Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment

The paper discussed how communications that activate social norms (normative information) can be effective in influencing conducts that benefits the society. The author, Cialdini (2003), pointed out that normative information can backfire on the communicator. He made an interesting point that moblising action by emphasizing the frequency of a problem is actually a misguided approach. For example, by communicating that many youth are taking illegal drugs (a descriptive norm), it can be sending a message to people that taking illegal drugs is ‘popular’ with youth. It does not tell that people typically disapprove consumption of illegal drugs (injunctive norm). Cialdini (2003) opined that good normative messages align descriptive norms with injunctive norms, and failing to differentiate these two types of norms can devastate any well-intended communication effort.

Descriptive versus Injunctive Norms

Cialdini (2003) used the example of an anti-littering public service announcement (PSA) “Iron Eyes Cody spot” to demonstrate use of descriptive norm and injunctive norm. Although the spot urged people to stop littering, it had an underlying message that people were littering because it showed an already-littered environment. Both types of norms were evident in the spot, but they were opposing each other instead of complementing each other. Cialdini et al. (1990) did a ‘littering’ experiment to test their hypotheses about descriptive norm. Results showed that participants were more inclined to litter in a fully-littered environment due to the perception that many people littered there, and were less inclined to litter in a clean environment despite seeing someone littering at the place due to the perception that most people did not litter there except a few.

Based on the result, Iron Eyes Cody PSA could have been more effective if it had used a clean environment (to imply the descriptive norm that people do not litter), together with the injunctive norm of the character shedding a disapproving tear after seeing the trash.

Environmental Theft

Cialdini (2003) used the case of Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park to show that messages focusing on injunctive norm is superior to messages focusing on descriptive norm.

In an experiment at the Petrified Forest National Park, petrified woods were placed along visitor pathways. At the entrance of each pathway, two different signs were put up to stop people from removing petrified woods from the park – one was focused on descriptive norm while the other was focused on injunctive norm. Consequently, the pathway with the sign focused on injunctive norm had less theft.


Descriptive norms are not entirely counterproductive. It can be effective when used to highlight prevalent behaviour that is beneficial to the environment like recycling.


Communicators should avoid sending messages that have one type of norms opposing the other. Injunctive and descriptive norms should work in tandem to communicate a message. Communicators should apply the norm appropriate to the context of the communication.

My Views

I agree with Cialdini on his point that using descriptive norms in communication may backfire. In order for descriptive norm to be effective in an advertisement, we need to know what we want to highlight. Is there something we want people to do more? If there is, apply descriptive norm to show people doing more of that thing. Cialdini, however, did not take into consideration the role of one’s own moral judgement. If someone detests littering, putting the person in the litter-filled environment could disgust him/her more than encourage him/her to litter.


Here’s something to ponder on…

1) Is using norms in advertisements (especially PSAs) effective?

2) Does showing more of an undesirable conduct encourages people to engage in that conduct or deter them from doing so?

3) Are there other factors that could affect how people process normative messages (i.e. moral values, culture, education)?



Cialdini, R.B. (2003). Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science 12: 105-109.

Cialdini, R.B., Barrett, D.W., Bator, R., Demaine, L.J., Sagarin, B.J., Rhoads, K.v.L., & Winter, P.L. (2003). Activating and aligning social norms for persuasive impact. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Cialdini, R.B, Reno, R.R., & Kallgren, C.A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 1015–1026.


– janisuhoshi (20906271)


4 comments so far

  1. fireprism on

    I found your post insightful and was pondering about the questions you posted at the end.

    1. I find that there is a need to practice a high level of discretion when knowing which situations are appropriate for applying descriptive or injunctive norms. Though both have a certain disadvantage, they do have their advantages and they have to be weighed carefully. The end result also determines which norm you employ or whether or not you choose to employ a norm.

    2. I believe that there is a certain limit to using norms to deter people from undesirable before. If people are constantly being reminded of this, it may result in fatigue and people will simply ignore whatever messages they receive. This is similar to advertising; people become annoyed when the same message is being driven at them across several media on a high frequency basis. It is up to the organisation to survey public feedback and then determine the frequency of using such norms in public messages.

    3. Yes. The way different people process normative messages varies from individual to individual. This can be determined by inherent beliefs found in customs, religions, cultural beliefs etc.

    • janisuhoshi on

      Hi fireprism,

      Thanks for answering my questions! I will talk about your reply to my question 2. I agree with you that people will grow tired of a message when they are constantly reminded of them. I guess this is a common mistake of public service announcements (PSAs). Agencies tend to ‘spam’ PSAs in an attempt to make the message more salient. However, they fail to recognise that human attention can only be last this long and not forever. People will automatically switch off at ad messages they do not want to receive anymore (ad fatigue).

      The Anti-Terrorism PSA (see video below) that has been running at MRT station in Singapore at high frequency and over a long period of time (one year or more) is one very good example of ad fatigue.

      I realise that nobody (or very few) actually pay attention to the advertisement anymore. The disturbing images like the bomb exploding turn people’s attention away. Even I cringe at the sound of people screaming at the end of the video.

      Descriptive norms are apparent in the anti-terrorism PSA. In the video, we see that passengers (all of them) are not alert and seem to be busy with their own things. They appear indifferent to the activities in their surrounding. This could suggest to the audience that many people do not care about possible terrorism happening in their environment and they may think it is a norm not to care. If Cialdini’s hypothesis is right, then this advertisement is not effective.

  2. ischmimi on

    This was definitely insightful! It really enhanced my understanding in what makes a message effective. I agree that with Cialdini that descriptive norms should be used in tandem with injunctive norms. Descriptive norms simply describes the issue, while injunctive norms provide the context which turns the issue into a problem. Contexts are definitely important in influencing thought to deter or encourage a certain behavior.

    1. I would agree that using norms in PSAs often bring about a positive effect (positive in a way that campaign planners achieve their objectives). As human beings, we seek security and assurance in knowing that we do not deviate from the ways of others. Some believe there is safety in numbers. However, there are also others that want to be different. There are some who are intent on exhibiting behavior that is discouraged. Cialdini did not seem to consider the ideologies of this group of people.

    2. Similar to what I have mentioned in point 1, showing undesirable conduct in people will not necessarily always deter people from “undesirable” conduct. Firstly, what makes a conduct “undesirable”? Undesirable conduct can be so subjective to different viewers. Person A may view undesirable conduct differently from Person B and hence, may be led to a different conclusion from each other. To assume that everyone would react the same way to a message would be simplistic and presumptuous.

    3. Yes, most definitely. One should not underestimate the differences between different ideologies that may arise from differences in culture etc.

  3. agneslpy on

    This post has given be a different perspective on how a message can be effective or not. 🙂

    1) I agree that using norms in advertisements is effective. However, using either descriptive or injunctive norms in advertisements have both their advantages and disadvantages. The environment or place in which the advertisement is being deployed would also affect the outcome. In the littering experiment done by Cialdini, further research could have been done focusing on the other reasons why certain people doesn’t litter on places which is ‘full-littered’.

    2) In my opinion, undesirable conduct does encourage people to deter people from engaging in a certain conduct. Of course there are certain groups of people which engage in it. I think this basically stems from how people values and how they look on the matter itself. Undesirable conduct as mentioned by ischmimi, also depends on how one looks at what ‘undesirable’ itself means to them.

    3) As mentioned in point 2, I definitely agree that there are other factors that could affect how one process messages. Circumstances, backgrounds, values, etcetera makes ‘processing’ messages significantly different from each other.

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