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Join The Thousands of Others Who Have Already Read This Post on Social Norms

Sep 6 2022 • 3 min read

Would you adjust your alcohol intake if you were told that most people drink less than you? Have you ever opted for something labelled ‘most popular’ when you were unsure which option to choose?

The above tactics are examples of descriptive social norms, which in recent years have become a go-to marketing method across the world. They are intended to persuade us to take action by drawing attention to the behaviour of other people, revealing well-trodden paths in uncertain contexts.

Hundreds of studies have demonstrated the power of descriptive social norms across numerous domains including boosting tax collection, increasing voter turnout in elections, and reducing household water consumption. On account of their apparent reliability and robustness, you might be tempted to immediately apply them to your own challenges. But before you do, you should know that there are three ways in which they can backfire.

The first relates to the people who are already outperforming the social norm, who may regress towards the advertised standard of behaviour. If you are told that your household energy consumption is lower than your neighbours, for example, studies have shown that you may respond by increasing your energy use to match them (although this coming winter may be an exception).

Equally, descriptive social norms that draw attention to those who smoke, eat junk food, and miss GP appointments has been shown to unintentionally encourage rather than discourage these behaviours – if other people are regularly doing these things, why shouldn’t we?

The second way in which social norms can backfire relates to the people whose behaviour is being advertised – a group known in the literature as the reference group. In the above energy consumption example, your neighbours are the reference group. Telling people that certain behaviours or products are the norm for a certain reference group will likely encourage people who closely identify with that group to fall into line.

But at the same time, this tactic might deter those who do not identify with the reference group. In other words, we are unlikely to seek to emulate our neighbours if we dislike them. In summary, we are much more likely to follow our herd than any old herd.

Third, social norm messaging seems to have different effects for different types of products. For example, a recent study reported that we are more likely to follow the crowd when buying functional goods.

What this means in practice is that social norms tend to be more effective for items such as paper towels and washing powder, which we generally buy primarily for functional purposes. And they tend to be much less effective, or even counterproductive, when it comes to items through which we seek to express our individual identity such as clothes and music.

In summary, we do not indiscriminately follow the herd. We use social norms as helpful guides when we are otherwise uncertain about how to behave, but we ably distinguish relevant norms from irrelevant ones. Which means that using social norms requires careful consideration of the social context.

So would you drink less alcohol if you knew how much other people tend to drink? Among other things, it would likely depend on whether you think those people are ‘like you’ and whether you already drink less than them. Social norm marketers, beware!

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