What Influences Our Conformity to Social Norms?
September 22, 2011 4 Comments
One of the great trials and tribulations of human existence is that it’s hard to get other people to do want you want. Fortunately, most people manage to conform to at least two different types of social norms. Injuctive norms reflect behaviors chosen because people perceive them be correct — for example, not throwing trash on the ground because you believe it will bad for the environment. Descriptive norms reflects behaviors chosen because they mirror the actual behaviors of others — for example, throwing trash on the ground because the park is already littered with trash.
The differences in how people respond to messages based on the two norms are important to both researchers and policy makers. For example, if you want to convince people not to litter, is it better to craft a message based on injunctive norms (e.g. “littering is bad for the environment”) or descriptive norms (e.g. “nobody else litters”)? A new study by a group of researchers at Queen’s University attempts to shed some light on this question by examining whether cognitive elaboration — the degree to which we have to think about the message being conveyed — affects how we respond to different normative messages.
Participants in the experiment were presented with information about enrolling in health program. Those receiving the descriptive message were encouraged to “follow the lead of their peers” and sign up, while those receiving the injunctive message were told how pursuing a healthy lifestyle reflected important values and personal qualities. The degree of elaboration was manipulated by decreasing the motivation and cognitive ability of certain participants. This was done by informing them the program would be unavailable at their university, and then asking them to memorize a number while learning about the program.
It turns out elaboration is quite important:
Analyses revealed a 2-way interaction between message type and elaboration, suggesting that descriptive messages were more successful under low-elaboration conditions, whereas injunctive messages were more successful under high-elaboration conditions.
When people had to think more about joining the health program, they were more likely to be swayed by injunctive messages based on values or beliefs. But when they had less time to think, they were more likely to be swayed by messages based on what others were doing.
These types of findings are important for public policy because the decision to engage in certain desirable behaviors inherently takes place under high or low elaboration conditions. For example, making a decision about littering is generally a low elaboration condition, and therefore it may be more important to keep the ground clean rather than post signs about how littering is bad. On the other hand, purchasing health insurance is a decision people are likely to think about more. As a result, if your goal is to persuade people to buy insurance, it’s probably a good idea to communicate the benefits of good healthcare rather than remind people that everybody else has insurance.
Kredentser, M., Fabrigar, L., Smith, S., & Fulton, K. (2011). Following What People Think We Should Do Versus What People Actually Do: Elaboration as a Moderator of the Impact of Descriptive and Injunctive Norms Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550611420481