Social Norms Theory
The Social Norms Theory was first used by Perkins and Berkowitz in 1986 to address student alcohol use patterns. As a result, the theory, and subsequently the social norms approach, is best known for its effectiveness in reducing alcohol consumption and alcohol-related injury in college students. The approach has also been used to address a wide range of public health topics including tobacco use, driving under the influence prevention, seat belt use, and more recently sexual assault prevention. The target population for social norms approaches tends to be college students, but has recently been used with younger student populations (i.e., high school).
This theory aims to understand the environment and interpersonal influences (such as peers) in order to change behavior, which can be more effective than a focus on the individual to change behavior. Peer influence, and the role it plays in individual decision-making around behaviors, is the primary focus of Social Norms Theory. Peer influences and normative beliefs are especially important when addressing behaviors in youth. Peer influences are affected more by perceived norms (what we view as typical or standard in a group) rather than on the actual norm (the real beliefs and actions of the group). The gap between perceived and actual is a misperception, and this forms the foundation for the social norms approach.
The Social Norms Theory posits that our behavior is influenced by misperceptions of how our peers think and act. Overestimations of problem behavior in our peers will cause us to increase our own problem behaviors; underestimations of problem behavior in our peers will discourage us from engaging in the problematic behavior. Accordingly, the theory states that correcting misperceptions of perceived norms will most likely result in a decrease in the problem behavior or an increase in the desired behavior.
Social norms interventions aim to present correct information about peer group norms in an effort to correct misperceptions of norms. In particular, many social norms interventions are social norms media campaigns where misperceptions are addressed through community-wide electronic and print media that promote accurate and healthy norms about the health behavior. The phases of a social norms media campaign include:
- Assessment or collection of data to inform the message
- Selection of the normative message that will be distributed
- Testing the message with the target group to ensure it is well-received
- Selection of the mode in which the message will be delivered
- Amount, or dosage, of the message that will be delivered
- Evaluation of the effectiveness of the message
Social norms media campaigns are currently being funded by many federal agencies, state agencies, foundation grants, and non-profit organizations. Sometimes social norms media campaigns are funded by industry. There has been a good deal of evaluations conducted on social norms campaigns.
There are several limitations of Social Norms Theory that need to be considered prior to using the theory. Limitations of the theory include the following:
- Participants of an intervention focused on social norms are likely to question the initial message being presented to them due to misperceptions they hold. Information must be presented in a reliable way to correct those misperceptions.
- Poor data collection in the initial stages can lead to unreliable data and poor choice of normative message. This can undermine the campaign and reinforce misperceptions.
- Unreliable sources, or sources that are not credible to the target population, can result in an unappealing message that undermines the campaign, even if the message is correctly chosen.
- The dose, or amount, of the message received by the target population must be enough to make an impact, but not too much that it becomes commonplace.
Although these limitations exist, when used correctly Social Norms Theory can be very effective in changing individual behavior by focusing on changing misperceptions at the group level. Social norms interventions can be used alone or in conjunction with other types of intervention strategies. The most effective social norms interventions are those that have messages targeted to the at-risk population that are correct and influential. To target messages, a substantial amount of research and data collection has to be invested to understand the norms that exist in the group of interest. Social norms interventions are also most effective when presented in interactive formats that actively engage the target audience.