“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.



5 comments so far

  1. janesxm on

    I agree with the focus theory of normative conduct. Some advertisers have definitely put this theory to good use by showing how cool their product is, and how everyone is using it. On watching the ad, people will get the product as they do not want to feel left out by their friends who have already gotten the product.

    I guess the other factors that contribute to the effect of the ads would be brand identity/image of the product, as well as the price of the product. For example, people would be more receptive to products of a good brand and would pay less attention to products holding a negative brand image. Pricing would be one of the factors if the target audience is price-sensitive. Then again, the audience could be receptive to the ads, but would not take any action on buying the product due to the price.

    The above factors that I have mentioned could be valid, assuming that the advertisement aims to sell a product. If the objective of the advertisement is just to get a message through to the audience i.e. the anti-smoking ad shown, factors that contribute to the effects of these messages will be the social and cultural norms, the beliefs and the habits of the recipients of the advertisement.

    Using the same anti-smoking advertisment, some people will ignore the ad and continue smoking as they are unable to kick the habit of smoking. Also, some smokers might look at the ad and think ‘My grandfather has been smoking for years now and he is still strong and living to a ripe old age’. In such circumstances, using the theory for such advertisements might not work.

    • travelrene on

      I agree with the focus theory of normative conduct, whereby social norms do influence people behaviours. Many corporations have applied the theory into advertisement campaigns and benefits from there, and of course, the Visa PayWave advertisement is a good example. The advertisement brought out the message that one should pay with Visa PayWave, if you don’t, you are not a considerate consumer and behave in an undesirable way. This mindset also applies to consumers who purchase some products which their relatives and friends own, in order not to feel being left out. They may have purchased the products they do not need just to have the sense of belonging to the specific groups or communities.

      I think industry expertise is one of the factors which affect the performance, besides having advertisement with strong message. For example, some of the corporations which being rated as have good industry expertise like Sony, Panasonic and Samsung will come to consumers’ minds when they think of consumer electronics products like television.

      Besides, brand image of the product is another factor that can contribute to the effect of the advertisement. For example, Sony is always seen as a premium brand whereby it is branding itself as a slightly higher end products, while charging a premium prices, compare to its competitors.

      The price of the product can affect the achievement of the advertisement as well, especially if the target audiences are price-sensitive. For instance, people may be attracted by Sony’s advertisement on their latest range of televisions. However, if the consumers are price-sensitive, even they may be receptive to the advertisements, yet won’t take any action to buy the Sony television due to the expensive price.

      As for advertisements of social issues, whereby the objective is to send out the message to create a certain social culture, for example, the “non-smoking” culture, the recipients’ beliefs play an important role. This reminds me of the “Don’t drive after drink” message which many counties worldwide have tried to deliver. Even commercial have shown the impact of drive after drunk, for example, you will lose your life, your family, yet some people still belief that this will not happen to them and they continue doing the same action. In such cases, even the advertisement campaigns apply the theory of normative conduct, they will not work effectively.

      • ischmimi on

        Hi Irene, thank you too for your comment. I wholeheartedly agree with your comment that there are limitations to the theory of normative conduct. You have also summed up the other factors that Cialdini did not consider in the research. To add on to some of the other factors Cialdini did not consider, I feel that one big assumption he made was that he assumed everyone wants to be “right” and be like everyone else. Not everyone wants to exhibit the “desirable” behaviour as shown by the advertisers. Firstly, there may be some who are adamant on being different for the sake of being different and are determined to sway from the popular opinion. Secondly, what is “desirable” anyway? Not everyone views desired outcome the same way.

    • ischmimi on

      Hi Jane, thank you for your comment. I think you put it very succinctly. Peer pressure is one factor that motivates a certain behavior. Other factors such as brand image, pricing, beliefs, habits and pre-dispositions of the recipients of the message also affects the receptivity of the viewers. Therefore, in my opinion, focus theory of normative conduct may work well to achieve the objectives of the message in only some instances. The focus theory of normative conduct provides a rough gauge and prediction of how viewers will react, but it certainly has limitations on other users.

  2. orube90 on

    While I do half heartily agree with the focus theory of normative conduct, I am not the one who usually succumb to the ‘everyone owns one so I should too’ lure. Maybe I tend too be more practical where I think of all the pros and cons of that project before actually buying it, it could also due to the fact that I am more money conscious.

    Looking at the payWave advertisement I don’t think that payWave is that popular in Singapore. Singaporeans still prefer to pay by Nets or Credit card instead. After viewing the payWave advertisement I feel sort of happy that Singaporeans are not following that trend because I felt that those who are using VISA payWave is robotic and boring.

    The people inside the advertisement were shocked that there is someone who is different from them, kind of resembles what we get in the real world where the one who usually differs from the rest are being judged as.

    The factor that contributes to the effects of these messages is the fear of not blending with the crowds which scares more people, that fear of not blending in leads advertisers to use the normative conduct in the advertisements. These advertisements are more of emotion appeal, which feeds on people’s fear.

    The assumption of this theory is that advertisers have this mindset of people all wanting the same thing and blending in to the crowd. But there are actually some people who seen through it right away and not fall for these kind of advertisements.

    Another assumption is that most views would view their advertisements; most people that I have known tend to switch channels when they see the smoking advertisement showing bloody and gory images because it is disgusting to view. The advertisers would not be able to get the message across to most of their target audience.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: