The other day, I was discussing an upcoming campaign with my team. We were brainstorming taglines that would encourage a shift in Yukoners’ thinking. For example, how could we get people to prioritize checking their carbon monoxide detectors, or get the flu shot? It got me thinking back to something I learned in my social psychology class about social norms.

Social norms are the rules or expectations a group has for the acceptable behaviours, values and beliefs of its members. Those who conform to those expectations would be considered to be in good standing, whereas those who are perceived as different might be ridiculed or even rejected.

So how can we change social norms? Well, I remember reading about one study, where researchers attempted to persuade students not to litter. They took two scenerios. The first, they had students leaving a local library approach their cars in the parking lot, and witness a person walk past them, pick up a fast food bag that had been left on the ground and then saw them toss it in the trash. In the control condition, no bag was on the ground, and that same person simply walked by the students.

In both situations, when the students got to their car, they found a pamphlet left on their windshield. So. How many people do you think littered by throwing that pamphlet on the ground? Researchers guessed that people seeing their peer pick up the fast-food bag would be a vivid reminder of the injunctive norm—littering is bad, and other people disapprove of it—and hence would reduce the participants’ own inclination to litter. They were right. Only 7 percent tossed the pamphlet to the ground compared with 37 percent who saw the control person walk by without picking up the litter.

Another example was a study in which researchers were attempting to get people to reuse their towels in a hotel by posting signs in the bathrooms. The signs focused on the benefits to the environment, e.g. “Help save the environment,” while others used descriptive norms, e.g. “Almost 75% of guests who are asked to participate in our new resource-savings program help by using towels more than once.” It turned out that a significantly greater number of guests re-used their towels when the descriptive norm was used. Something as simple as telling people that others are engaging in pro-environment behaviours promoted positive social change. Interesting huh?

So, my question for you is… how significant is social influence in getting people to get the flu shot? Or to purchase and install a carbon monoxide detector? Or reduce their sodium intake?

Would you be more likely to get the flu shot if someone you knew was doing it too, or are there more important considerations?




by Eleanor

Great blog Krysten! As a designer working on those projects, I have a whole different set of reasons for getting my flu shot, installing the CO detector and reducing sodium….In order to communicate about those topics,  I get to see the research and the science first hand — which makes changing my behaviour an easy sell — the science is convincing.

So when I think of other behaviours, wearing a bicycle helmet comes to mind. And I certainly am influenced by the people around me. In Vancouver I wear my helmet far more than I did in Berlin or Whitehorse. When I see someone without one, I worry for them, or try not to get stuck behind them on the road because they’re probably cruising instead of commuting. They’re the odd man out.


by margriet aasman

We love using testimonials in social marketing… they seem to really appeal to the general public. It helps to normalize a behaviour. Thanks for reminding us that this works to start ball rolling with changing behaviour. Of course to have long term impact, you need to follow through with why, what’s in it for them… to keep the audience motivated to continue on.


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