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.
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.
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)