What Influences Our Conformity to Social Norms?

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

4 Responses to What Influences Our Conformity to Social Norms?

  1. Great insight into decision-making, a combination of style of message and time allowed. It gives some insight to how some scams work, as well as useful messages such as those described. Personally,I hate being feeling like i’mbeing stampeded and tend to call a halt to anything where I start feeling that sensation.

  2. jacob Wussler says:

    We just talked about conformity in class but it was not as involved as a mass population.Would it matter how many people conform whether it be a population or just a group of people? And Would it also be possible to influence somebody directly through your actions like in the video “The Power of Conformity” by Candid Camera.

  3. Pingback: Prison « A little girl's road to self discovery

  4. Tony Patchin says:

    Conformity is a very evident thing in our society today. People mainly do it to fit in, or be well perceived with their group of friends. A study done by Soloman Asch showed really how far our society goes to conform, even if they know the answer or decision they are making is clearly wrong. His experiment showed that when the answer is clearly wrong, but most the subjects say that answer, the following participants will go with the wrong answer just because the other ones did. This occurred 76% of time. This proves that our society will second guess ourselves, just to conform with the norms of society as a whole. There are many reasons as to why people conform. First of all, everyone has a desire to be liked and accepted by their social group. This is referred to as normative social influence. Another reason we choose to conform is because we have a strong desire to be right. As proven in Asch’s assignment, when we are doubtful of our own judgment, we look to the group for guidance weather its right or wrong. This is known as informational social influence. So, as you can see conformity will never stop occurring in our society. It will always be evident because no one wants to be an outcast.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s