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4 Steps for Using Social Norms to Persuade and Influence

Using informational and normative social influence in marketing and persuasion.

Source: moonjazz/Flickr

In the last article, we evaluated why people follow the crowd—and when that may or may not be a good strategy for personal decision-making. In that evaluation, we discussed how individuals often look to others, especially in ambiguous situations, for the correct way to behave and decide. As a result, these general rules for behavior and decision-making within a group, known as "social norms," can have a big impact on individual decisions and actions.

Because social norms have such a significant influence on individual behavior and decision-making, they can be effective to include in persuasion and marketing efforts as well. Nevertheless, as noted in the last article, sometimes such norms provide valuable information and positively shape behavior—on other occasions, they may lead people astray. Therefore, to successfully persuade with such a social norming approach, there are a few important factors and distinctions to consider.

Fortunately, research has the answers...

Research on Social Norms and Social Influence

One of the first set of experiments to apply social norms to modern influence and persuasion approaches was shared in an article by Cialdini, Reno, and Kallgren (1990). In that article, the authors shared what they called a "Focus Theory of Normative Conduct" (and Cialdini would later refer to as Social Proof or Social Validation as well). In that theory, Cialdini and associates (1990) made the distinction between two types of social norms:

  • Descriptive Norms: These norms describe what most people do and what is typical behavior in a situation. It motivates a change in behavior by suggesting what will likely be an adaptive and effective action in that particular situation.
  • Injunctive Norms: These norms describe conduct that is morally approved (or not approved) in a given situation. It motivates by suggesting what ought to be done in that context, particularly in order to avoid some negative social sanction.

Cialdini, Reno, and Kallgren (1990) then went on to apply these norms in five natural setting studies—in an attempt to convince individuals not to litter. In the first experiment, the researchers evaluated littering in a parking garage. They found that individuals were more likely to litter in that environment when litter was already present (demonstrating that littering was the norm). This was especially true when the individual saw one of the research confederates actually litter in the area too.

These effects were replicated and extended in experiment two (at an amusement park entrance) and three (in a college dormitory mail area). Here, too, the more pieces of existing litter that were observable in the environment, the more likely individuals were to choose to litter there as well. In fact, the more litter that was present, the more quickly individuals littered there as well.

In the fourth experiment, Cialdini, Reno, and Kallgren (1990) evaluated the different effects of descriptive and injunctive norms more fully. Specifically, they manipulated the parking garage environment to show that the litter was either swept up into piles or not (with the sweeping indicating an injunctive norm for not littering). As expected, observing the swept litter made individuals less likely to litter themselves. Nevertheless, this effect interacted with observing someone else littering in the area as well (descriptive norm). When the environment was not swept, individuals were more likely to litter when observing someone else do so. In contrast, when it was swept, individuals were less likely to litter when seeing someone else litter—likely negatively highlighting the behavior and how inappropriate it was for the situation.

Finally, in the fifth experiment, Cialdini, Reno, and Kallgren (1990) printed up flyers with a number of messages, including the desired anti-littering norm ("April is Keep Arizona Beautiful Month. Please Do Not Litter") and a general message ("April is Arizona's Fine Art's Month. Please Visit Your Local Museum"). They then placed these various flyers on cars to see how many of each type would be crumpled up and littered on the ground. Results showed that only 10 percent of the anti-littering flyers were thrown on the ground, whereas 25 percent of the general flyers were littered.

Overall, these experiments began to suggest that social norms did indeed have an impact on actual behaviors, that there was a distinction between descriptive and injunctive norms, and that such norms could be used in persuasive messages to change behavior too. These suggestions, in turn, inspired numerous studies replicating and expanding these effects for the better part of the next three decades. From there, to gain some consensus on that body of research, a review and meta-analysis of 297 studies were completed by Melnyk, van Herpen, Jak, and van Trijp in 2019. The compilation of their results suggested the following factors involved in social norming persuasion efforts:

  • Descriptive norms appeared to primarily impact behavior in an unconscious way. In those persuasive situations, individuals just "followed the crowd" without giving it much thought. As a result, their behavior changes in the moment, but their attitudes do not.
  • Injunctive norms had the opposite effect. Persuasion using injunctive norms mostly changed attitudes, particularly when the individual was consciously thinking about them. Nevertheless, such an approach had little to no direct impact on behavior in the moment.
  • The specificity of norms was also important. Messages that specifically communicated the behavior expected by the norm were more effective. Also, messages that clearly conveyed the consequences for failing to uphold the norm were more successful too.
  • The source of the norms impacted their effectiveness as well. Individuals were more influenced by messages that came from close or similar others. As a result, the most effective messages were associated with family, friends, and loved ones. Messages from authority figures were persuasive as well, although less so. Finally, the least persuasive were those attributed to abstract sources (e.g., "25 percent of people...").
  • The age of the individual receiving the message also appeared to have an impact. Younger individuals were more susceptible to normative influence than older people. In fact, by age 50, individuals seemed to mostly stop responding to such social norms altogether (with some even reacting negatively instead).

Using Social Norms to Persuade

Given the above, it appears that utilizing social norms can be an effective strategy for persuading other people. To do so, however, it can be helpful to consider the following points:

1. Evaluate Audience Receptivity: To start, according to the research, such normative approaches work better on younger individuals. Therefore, if that is your intended audience, then you might find success with this type of persuasive appeal. If you are persuading someone more mature (especially in the 50+ age range), then appealing to social norms may not be as influential for them. In that case, following a more general and informational approach to persuasion might be more effective.

2. Choose Long or Short-Term Changes: As noted above, highlighting a descriptive norm (what most people are doing) can be the most effective way to change immediate behaviors, especially behaviors that people are performing thoughtlessly. Nevertheless, because descriptive norms are not considered more fully and consciously by people, they will often be forgotten quickly—and will need to be repeated to prompt the behavior again in the future. In contrast, using an injunctive norm (what people ought to do) has a bigger impact on thoughtfully changing attitudes, which can last longer. Nevertheless, such an approach may have less impact on an immediate behavior—especially when that behavior is automatically or unconsciously performed in the moment. In general, this trade-off and distinction is a result of our two-process way of thinking and the resulting need for two main strategies for persuasion too.

3. Be Specific: Normative messages (and persuasion overall) is often more effective when you clearly communicate what you want the other person to do. For example, the "please do not litter" statement in the study above is a specific request. Saying something like "be a tidier person," in contrast, is not as clear. Also, be sure to include information on "why" they might want to follow the norm as well—especially any potential negative consequences for not doing so. In general, people are motivated to avoid losses when making a decision. Therefore, highlighting what they might miss out on can be influential in getting them to follow along with the norm.

4. Indicate the Source: Think about the source of this social norm. Where is it coming from? Are family, friends, or people "just like them" saying or doing these things? Do experts agree on it? As the research shows, people tend to conform to what family, friends, and people similar to themselves are doing—then they look to the experts and authorities. So, if any of those sources are applicable, be sure to highlight them. Otherwise, a message from a vague source can still have some impact, but it may be less effective.

© 2019 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Cialdini, R. B., Reno, R. R., & Kallgren, C. A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(6), 1015-1026.

Melnyk, V., van Herpen, E., Jak, S., & van Trijp, H. C. M. (2019). The mechanisms of social norms' influence on consumer decision making: A meta-analysis. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 227(1), 4–17.

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