An Explication of Social Norms

The article identifies four factors for consideration in norms-based research to enhance the predictive ability of theoretical models.

1) Perceived & Collective norms / Descriptive & Injunctive norms
2) Role of important moderators in the relationship between descriptive norms & behaviours
3) Role of interpersonal & mass communication in normative influences
4) Behavioural attributes

Collective & Perceived norms]
– Collective norms operate at the level of community or society, representing a collective social entity’s code of conduct, emerging through shared interaction among members of a social group or community (Bettenhausen & Murnighan, 1985)
– Perceived norms exist at an individual, psychological level, representing an individual’s interpretation of the prevailing collective norm

[Injunctive & Descriptive norms]
– Injunctive norms refer to people’s beliefs about what ought to be done (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallren, 1990)
– Descriptive norms refer to beliefs about what is actually done by most people in one’s social group

Bendor and Swistak (2001) proffer that norms are meaningful only to the extent that individuals perceive that their violation will result in some social sanction. When one’s behaviour are driven by this, we can associate the influence to injunctive norms. The primary difference between injunctive & descriptive norms is that descriptive norms typcally do not involve social sanctions for non-compliance.

Often, injunctive and descriptive norms are congruent.
One example which the author gave was a formal meeting context – when most others are silent and attentive (descriptive norms), one would be required to act similarly and they will incur social sanctions if they do not comply (injunctive norms).
There are also cases where injunctive and descriptive norms do not overlap, such situation will be when people approve of certain actions, but do not practise it.

Jones and Gerard (1967) suggested that normative influences typically take two forms.
1) Effect dependence: People are dependent on others to meet their needs, hence they are concerned about others’ evaluation of their behaviours
2) Informational dependence: Individuals look to others in order to know what they are doing

Informational dependence can be further broken down into two types, depending on whether people believe that their behaviors will be known by others. In other words, individual may learn about other people’s behaviour, however, may choose not to conform to it if they believe that their behaviours will not be known to others. One example brought up by the author is the recycling of waste.

The author also highlighted that interpersonal communication can result in the transmission of incorrect beliefs about the prevalance of a behaviour. Individuals often misperceive the prevalence of a behaviour in their social midst (Clapp & McDonnell, 2000; Perkins & Wechsler, 1996). This is also supported by the cultivation theory (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1994), where mediated messages may influence perceptions of the prevalance of a behaviour too.

[Moderators in the Influence of Descriptive Norms]
Cruz et al.; Rimal & Real, 2003) indicated that the perceived popularity of a behavior will compel people to act accordingly if they:
1) Perceive that enacting the behaviour will confer benefits (outcome expectations)
2) Share strong affinity with their referent group (group identity)
– nature of group identity across cultures (Triandis, 1989) varies eg: A Chinese may have stonger identification with referent group than an
3) View the attitude or behaviour as central to their self-concept (ego involvement)
– an example cited by the author is that people who see themselves as “drinkers” view this role as a central part of their self-concept (Conner &
Armitage, 1998) and are thus likely to be highly ego-involved in behaviours related to alcohol consumption.

[Communication of Norms]
An interesting point highlighted by the author is that, many norms-based interventions seek to correct misperceptions about the prevalence of a behaviour with the belief that this will result in behaviour change (Berkowitz, 2004). eg: alcohol consumption in campus

However, an area is often neglected – question of how these misperceived descriptive norms are formed to begin with.

[Behavioural Attributes]
1) Ambiguity:
– Bystander apathy is one good illustrations of the role of ambiguity in normative influences
– Cialdini (2001) refer this phenomenon of mass inaction as ‘social proof’, where people view a behaviour as ‘correct’ when we see others doing it

2) Behavioural Privacy:
– Behaviour is enacted in a public or private setting is also likely to moderate normative influences (Bagozzi et al., 2000; Cialdini et al., 1990)
– When one’s behaviour is enacted away from public eye, there will be no opportunity to observe other’s behavior & also not observable for others’ scrutiny, hence lesser pressure to conform to injunctive norms
– An interesting point brought up by the author is that:
– this may explain why some interventions designed to increase condom use, a largely private behavior, find smaller effects for normative
influences (Sutton, McVey, & Glanz, 1999) as compared to more public behaviors eg. food consumption



Lapinski, M.K., & Rimal, R. N. (2005).  An Explication of Social Norms. Communication Theory, 15(2), 127-147.


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