Interplay of Social Norms Influences Action

Smith, J. R., Louis, W. R., Terry, D. J., Greenaway, K. H., Clarke, M. R., & Cheng, X. (2012). Congruent or conflicted? The impact of injunctive and descriptive norms on environmental intentions. Journal Of Environmental Psychology, 32, 353 - 361.

Behavior researchers have long understood that one important factor in moving people to action is the perception of approval from others. These "social norms" help indicate what is socially acceptable and can help motivate behaviors. Further research, though, has revealed that the way that norms affect behavior is not straightforward. In fact, there are different types of norms, and this research aimed to investigate what happens when different types of norms interact.

Specifically, this study focused on the interplay of injunctive norms (which indicate when people in the social group approve or disapprove of, or, in other words, what people should do) and descriptive norms (which indicate what people in the social group are actually doing). These norms can either be aligned (in effect, what the group approves of and what they actually do are the same) or they can be misaligned (what the group approves of is different from what they actually do). The authors investigated how the alignment of norms affected university students' intentions to engage in energy-saving behaviors.

In a first experiment, the researchers presented 162 university students the results of a fictional study on energy conservation at the university, in which the details that indicate norms were manipulated: on condition (supportive descriptive norm) indicated that 82% of students engaged in energy conservation, another (unsupportive descriptive norm) indicated that 22% of students engaged in energy conservation, a third (supportive injunctive norm) indicted that 85% of students approved of students conserving energy, and a fourth (unsupportive injunctive norm) indicated 23% approval for energy conservation. The students were presented with these results in different combinations and then asked to rate their likelihood of engaging in energy conservation.

The results indicated that group approval for energy conservation does not motivate action unless it is paired with a similarly supportive descriptive norm, indicating that the group actually engages in the behavior. Likewise, learning that other students took energy conservation steps did not make the students more likely to act if they were also told that other students did not approve of that behavior. The authors explain, “That is, it is not the case that descriptive and injunctive norms are simply additive. Although it is true that the strongest intentions are associated with having two sources of normative support for the behavior, if only one source of norm is supportive and the other source is not, this is equivalent to having no normative support at all for the behavior.”

In a second experiment, the authors explored similar questions about the interplay of norms in different cultures. The researchers compared the results of a similar study in the UK, which represents an individualist culture, and China, which represents a collectivist culture. One might assume that social norms play a smaller role in motivating behavior in an individualist culture, where individuals are perceived to be more autonomous, than in a collectivist culture, which prizes conformity. Although the researchers did find some differences between the two cultures, there were not differences in how they responded to the manipulations of the norms. The authors conclude that “The findings suggest that, although cultural differences exist, responses to unaligned descriptive and injunctive norms do not necessarily vary by cultural context.”

The researchers believe that the importance of having normative information aligned should not be understated. If people get conflicting messages about what their social group approves of and what they actually do, they will not be motivated to act. In fact, if normative messages are incongruent (that is, if one normative message is supportive and the other isn't), then the results are the same as if both normative messages are unsupportive. The researchers caution, though, that these experiments measured only the students intention to act. Further research could measure actual behaviors to better understand the interplay of norms and behaviors.

The Bottom Line

<p>When crafting messages designed to inspire action, social norms play an important role. But you have to be careful how you convey normative messages. If injunctive norms (which indicate what a group thinks one should do) are not in line with descriptive norms (which indicate what a group actually does), a person will not be motivated to act. For example, this research suggests that people will be utterly unmotivated by a statement like “Most of us think it's important to conserve energy, but few of us actually do it.” Instead, normative messages must be aligned.</p>