“The Constructive, Destructive and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms” – A study on the impact of social norms on human behaviour
Built on the focus theory of normative conduct by Cialdini (1991), this reading provides great insights on the power of social norms on behaviours.
Aarts & Dijksterhuis(2003) argue that social norms have an impact in directing behaviours in meaningful ways. In fact, many of those who are in the business of advertising have made use of this knowledge.
According to Cialdini (1991), social-norms marketing campaigns aim to eliminate undesirable behaviour by stressing on the misperceptions of the current undesirable behaviour. This is realised by the employing perception of the prevalence of the behaviour, also known as descriptive norm (Cialdini et al., 1991). One great example is the following advertisement by Visa.
It shows majority of the people eating, walking, queuing up and paying along to a rhythm. In the later part of the video, it becomes evident what is part of the equation for such an orderly and structured way of purchase and consumption. Visa PayWave, of course! For without it, chaos ensues. People end up bumping onto one another. With the commotion, others start to spill their food and drinks on the floor. The moral of the story: If you want to be a thoughtful and considerate consumer, pay with Visa PayWave. If you don’t, you are exhibiting detrimental and undesirable behaviour that negatively affects others around you.
A- ha! Alas, such social-norms campaigns may also have the opposite effect on its viewers. Consider the following anti-smoking campaign by the Singapore Health Promotion Board.
Instead of quitting smoking, some viewers may continue to smoke more. This opposite reaction is known as a boomerang effect (Perkins, Haines, & Rice, 2005; Wechsler et al., 2003; Werch et al., 2000). This may be due to the fact that social norms campaign provides “specific normative information that can serve as a point of comparison for an individual’s own behaviour” (P.W. Schultz et al). Viewers who are already smokers may use this advertisement as a gauge for how well or bad a state they are in. Light smokers may compare their physical outlook with the woman in the video and be encouraged to smoke more by the fact they are still have a long way to go towards looking like that. While others who may show similar signs and symptoms, may stop smoking altogether.
To overcome the boomerang effect in social-norms marketing campaigns, Cialdini et al(1991) argues that injunctive norms may help. Injunctive norms refer to “perceptions of what is commonly approved or disapproved within the culture”(Reno, Cialdini, & Kallgren, 1993). To put it simply drawing from the example on the anti-smoking advertisement, smokers who continue to smoke more after watching the advertisement (descriptive norm) may smoke less or eventually stop entirely with the public’s perception that smoking is really harmful or wrong (Injuntive norm).
Questions I’d like to pose to the readers:
1) Do you agree with the focus theory of normative conduct?
2) Are there other factors at play in contributing to the effects these messages achieved?
3) What are some of the assumptions of this theory?
Aarts, H., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2003). The silence of the library: Environment, situational norm, and social behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 18–28.
Cialdini, R.B., Kallgren, C.A., & Reno, R.R. (1991). A focus theory of normative conduct. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 201–234.
Clapp, J.D., Lange, J. Perkins, H.W., Haines, M.P., & Rice, R. (2005). Misperceiving the college drinking norm and related problems: A nationwide study of exposure to prevention information, perceived norms and student alcohol misuse. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 66, 470–478.
Schultz, P.W., Tabanico, J., & Rendo´n, T. (in press). Normative beliefs as agents of influence: Basic process and real-world applications. In R. Prislin & W. Crano (Eds.), Attitudes and persuasion. New York: Psychology Press.
Reno, R., Cialdini, R., & Kallgren, C.A. (1993). The transsituational influence of social norms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 104–112.