Social norms and conformity - part 1

The new frontier in behavioural science

"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.”

Charles Mackay – Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1841

1. Introduction

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, quoted above, observed the concept in its more extreme form - that of ‘herding’ - blindly following what others are doing. Arthur Jenness’ experiments in the 1930s followed by Solomon Asch’s and others’ research in the 1950s then began to explore the concept of conformity in more detail, illustrating just how much people yield to group pressure in their judgements and decisions.

Since then our understanding has only increased and in the last few years more and more work has looked into the concept of social norms and conformity. In this two-part article, the third and fourth in our ‘new frontiers in behavioural science’ series, we look at the latest understanding and findings around this concept, breaking down developments over time into three development stages – one, where we were, secondly, where we are today, and lastly where we are headed next.

  • In part one, we look at ‘where we were’ - how our understanding of social norms has evolved and developed over many years of research, then going on to look at where we are today and how it is evolving.
  • In part two, we will look at where we are headed next - the likely or needed directions in the future.

2. Where we were

Social psychologists have identified a number of potential motivations behind the desire to conform. One is that social norms can help guide 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 time or inclination to fully research choices. We can’t be experts in everything! Sometimes it can be useful simply to copy others.

Alternatively, another motivation is to help us feel safer or avoid conflict. We like to conform to what our peers are doing to fit in, especially as teenagers. Humans are amazingly social beings. We have a fundamental need to belong, and usually feel happier conforming rather than facing disapproval from the group. We tend to conform because we want to avoid being ostracised or socially excluded.

The level to which we conform can also 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 (surgeon) or nationality (German) or simply a hobby such as Morris dancing. 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 twenty to thirty years have highlighted how communicating what are known as descriptive social norms - what others are actually doing - to people can change or ‘nudge’ their 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 during their stay. Similarly, it’s thought the message “A record turnout is expected”, implying that a high majority of people intend to vote, and used by the Barack Obama campaign in the lead up to the US Presidential election in 2008, helped to increase voter turnout from the 2004 election by an estimated 5 million. Turnout rates rose to 57% - the highest turnout since 1968.

Descriptive norm messages can also be more specific about exactly what proportion of people are doing a particular behaviour, helping to put pressure on the small minority not conforming. For example, messages aimed at teenagers in the US state of Montana saying “Most (81%) of Montana college student have four or fewer alcoholic drinks each week.” or “Most (70%) of Montana teens are tobacco free” had a noticeable impact on teen smoking and drinking behaviour.[1] Many other youth anti-drinking programmes have used these kind of messages and found comparable effects. Similarly, a 2012 field trial investigating which types of messages encouraged UK taxpayers to pay their taxes 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 what are known by behavioural scientists as 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 generally had smaller effects than the descriptive norm statements, all still had a positive uplift. A message which highlighted the majority opinion as a percentage had the largest impact of all injunctive norms messages though, increasing response rates by 3.4%: “88% of people agree that everyone in the UK should pay their tax on time.” Similarly, another study found that informing women that the majority of other women approved of the use of sun cream increased use of sun cream as well as intentions to use it in the future.[3]

3. What we have recently learnt

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.”

“The evidence suggests … children are very, very good at both picking up and transforming … values by doing things like listening to details in language. A nice example that recently has come up is generics. Generics are things like, “Girls don’t cry.” When you use a linguistic form, that implies that you’re making a generalization about the whole category. It turns out that kids are really sensitive to whether you say something like, “Girls don’t cry,” or you say, “This girl doesn’t cry,” or “Many girls don’t cry.” ”[4]

We have also better understood what mechanisms and reactions inside 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. Together, this imbalance between error and reward signals flags a warning to us that we might be making a fundamental social mistake — being ‘too different’ from others. 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.[5] Earlier experiments by Gregory Berns, a US psychiatrist and neuroscientist, 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.[6]

3.1 The role of age

Interestingly, behavioural scientists have learnt that some demographic and psychographic groups are more driven to conform than others. Whilst in general we all like to conform to some extent, teenagers and young adults are extremely sensitive to being excluded by their peers than older adults are. This is because, at this time, their brains are highly sensitive to rewards, particularly social 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.

We’ve also identified what types of messaging based on social norms are typically most effective. A 2010 review of over 200 studies on the effect of communicating social norms on decision-making found that descriptive social norm messages tend to have a larger effect on behaviour than injunctive social norms. However, messages and information communicating injunctive norms have a larger effect on people’s attitudes than descriptive social norms.[7]

3.2 Public versus private behaviour

Many of these newer findings are providing us with a deeper contextual understanding of how best to use and apply social norms messaging. For example, we have learnt that 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 instead there is a possibility of free riding on others’ efforts.

3.3 The role of the reference group

We are also becoming more aware of the role of the reference group on the effectiveness of the messaging. 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, same ethnicity, same circumstances, same location - tend to have far more power than generic, abstract statements or even statements about authority figures.

3.4 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 just a 40% donation rate among those who saw the standard, industry message emphasising altruism.[8]

3.5 The role of peer effects

Finally, we now know that social context can impact the effectiveness of social norm communications. A misunderstanding of social hierarchy or peer effects is a common pitfalls. One example comes from a Fortune 500 manufacturing company who wanted to increase enrolment and contributions into retirement savings plans – 401(k)s - 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 on the shop floor tended to carry out upwards social comparisons and were actually discouraged by the information about their peers; 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”.[9]  So, keeping in mind the social context and mindset of people when applying concepts such as peer effects and social norms is essential.

4. Interim Summary - Social Norms and Conformity Part 1

At first glance, social norms messaging appears straightforward. The idea that we would adapt our thoughts or behaviours to the majority seems logical. Yet researchers and behavioural science practitioners have been working away to uncover some of the more hidden or subtle nuances of the concept of social norms and have made some amazing discoveries, many of them unexpected or unanticipated. That the effectiveness of any social norms messaging can be influenced by the 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. It continues to evolve its understanding of human behaviour and reach new frontiers. We have a lot more to discover in part 2 of this article on social norms and conformity when we delve into some of the latest understandings and findings.

New Frontiers in Behavioural Science Series:

Article one - Behavioural Science 2019: The past, the present and the future

Article two - Default settings - the most powerful tool in the behavioural scientist’s toolbox?

About the authors:

Crawford Hollingworth is co-Founder of The Behavioural Architects, which he launched in 2011 with co-Founders Sian Davies and Sarah Davies. He was also founder of HeadlightVision in London and New York, a behavioural trends research consultancy. HeadlightVision was acquired by WPP in 2003. He has written and spoken widely on the subject of behavioural economics for various institutions and publications, including the Market Research Society, Marketing Society, Market Leader, Aura, AQR, London Business School and Impact magazine. Crawford is a Fellow of The Marketing Society and Royal Society of Arts.

Liz Barker is Global Head of BE Intelligence & Networks at The Behavioural Architects, advancing the application of behavioural science by bridging the worlds of academia and business. Her background is in Economics, particularly the application of behavioural economics across a wide range of fields, from global business and finance to international development. Liz has a BA and MSc in Economics from Cambridge and Oxford.

[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] Reid, A. E., & Aiken, L. S. (2013). Correcting injunctive norm misperceptions motivates behavior change: A randomized controlled sun protection intervention. Health Psychology, 32(5), 551-560.

[4] Source: Rationally Speaking podcast, 30 April 2018

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

[6] 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

[7] Melnyk, V, Herpen, E, van Trijp, H.C.M. ‘The Influence of Social Norms in Consumer Decision-Making: a Meta Analysis, Advances in Consumer Research, 2010, Volume 37

[8] 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

[9] 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


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