Two kinds of norms

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People follow two kinds of social norms.  These norms are injunctive norms and descriptive norms.  Injunctive norms are people's perceptions of what behaviors are approved of or disapproved of by others, and descriptive norms are people's perceptions of how people actually behave (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2010).  Is one of these norms better than the other?  Will following one, change behaviors better than the other?  The answer is:  descriptive norms work better in influencing behavior.  An example of this is staying in hotels.  If a hotel has a sign asking you to reuse your towels to help with environmental resources, this was shown to not work as well versus using a descriptive norm.  In one study, it was found by adding the words "Join Your Fellow Guests in Helping to Save the Environment," 75% of guests reused their towels (Aronson, et al, 2010).  Using a descriptive norm and relaying what people actually do, works much better.

These descriptive norms work great in social change situations.  They are excellent in changing or influencing environmental issues such as littering, saving energy, conserving water, and many others.  So, if you want to see some kind of social change, use descriptive norms.  Just make sure that people know what other people are doing, and you can change anything.  


Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., & Akert, R. M.  (2010).  Social psychology.  Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Prentice Hall.     

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When using normative messages to influence behavior,a study showed that there can be such thing as a boomerang effect. The boomerang effect can occur when normative information may actually attract people who engage in more of the undesirable behaviors than the norm and too, for those who engage in less of the undesirable behavior than the norm(Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012)
While using descriptive norms may work great in social situations, the use of descriptive plus injunctive information can help in the elimination of the boomerang effect and be even more beneficial in changing or influencing environmental issues.


Schneider, F., J. Gruman, & L. Coutts. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

I love the idea of using a combination of injunctive and descriptive norms in order to influence people’s behavior. As Kelli noted above, using descriptive normative information alone may cause the boomerang effect, but with the addition of injunctive normative information, there may be less of an occurrence of that.

Interventions using social norm theory have been applied to many issues such as binge drinking, smoking, gambling, risky sexual behavior, seatbelt use, and energy consumption. Your example of energy consumption is dead on. Northern Illinois University had a very positive campaign which addressed perceived social norms about drinking and binge drinking. Many students believed that more people drank than actually did and that those people had more to drink each time than they did in reality. They used a mass media campaign which showed students how much people actually drank – quite moderately in all actuality (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012). Of course, this was using only descriptive norms, but it was still quite successful. I believe this campaign had limited resources so perhaps that is why injunctive norms were not utilized.

Schneider, F.W., Gruman, J.A. & Coutts, L.M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

I've noticed over recent years that there has been an increased use of speed limit signs on the highways that not only tell you what the speed limit is, but how fast you are actually going. This is by way of a large, flashing display of the speed of your car shown right below the posted speed limit. This is a perfect example of an effective use of applied social psychology to improve everyday life by way of its incorporation of injunctive and descriptive norms (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). Although incredibly simple in design, I've found that whenever I come across one, I become instantly conscious of my speed and nearly always considerably reduce it.
While we might argue that such devices may work to better enable police to catch speeders, and this may very well be the case, I believe that the psychological effect is nonetheless potent. I’ve noticed that even though I am a fairly cautious driver that is not terribly inclined towards speeding, it is more the immediate and often unconscious desire to not make a spectacle of myself when breaking a social norm that keeps me in line. I believe this to be true because while I may often ignore a standard speed limit sign, while being fully aware that I could probably just as easily get caught for speeding, I am much more likely to not ignore a sign when it means that everyone in all the cars travelling alongside me can see exactly how fast I am going. In fact, I’ve actually more than once received a frown or look of disapproval when coming to a stop light after ignoring a flashing sign.
Therefore, it is the unspoken social pressure to conform that is actually more potent, than the costly threat of a speeding ticket. In essence, while a sign that only displays the injunctive norm of a speed limit is intended to have the same effect of speed reduction, being told what we ought to do does not always have the same power as being told what we ought to do while instantly revealing to ourselves and others that we are not doing it. In addition, I have found that when I see other drivers speed past me and the upcoming flashing speed limit signs on the road, I am also more likely to negatively judge them. If they were simply just speeding past a road sign posting a speed limit that is undeniably lower than the speed at which they are moving, I take notice but am not as affected. This speaks to the potential that we as social beings are more likely to conform to the implicit and explicit norms set by those perceived to be our peers, than the norms bestowed upon us by the power of authority and the threat of punishment. Furthermore, this can also reflect the nature of inequitable comparisons (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012), and their potential to invoke a state of dissonance or psychological tension. Such impels individuals to change their behavior and respond by engaging in efforts to diminish these tensions either through the subsequent reduction of inequitable behavior in the immediate sense, or through the avoidance of such behavior in the future. Clearly, even in the fleeting and vague presence of complete strangers along a roadway, we, as human beings have a basic need to avoid the negative judgment of others.
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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