OPINION22 May 2019

New frontiers: social norms and conformity

Behavioural science Finance Healthcare Media North America Opinion Public Sector UK

In the latest instalment of the New Frontiers series and the first of a two-part article on social norms, Crawford Hollingworth and Liz Barker discuss how research on conformity is shaping behaviour change messaging.

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The idea that we conform to what others are doing or approve of is not a new one. We have long been aware that we have a common tendency to adopt the opinions and follow the behaviours of the majority – a concept known as social norms or conformity.

Charles Mackay, the 19th century Scottish writer, observed the concept in its more extreme form – blindly following what others are doing. In 1841, he wrote in ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

Arthur Jenness’ experiments in the 1930s, followed by research from Solomon Asch and others in the 1950s, began to explore the concept of conformity in more detail, illustrating how much people yield to group pressure in their judgements and decisions.

Our understanding has only increased since then. In this two-part article, the third and fourth in our series exploring new frontiers in behavioural science, we look at the latest understanding and findings around the concept of social norms and conformity, breaking down developments over time into three development stages – where we were, where we are today, and where we are headed next.

Where we were

Social psychologists have identified a number of potential motivations behind the desire to conform. One is that social norms can help us when we lack expertise and knowledge in an area, and make us more cognitively efficient in our decision-making. Consciously or unconsciously, we use what others do as a shortcut for decision-making, to guide us in how to behave or think when we don’t have the time or inclination to fully research choices. We can’t be experts in everything, so sometimes it can be useful simply to copy others.

Another motivation is to help us feel safe or avoid conflict. We like to conform to what our peers are doing to fit in. Humans are social beings – we have a fundamental need to belong, and tend to conform because we want to avoid being ostracised or socially excluded.

The level to which we conform can vary. We might comply with what others are doing, even though we might not necessarily agree with or approve of the behaviour of the majority. Or we might only comply because we want to ‘fit in’ and be able to self-identify with a certain group – perhaps a profession, nationality or hobby. At the other extreme, we might internalise the norm, to the extent that we believe the adopted behaviour or belief fits with our values.

Building on those initial experiments about conformity, studies over the last 20 to 30 years have highlighted how communicating descriptive social norms – what others are actually doing – can change or ‘nudge’ people’s behaviour. For example, in a 2008 study, the message ‘Join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment’ helped to encourage more hotel guests to reuse their towels. Similarly, it’s thought the message ‘A record turnout is expected’, used by the Barack Obama campaign ahead of the US presidential election in 2008, helped to increase voter turnout from the 2004 election by an estimated five million. Turnout rates rose to 57% – the highest since 1968.

Descriptive norm messages can also be specific about exactly what proportion of people are doing a particular behaviour. Messages aimed at teenagers in Montana saying: ‘Most ( 81%) of Montana college students have four or fewer alcoholic drinks each week’ had a noticeable impact on teen drinking behaviour.[ 1 ] Similarly, a 2012 field trial investigating which types of messages encouraged taxpayers to pay on time found that the message ‘Nine out of ten people in the UK pay their tax on time. You are currently in the very small minority of people who have not paid us yet’ increased response rates to a reminder letter by 4.2%.[ 2 ]

In the same study, they also tested a message based on injunctive social norms – what others believe or approve of and therefore what we also feel we should believe. Although the injunctive norms messages stating majority opinions about tax paying had smaller effects than the descriptive norm statements, all still had a positive uplift. A message highlighting the majority opinion as a percentage had the largest impact of all injunctive norms messages, increasing response rates by 3.4%: ‘88% of people agree that everyone in the UK should pay their tax on time.’

Where we are now

We now have over 80 years of social norms research behind us. In that time, we have accumulated a huge amount of fascinating knowledge about how they shape our behaviour. 

For instance, we have learnt how we begin learning and absorbing social norms in childhood, observing, imitating and listening to those around us. Professor Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist, highlights how alert we are to figuring out social norms in childhood: “Children are extremely sensitive to norms. They are very good at picking up on ‘what’s the thing that we do’, ‘what’s the thing that’s important for us to do’, ’what’s the thing that’s forbidden for us to do. It’s one of the things that they are learning, maybe more than anything else.”

We also better understand what reactions in our brains might be driving the desire to conform. For example, a team of neuroscientists ran experiments which found that deviations from the group opinion are regarded by the brain as punishment. At the same time, reward signals slow down and we experience greater emotional load and anxiety. This imbalance between error and reward flags a warning to us that we might be making a fundamental social mistake — being ‘too different’. Vasily Klucharev, the lead researcher in the team explains: “Those people experiencing a large reduction in their reward expectations turned out to adapt their opinion the most.”[ 3 ]

Earlier experiments by US psychiatrist and neuroscientist Gregory Berns also found that when people conform to the group, they also seem to think less deeply. He found there was less activity in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain we associate with logical, conscious thinking.[ 4 ]

The role of age
While we all like to conform to some extent, teenagers and young adults are more sensitive to being excluded by their peers than older adults are, because their brains are highly sensitive to rewards. Evolutionarily, it helps them to forge their own way in life and develop strong connections with the upcoming generation – on its way in – rather than their parents’ generation – on its way out. Other research also finds that individuals who have a greater need to ‘belong’ tend to be more responsive to social norms information.

Public versus private behaviour
Norms messaging has a stronger influence on our behaviour when it is being observed publicly as opposed to privately or when it is a socially responsible behaviour e.g. where there are societal benefits from an individual doing a behaviour but few personal gains for them and a possibility of free riding on others’ efforts.

The role of the reference group
The closer and more concrete the reference group is, the more influential it can be. For example, knowing how your immediate peers or colleagues are behaving is more influential than knowing how the nation is behaving. We feel much more affinity with and associate our identity with those close to us. ‘Like me’ statements – same sex, ethnicity, circumstances, location – tend to have far more power than generic, abstract statements or statements about authority figures.

Local versus general
A 2016 study tested different types of descriptive norm messages in a charity’s brochure to encourage university students to donate to charity. They found that conveying local norms about how much immediate peers were donating was more effective in increasing charitable giving than conveying more general norm behaviour. 80% of students who read the local norm message made a donation, compared to only 60% of those who read the general norm message. This is compared to a 40% donation rate among those who saw the standard message emphasising altruism.[ 5 ]

The role of peer effects
Social context can impact the effectiveness of social norm communications. A misunderstanding of social hierarchy or peer effects is a common pitfall. One example comes from a Fortune 500 manufacturing company who wanted to increase enrolment and contributions into retirement savings plans by designing a simplified enrolment letter. The letter leveraged a social norms message by including information about the proportion of the employee’s peers who were saving: ‘Join the 87% of 25-29 year old employees at our company who are already enrolled in our 401(k) plan’.

Although these mailings led to a dramatic increase in enrolment overall, the effects were unequal across employees. Low wage workers tended to carry out upwards social comparisons and were actually discouraged by the information; they found it demotivating to know that so many of their peers were already saving for retirement. As the authors state, “social norms marketing may have limited power and can even produce the opposite of the intended effect in important settings”.[ 6 ] 

At first glance, social norms messaging appears straightforward. The idea that we would adapt our thoughts or behaviours to the majority seems logical. Yet, the findings that the effectiveness of any social norms messaging can be influenced by social context, reference group, the type of behaviour involved, or our demographic or psychographic group is not only making behaviour change interventions more powerful, but more broadly illustrates the dynamism of behavioural science today.

In the second part of this article on social norms and conformity, we will look at where we are headed next and delve into some of the latest findings.

By The Behavioural Architects’ Crawford Hollingworth and Liz Barker


[ 1 ] Linkenbach, J.W. “The Montana Model: Development and Overview of Seven Step Process for Implementing Macro-level Social Norms Campaigns”; Linkenback, J.W. & Perkins, H.W. “MOST of Us Are Tobacco Free: An Eight Month Social Norms Campaign Reducing Youth Initiation of Smoking in Montana.” Both in Perkins, H.W. “The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Age Substance Abuse.” New York: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

[ 2 ] Hallsworth, M., List, J., Metcalfe, R.D., Vlaev, I. “The Behaviouralist as Tax Collector: Using Natural Field Experiments to Enhance Tax Compliance” March 2014, NBER Working Paper No. w20007

[ 3 ] Klucharev V. et al. ( 2009 ). Reinforcement Learning Signal Predicts Social Conformity. Neuron. 61( 1 ),140-151.

[ 4 ] Berns, G.S., Chappelow, J., Zink, C.F., Pagnoni, G., Martin-Skuski, M.E. and Richards, J. “Neurobiological correlates of social conformity and independence during mental rotation”  Biological Psychiatry 58 ( 2005 ), 245-253

[ 5 ] Agerström, Jens & Carlsson, Rickard & Nicklasson, Linda & Guntell, Linda, 2016. "Using descriptive social norms to increase charitable giving: The power of local norms," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 52(C), pages 147-153

[ 6 ] Beshears, J., Choi, J.J., Laibson, D., Madrian, B., Milkman, K. “The Effect of Providing Peer Information on Retirement Savings Decisions” NBER Working Paper August 2011