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Do as I say, not as I do

Photo of a toddler

Did your mum ever say that to you? Or something similar? Even as a child, it seemed an unreasonable command.

I didn’t know at the time that I was bucking against a norm - and a particular type of norm at that. Typically, when people refer to norms they are using a short hand for social norms and by that they mean the common behaviour that everyone is doing. However, social norms fall into two distinct camps – socially observable norms (sometimes described as descriptive or empirical norms) and norms that reflect what society expects of us (sometimes described as normative or injunctive norms).

The normative triad

  1. Personal norms: sometimes described as our moral compass, the expectations we hold for ourselves.
  2. Socially observable norms: sometimes described as our herding instinct, comes from unconsciously or consciously observing what others are doing.
  3. Societal expectation norms: sometimes described as normative norms - the way people are expected to behave.

'Society’ can be our nation, our mates, our university or any other reference group to which we belong and where we know that there are expectations about our behaviour. These can be explicit, laws and regulations for example, or implicit - ‘the way we do things around here’.

We respond to these type of norms in a number of ways – obedience, compliance, or conformity, all similar but a little different. In the case of my Mum’s instructions, it was definitely obedience. 

Using norms to change social or commercially relevant behaviour

So much for the theory, how do we use this to change social or commercially relevant behaviour. A good recent example was the Covid-19 comms where we didn’t know what to do and we needed to be told. What we needed was clarity and specificity to tell us what the government was expecting us to do and for the most part obedience was our response.

But what about the self-check-out experience at a supermarket? Do we tell the machine that we have the expensive apples on the scales or the cheap ones? We know we are expected to be honest, but do we comply and how can the store encourage honest behaviour. There is the chance of being caught, so that should deter us, but would there really be a penalty? Could we feign ignorance and be left with no worse a penalty than embarrassment. 

We could use what we know about norms to influence behaviour and in this case there are a couple of things we could do:

  • We could reinforce the expectation by telling people that the store trusts you and expects you to be honest.
  • We could employ another type of norm – socially observable norms - and tell people how pleased we are that we can see everyone is being honest.
  • Or, we could be a bit sneakier and put a picture of a staff member on the machine – eyes pointing at the eye level of the customer.

Yes, we even respond to social norms when the people we are observing are figurative rather than real. For example, hand washing in bathrooms increases markedly when an image of a person’s face is above the washbasin.

Keeping the normative triad in balance

The issue with the honesty (or lack of) at the checkout is that our normative triad is out of balance. We may hold a personal belief that theft is wrong, but we might think that everyone cheats a bit and maybe that the supermarket is overcharging for similar products, so we justify our actions. If we can bring the triad back into balance we will correct the behaviour and achieve compliance. Because in this case we simply want people to comply with the ‘unwritten’ rule about honesty in a self-serve situation.

Norm triad diagram

When we use norms of any type to effect behaviour change, it’s important to consider the dynamic of the triad of personal, socially observable and socially expected norms – that’s how we can effect change.

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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