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The behavioural pull of social norms

Image of young girl eating ice cream

I don't care what the other kids are doing/wearing/eating - you're not having that!

The statement that makes any kid feel desperately miserable and longing for the time when they can make their own choices. Except that most of the time they won’t make their own choices, instead they’ll copy what others are doing. We are naturally herding creatures and we like to run with our herd because it’s safe, it’s easy (we don’t have to make decisions) and it turns us on – literally, being in a social group fires off our brain activity like nothing else does.

The technical term for this is social norming and it has a very strong pull on our behaviour. Marketers in commercial organisations and Government agencies can use this to influence us to behave the way they want us to - it's called social proofing. And it often works, but not always. The "not always" is because it is not a blunt instrument and requires a level of understanding in order to be effective. Plus knowing what power social proofing has within the broader triad of personal norms, socially observable norms and socially expected norms is a critical component to achieve balance in this dynamic relationship.

Norm triad diagram

Principles of success for social proofing

There are a few principles that determine the success of social proofing – using the relevant reference group for example. We run with a herd, but horses, zebras and antelopes all herd, whereas we are more influenced by people who are similar to us. So, if you are using social proofing to encourage behaviour change you need to give people information about other people like them. If you want to get students to drink less, you need to tell them how much other students drink rather than how much people generally drink. Or, if you want to direct people to the best option for them for a plan (e.g. a telco, utility, insurance) you are better to give them information that is about people like them e.g other high data users, other people in your town etc).

There are also ways that you can use social proofing that seem to run counter to the current day mantra of make it easy and cut out friction. A company that had a recorded message when their telecentre lines were busy that said “please call back later as our phone lines are busy with people booking …” got a significantly higher sales rate than when they had simply asked people to hold.

We are also far more susceptible to social influence when we are in a situation where there is a high level of uncertainty – which is why, when we can’t choose between options, we are likely to be swayed by knowing how many other people chose one option versus another.

And never use negative social proofing - it’s ineffective and can have negative consequences. Telling people how many cyclists were hit by drivers doesn’t change driver behaviour and does deter cyclists form using their bikes.

As marketers and behaviour change organisations have increased their use of techniques employing social norms, so have people become savvy and more immune to on the nose attempts to influence. Social proofing is not a blunt instrument and if you use it as a sledgehammer you are unlikely to be effective. A more nuanced approach is required and balancing the pull of a social norm with people’s personal norms and the socially expected norms can amplify the impact.

Want to learn more about social norms and behaviour change? 

Watch our Norm Storming Webinar:

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA
Colleen has a curious and strategic mindset fueled by 40 years of experience in business across Europe, North America and APAC countries. With a fascination and deep understanding of what it is to be human, specifically applying principles from cultural sociology, social psychology, behavioural science, and cultural analysis, she brings breakthrough insights to brand strategy, creative development and customer centricity.

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