Monkey See, Monkey do
The human brain is adapted to detect patterns, enabling us to read, learn and point out all the animal shapes in the clouds, or the face of Jesus in our cornflakes. We seek out patterns that are familiar, it helps us understand and connect with the things around us. Teenagers are particularly perceptive to social patterns; they mimic them to forge their place in social groups. We all think it is something we grow out of, but look a bit deeper and our desire to be normal is sitting right under the surface.
As adults we use the behaviour of other people as a standard to guide our own (Cialdini, Kallgren & Reno, 1991). The theory is that we recognise patterns of behaviour from what we personally experience to create a model of what is ‘normal’ and we alter our behaviour to fit that model. But what we experience is such a small and biased sample that it is unlikely to be representative of the population. We could therefore change behaviour by correcting what is perceived as normal.
Culture shapes our model of normality. You only have to watch movies aimed at teenage American audiences to understand why their population overestimates alcohol consumption in college students (Prentice & Miller, 1993). Imagine, in a population survey the average number of drinks a student will consume on a Saturday night is five. But a small group of students regularly observe cinematic hyperbole and their friends consuming an average of 10 drinks on Saturday nights. According to social-norms theory, showing these students the real ‘normal’ will decrease their consumption.
When this theory was tested the results were mixed and some researchers found an increase in the behaviour they were trying to supress. Until one group of researchers came up with an idea. Imagine another group of students who don’t watch movies and consume an average of two drinks on a Saturday night. Researchers come into the college and present students with a statement that an average of five drinks on a Saturday night is ‘normal’. This group of low-consuming students might increase their consumption so it comes closer to the average.
The researchers tested this theory with household electricity consumption (Schultz et. al, 2007). As predicted, presenting households with a measure of their energy consumption compared to the wider population made high-use households decrease their consumption and low-use households increase their consumption. However, they were able to eliminate the increase in the low-use households simply by presenting them with a smiley face on their energy consumption report.
It seems adult behaviour is strongly influenced by a desire to be ‘normal’. In a changing culture, this is an important skill indeed. I recommend listening to a fascinating case of a troop of Baboons who lost their dominant males and developed a violence-free culture. New males entering the troop had to be able to recognise the new ‘normal’ and imitate it to be accepted into the troop. As communicators we can hijack this same system that creates our early-morning connection with a bowl of cereal and change behaviour by altering perceptions of normality and social acceptability.
I guess it really is a case of monkey see, monkey do
Cialdini, R.B., Kallgren, C.A. & Reno, R.R. (1991) A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct. Advances in Social Psychology, 24, 201-234.
Prentice, D.A. & Miller, D.T. (1993) Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol use on campus: Some consequences of misperceiving the social norm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 243–256.
Schultz, W.P., Nolan, J.M., Cialdini, R.B., Goldstein, N.J. & Griskevicius, V. (2007) The Constructive, Destructive and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms. Psychological Science, 18(5), 429-43