Yellow brick in wall

OPINION3 July 2019

New frontiers: the future of social norms

Behavioural science Finance Healthcare Opinion Public Sector Trends UK

In the latest instalment of the New Frontiers series and the second of a two-part article on social norms, Crawford Hollingworth and Liz Barker discuss the future of social norms messaging.

In our first article on social norms, we looked at how our understanding has evolved over years of research, where we are today and what we have recently learnt. Here, we look at where we are headed next.

Dynamic social norms – a new type of norms message

Up to now, social norms messages have been based on what we might call a ‘static norm’ – what the majority of people already do. Yet there have been some interesting initial findings around what is being termed as a ‘dynamic social norm’. Research by psychologists Gregg Sparkman and Gregory Walton of Stanford University reveals that dynamic statements – focusing on changes in behaviour – can be even more encouraging than majority-based statements.

In a series of experiments, Sparkman and Walton attempted to get people to eat less meat. In one, a group of participants were shown the following statement: “Recent research has shown that, in the last five years, 30% of Americans have now started to make an effort to limit their meat consumption. That means that, in recent years, 3 in 10 people have changed their behaviour and begun to eat less meat than they otherwise would.” A second group were given a different statement: “Recent research has shown that 30% of Americans make an effort to limit their meat consumption. That means that 3 in 10 people eat less meat than they otherwise would.”

The former group subsequently reported that they were less interested in eating meat. Next, they tested the same statements in their university campus café and found that people who had read the dynamic statement were significantly more likely to order a meatless meal ( 34%) than those who read the static norm statement ( 17%) or a statement about an unrelated dynamic norm ( 21%).

These results suggest that when trying to encourage a certain behaviour by leveraging social norms, the behaviour does not necessarily have to be the most common or commonly accepted behaviour. Simply informing people that the norm is beginning to change and others are starting to act differently can be enough to encourage them towards a certain behaviour (or away from an unwanted behaviour), as they conform to the perceived future norm. This could be particularly relevant to the ‘early-mid adopters’ in society – those who like to conform to established and growing trends.

Sparkman says: “Just learning that other people are changing can instigate all these psychological processes that motivate further change. People can begin to think that change is possible, that change is important and that in the future, the norms will be different. And then, if they become persuaded and decide to change, [the new norm] starts to become a reality.”

Inspired by this finding, the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team recently used a dynamic descriptive norm message to help the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) increase its email response rates. The CIPD wanted to encourage HR professionals to develop workplace initiatives to help employees on career breaks return to work. In an email to 20,000 HR professionals in different organisations, using the phrase ‘Did you know organisations are increasingly recruiting people on career breaks?’  increased open rates by 2.5 percentage points over the standard message, to 19.4%.[ 1 ]

However, it’s important to bear in mind that these are only two experiments, one of them relatively small. Although the initial research findings were significant and make intuitive sense, further testing in different contexts is required before we can be confident about any generalised conclusions.

It may be that we are now ever more aware of dynamic changes in social norms; in this social media era there is a constant stream of information pushed in front of our eyes. Albeit anecdotal, a case in point is the effect on injunctive social norms of the #MeToo movement. In 1998, just 34% of US citizens thought sexual harassment was a ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ serious issue. A day after Alyssa Milano’s #MeToo tweet went viral on 15 October 2017, polls revealed that this figure was 64%. A month later, = the figure stood at 88%.[ 2 ] This type of ‘norms cascade’ may become increasingly common in future, enabled by technology.

Further areas to explore

While we have come a long way in understanding the impact of social norms on behaviour and beliefs, notable gaps remain. The influence of norms appears to be stronger in young adults and teenagers, but more research is needed to better understand this. There are also gaps in understanding of seniors and children, but research indicates that older people are often less concerned about conforming to norms and more confident in their individual preferences.

We also need to understand how norms information operates in more domains. Almost 64% of the 821 studies analysed in a recent review considered the impact of norms in a health setting – especially smoking, alcohol use and diet. Social domains such as charitable giving and environmental protection were also studied but comprised just 10% and 8% of the studies respectively. Consumer behaviour studies and employee behaviour formed just 2% and 1% of research respectively.[ 3 ]

There is also a need to understand how the desire to conform might vary between different cultures and societies and how conformity is changing over time. Asch’s original experiments were conducted 60 years ago now and there are some indications that conformity has declined in the US since the 1950s. Other research also indicates that desire to conform is higher in some societies compared to others; East Asian cultures are more collectivist and often show higher levels of conformity than more individualist countries such as the United States.[ 4 ]  

Because effective nudges based on social norms have received a considerable amount of publicity, there is perhaps an assumption that they are an effective ‘nudge’ in every context. However, some recent findings question this assumption and again highlight that great behavioural interventions come from rich behavioural understanding – the best practitioners do the latter first before jumping in with an intervention.

For example, a trial run by the World Bank in Poland to encourage people to pay their taxes found that a harsher and more threatening message was by far the most effective compared to a standard social norms message:

“So far, we have thought of your payment delay to be accidental. However, if you disregard this notice, we will consider it an intentional choice of yours and we will treat you as a dishonest taxpayer. As part of the execution procedures, we can, for example, block your bank account, salary, and, in addition, you will have to cover all execution expenses that arise.”

This rather strongly-worded message led over 48% of recipients to pay their taxes, compared to just 40% in the control group receiving the standard letter – and resulted in higher average payments.

The trial also tested eight other nudge messages, including a standard social norms message: According to our records, [ 8 ] out of 10 residents in [REGION OF THE TAXPAYER] have already paid their income tax for 2015. You are part of a minority that has not yet fulfilled that duty.”

While this message lead to a three-percentage point uplift in proportion of people paying, it was the second least effective message. This is a good illustration of why it’s good not to leap to assumptions about what might be effective based on what has been effective elsewhere, and to test as many types of intervention as possible.[ 5 ]

We also need to better understand what might lead to long lasting behaviour change. A 2015 Cochrane review of the impact of social norms in reducing alcohol consumption and misuse by university students suggested that interventions using norms did not have a lasting effect on behaviour beyond four months.[ 6 ] 

Many studies implement social norms techniques without finding out if there was an original misperception of norms and whether any resultant change in behaviour was also associated with a change in perceptions. As the medical writer and surgeon Atul Gawande highlights: “To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and the barriers to change. You have to understand what’s getting in their way.”[ 7 ] To truly understand the effect of norms, attitudes, behavioural intentions and behaviour itself all need to be examined.

Social norms messaging is probably one of the most well-known and frequently used types of nudge or behaviour change intervention, particularly in public policy and commercial applications – we increasingly see this type of messaging all around us. Its attraction is often that it feels intuitive – we recognise how we are influenced by what others think and do. Yet behind this simplicity is a wealth of nuance and deeper understanding, some already uncovered, some still waiting to be fully revealed with new research. In the next decade our understanding can only accelerate.

By The Behavioural Architects’ Crawford Hollingworth and Liz Barker


[ 1 ] Government Equalities Office ‘Encouraging hiring of returners: an email trial’ June 2018

[ 2 ] Financial Times ‘Five rules for the office in the #MeToo era’ 9th October 2018 

[ 3 ] Shulman, H., Rhodes, N., Davidson, E. et al ‘The State of the Field of Social Norms Research’ International Journal of Communication 11( 2017 ), 1192-1213

[ 4 ] Bond and Smith ‘Culture and Conformity: A Meta-analysis of studies using Asch’s Line Judgement task’ Psych Bulletin 1996, Vol 119, No. 1 

[ 5 ] World Bank Group ‘Applying Behavioural Insights to Improve Tax Collection: Evidence from Poland’ June 2017 

[ 6 ] Foxcroft DR, Moreira M, Almeida Santimano NML, Smith LA, ‘Social norms interventions are not effective enough on their own to reduce alcohol use or misuse among university or college students’ 29 December 2015, Cochrane Review

[ 7 ] Atul Gawande, Slow Ideas, July 22nd 2013, The New Yorker