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When social norms backfire

group of hikers walk single file in line across the snow

In a nutshell

  1. Social norms are powerfully persuasive, but when used incorrectly they can backfire.
  2. Highlight the correct behaviour and target the right audience.
  3. Check out TRA’s easy to use guide on the various ways you can harness social norms and social proof.

Humans are social animals – we’re programmed to want to fit in.

Evolutionarily, it was dangerous to stand out from the herd, so we developed a strong compulsion to look and act the same as those around us. This instinct persists today in our ever-evolving social norms: the unwritten rules underlying so much of the way we behave and interact. Sometimes described as our herding instinct, social norms come from consciously or subconsciously observing what others are doing and adapting our behaviour to suit.  

In communications, social norms are regularly and successfully used to nudge people into a new behaviour - whether that be to purchase a new product or adopt a new service. However, used incorrectly, these messages can sometimes have unintended consequences. 

Getting social norm messaging wrong can lead to negative outcomes 

A message presenting any behaviour as reflective of the majority will normalise it, whether it is a positive or negative behaviour.  

This means that when messaging presents a negative behaviour as the norm, it unintentionally influences people in a negative way.  

This is called reactance, or ‘the Boomerang Effect’ - when a message intended to shift behaviour in a positive way backfires, instead influencing people towards the negative behaviour it was trying to steer away from. 

It’s an easy trap to fall in to 

This effect was put to the test in a 2003 experiment by Dr. Robert Cialdini, Steve Martin and Noah Goldstein. Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park had a problem: people were stealing petrified wood from the park, endangering the park’s unique environment. To combat this, the team placed different signs throughout the park to test different social norms messages. 

The sign that used a negative social norm “Many park visitors have removed petrified wood from the Park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest” resulted in twice as many thefts compared to when there was no sign at all (up to 7.92% from 2.9%). 

We also see reactance in play when people already doing a positive behaviour then adapt their behaviour to the less desirable norm. 

In a study looking at decreasing household energy consumption, households were told whether they were using less or more energy than others. Those who were using more than average reduced their energy consumption – a great result. However, those who were using less than average ended up increasing their energy use – reactance had occurred.  

Both examples demonstrate that messages can backfire even with the best intentions. They fail because they make the (undesirable) behaviour the norm. 

So how can you avoid social norms backfiring? 

1. Highlight the correct behaviour, not the problem 

Norm messages can have a powerful impact on behaviour, but they need to frame the right behaviour you want to promote. Take the petrified wood example, the sign that outlines desired behaviour resulted in only 1.7% pieces stolen “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest”

2. Target the right group, with the right support 

The household energy example taught us that people who are doing the desirable behaviour can fall into the bad habits of others when social norms are used incorrectly. We need to make sure that we don't use messaging that make those already doing the desirable behaviour feel they are outside the norm, while targeting those whose behaviour we intend to change. This means the norm must be relevant and specific to the intended audience. 

3. There are many different ways to harness the power of social norms  

Within the field of social norms, there are different ways of harnessing norms and showing social traction. This is more commonly known as ‘social proof’ - providing proof points that show many people are taking the desired action. A great example of this is showing numerous positive reviews, referrals or endorsements. TRA Changeways has an easy-to-use guide to help you navigate the different social proof options. 

Tara Collins
Account Director
Tara has a diverse background in advertising, behavioural science and research across Australia and New Zealand. Her passion is bringing together creativity and human behaviour to create actionable and meaningful strategies for brands.

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