This summary is presented by the IPR Behavioral Insights Research Center
Implications for Public Relations
Public relations professionals should be careful when using norm messaging as it can backfire depending on how people interpret the norms. Using descriptive norms that explain the prevalence of a behaviour may be more effective that injunctive norms which focus on approval, when attempting to dissuade against a behaviour.
Although this study focuses specifically on drinking behaviour among young adults, it contributes to a growing literature on how social norms can be highly influential across multiple domains and an effective tool for public relations professionals. Practitioners can utilize statistics regarding behaviour prevalence and approval to motivate behaviour change based on the principle that people strive to fit into social groups and modulate their behaviour in order to be accepted.
The findings of this study also highlight the importance of evaluating the impact of norm messaging before implementation, recognizing that injunctive and descriptive norm message may have different outcomes. Adding information about social norms can be effective for changing behaviour, but it can also have negative consequences. Messaging that emphasize people’s disproval of a behaviour may backfire if it leads to the belief that the behaviour is highly prevalent. Enlisting the help of behavioural scientists can ensure that communication strategies incorporate nudging effectively and appropriately.
Social norms are understandings or expectations of how a social group thinks or behaves. They are used as guides for determining if behaviour is appropriate or not. Communications can influence behaviour by making these norms more salient or by changing perceptions of them. Social norms can be characterized as descriptive or injunctive. Descriptive norms describe observations of how people commonly behave, while injunctive norms describe others’ beliefs on how people should behave.
Smith and colleagues examined how different normative messaging influenced binge drinking behaviour among university students, specifically chugging or bolting, where large amounts of alcohol are consumed without pause. Alcohol consumption is a behaviour that has been shown to be heavily guided by social norms. Students often overestimate binge drinking norms, believing it is a more common and accepted behaviour than it actually is.
Participants were shown anti-binge drinking campaign posters that discouraged the behaviour, with and without an injunctive norm that indicated that a majority of students disapproved of the behaviour. The results showed that poster messaging without norm messaging had no impact of behavioural intentions and the inclusion of an injunctive norm actually backfired. Participants who saw the posters with the injunctive norm had greater perceptions that chugging was a common behaviour among their peers, which led to stronger intentions to partake in it. One explanation for this finding is that there was conflict between the injunctive norm message and the poster’s image of a student chugging. Although the message is that the majority of their peers disapprove of the behaviour, it may also have implied that it is a common thing to do.
In a follow-up study, the authors examined the effects of using descriptive norm messaging instead. The message that a majority of students don’t partake in chugging improved the impact of the campaign, by leading to lower binge drinking intentions. Together, the findings demonstrate that adding descriptive norms to the poster messaging can help reduce binge-drinking behaviour among students, whereas adding injunctive norms may have the opposite effect, despite research in other areas of health promotion finding injunctive norm messaging to be effective. When trying to dissuade someone from engaging in a specific behaviour, the use of injunctive norm messaging may suggest that the behaviour is more common, hence the need to dissuade. Given that it is prevalent, they may think it is more appropriate to do.
Smith, J. R., Louis, W. R., & Abraham, C. (2017). When and how does normative feedback reduce intentions to drink irresponsibly? an experimental investigation. Addiction Research & Theory, 26(4), 256-266. https://doi.org/10.1080/16066359.2017.1359572