‘Smarter than Smoking’, ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ or even ‘Earth Hour’. An injunctive norm is what is perceived as socially acceptable (i.e. not smoking) whereas a descriptive norm is perceived as what people actually do (e.g. the people that still smoke!). Research has shown that both types of norms motivate people’s actions; people will do what is socially acceptable as well as what is popular (Cialdini, 2003).  Cialdini (2003) highlights that only by aligning descriptive and injunctive norms could the power of normative appeals be optimised.

To briefly explain, Cialdini (2003) reviews norms in a number of environmental PSA’s in how effective they were at conveying their message. One of the most effective PSA’s in our history is considered to be the Iron Eyes Cody spot (below) from America. However this PSA has conflicting descriptive and injunctive norms. See if you can spot them…

Although the injunctive norm that society feels it is not acceptable to litter is clear, there is an underlying descriptive norm that people do litter, shown as the Indian wades through a littered landscape. Cialdini (2003) suggests that a more effective approach would be to remove the descriptive norm of people littering and replace it with a clean landscape. This would align the descriptive and injunctive norms making the PSA more persuasive and increasing people’s intent to not litter. It would then appear that society finds it unacceptable to litter as well as actually not littering.

I find the idea of activating social norms an interesting tactic. The fact that we want to do what others perceive as appropriate as well as what others are doing is something I don’t think about, yet agree with. People would struggle daily to do what is right compared to what everyone else is doing. It’s peer pressure in a nutshell! Aligning injunctive and descriptive norms would not be an easy task for some PSA’s. However, Cialdini’s (2003) evidence seems to support that this is the most effective way to deliver your message and create intent to change behaviours (for more information on this see Azjen’s theory of planned behaviour in When a Plan Comes Together).

Although Cialdini (2003) focusses on environmental protection campaigns, they mention attempts to advise against underage drinking. I find it hard to imagine a PSA against something like binge/underage drinking wouldn’t contain a bunch of rowdy teenagers getting drunk. However this may be because I haven’t seen anything like that yet.

Are there any campaigns that come to mind where injunctive and descriptive norms are not aligned in conveying their message? Do you think the message would translate to intent & behaviour change better if they were aligned?

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2 comments so far

  1. rhiandyer on

    I have always ascribed to the ‘no cooperation without coercion’ view of society. On first learning about using ‘social-norms’ I thought “damn, we dont even need coercion, all we need is eyes and we will follow a pointless trend like its a… well… an ipad”.

    On second thought, it is more like ‘social coercion’ (phew! I will be able to sleep tonight). You know that somewhere, someone is watching because there are statistics. Step out of line and your punishment is social humiliation.

    Influencing peoples behavior does carry quite a hefty responsibility however. So we might have increased littering by advertising that it was widespread, but think about all the other things that government have promoted unintentionally.

    With the best intentions (or at least to decrease the financial drain on our health system) recreational drug use, speeding/talking on the phone while driving and sunbaking may now be in vogue because of communication strategies implimented in the past.

    If that is true in any case, changing behavior will be even more difficult because this behavior is the new ‘normal’ and may even be more socially acceptable.

    Once the social coercion fails, then what do we do?

  2. ashfonty on

    I suppose where social coercion fails, that’s where law enforcement comes in. There are laws for using drugs, or failing to abide by the safe driving laws, even for littering.

    For those that aren’t bothered by social pressures (of what is perceived as being done and what is perceived as acceptable), the next step would seem to be enforcement of the law. Maybe the potential consequence or punishment will deter them.

    I spose with such a large society these days, there are many different ways to perceive what is happening or what is considered acceptable or not. There are a lot of conflicting ideas out there, so I gues it depends on your peers which direction you take.


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