Social Norms

[Last Updated January 21st 2024]
Humans are social animals, and thus influenced by the actions, behaviours, beliefs, and attitudes of those surrounding them in day-to-day life, and those who they wish to emulate. Social norms in turn reflect the actions, behaviours, beliefs, and attitudes considered to be acceptable. All marketing campaigns are influenced by social norms, as they define what is acceptable and expected. For example, racial stereotypes were often used in advertisements historically, but are no longer considered socially acceptable and would result in significant backlash if used today. Further, social norms often define the value of brands. Many luxury clothing brands do not necessarily use better materials, but are able to charge considerably more due to social norms in respect to the acceptability of purchasing luxury goods and the socially accepted communicative value of said brand. To make this point more salient, consider that every day, thousands of individuals choose to buy a brand-name luxury good over an equal quality non-brand-name item, rather than donate the difference (which could be thousands of dollars) towards solving homelessness, or purchasing mosquito nets to save children’s lives in Africa. We subsequently don’t judge individuals negatively for making these choices, but rather, many of us envy them for being able to afford luxury brands. And individuals who can spend hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars on luxury items often gain an advantage on social media in respect to attracting followers, and are labelled as influencers, which businesses then pay to socially define their brand as valuable, so that they can charge more for the items they sell. Thus, in addition to impacting decision making, social norms create feedback loops that reinforce their normative value, and make them incredibly resilient to change.

Social norms have been extensively studied in various domains of academia as they influence almost all aspects of our day-to-day life. Thus for simplicity, we are going to focus on a few key ideas that appear in psychology research, and discuss a few examples of how social norms can be integrated into marketing strategy. Please keep in mind that everything we discuss here is an oversimplified general overview.

Descriptive and Injunctive Social Norms

When creating marketing strategy, it is important to understand the difference between descriptive social norms and injunctive social norms. Descriptive social norms represent norms that people are actively participating in on a regular basis. For example, in some countries bowing when greeting another person is a descriptive norm, as nearly everyone does it, which in turn informs others they should be doing it as well. Injunctive social norms on the other hand describe what people believe others ought to be doing. These are generally moral in nature and represent beliefs about what types of behavior are right and wrong. For example, donating to charity may be considered an injunctive social norm (e.g. we believe we ought to be giving to charity), but may not be a descriptive social norm (e.g. the majority of society may not donate in a given year). Further, there is a difference between injunctive norms and injunctive social norms. Injunctive norms can represent personal moral beliefs (e.g. Veganism), which may not be reflective of injunctive social norms (e.g. moral acceptance of eating meat). Injunctive social norms can also be prescriptive or proscriptive. Prescriptive social norms refer to ways in which we are expected to behave, such as being polite to others (e.g. opening a door for someone) or reciprocating kindness (e.g. exchanging gifts at holidays). Proscriptive social norms on the other hand refer to behaviours we are expected to avoid, such as physically harming others, or screaming at store employees.

Many psychology studies attempt to differentiate between the influences of descriptive and injunctive social norms on behavior, to better understand how to influence decision making. Anderson and Dunning (2014) present a great overview of the nuances in respect to these different types of norms, as well as guidance in respect to identifying when social norms play a role, and which social norms are relevant to a given behaviour.

Subjective Social Norms

One additional type of social norm is discussed in the theory of planned behavior, where Azjen (1991) proposes a concept called the subjective norm, which represents an individual’s perceptions of social pressure to either carry out or inhibit a particular behaviour. These subjective norms are measured by asking an individual to rate how much “important others” would approve or disapprove of a behaviour. In this context, important others might refer to family members, friends, community leaders (e.g. local religious leaders), romantic partners, etc. With respect to marketing, it is important to consider the impact of subjective norms on brand preference and purchasing decisions. For example, in 2023 when Bud Light worked with a transgender influencer, many conservatives boycotted the beer. Some individuals who may not have taken issue with Bud Light’s actions still may have halted their purchases due to social pressure (via subjective norms) from their family, friends, and community. In this situation, general descriptive and injunctive social norms might suggest that supporting trans influencers is socially acceptable (especially online). But social pressure from “important others” likely influenced behaviour in a different direction. Please keep in mind that many studies use subjective and injunctive social norms interchangeably. Thus, when reading studies, it is important to distinguish whether these norms are derived from important others or society as a whole. Park et al. (2009) examines the different effects of subjective, descriptive, and injunctive social norms on university student drinking behaviour intentions, providing some interesting insights on the interplay between these concepts.

Social Norms and Climate Change (An Example of Complexity)

Examining literature on how social norms impact beliefs about climate change and conservation behaviour provides a useful demonstration of the nuance involved in understanding social norms. Further, it is an important subject from a marketing perspective as sustainability communications (both environmental and social) have become an expectation of many consumers (see Baker, 2021). Alló and Loureiro (2014) performed a meta-analysis to determine if social norms are important in respect towards climate change mitigation policies. They found that social norms in a country influenced citizen’s willingness to pay for climate change prevention. For example, they found that countries with more “masculine” cultural norms had citizens less willing to pay on average, countries that tended to lean to the political right had citizens less willing to pay on average, and that countries with long-term orientation (e.g. a cultural willingness to plan for the future) had citizens that were more willing to pay on average. This importantly demonstrates that consideration of indirect cultural norms (e.g. long-term vs. short-term orientation) is often necessary in conjunction with direct cultural norms (e.g. beliefs about sustainability). Niemiec et al. (2020) examine the different impacts of subjective, injunctive, and descriptive social norms, as well as personal norms (e.g. non-social injunctive norms) through a meta-analysis on environmental conservation behaviour studies. They find that descriptive and personal (non-social) norms influence behavioral intentions more so than subjective or injunctive norms. This in turn demonstrates that in addition to considering direct and indirect norms, it is also important to consider the impacts of the different types of social norms discussed here. Once you have determined what social norms are relevant to a desired behavioural change, and which type of social norms are most impactful, a consideration of social norm interventions (e.g. what strategies to use) needs to be made. Constantino et al. (2022) provide an in-depth review of how one might apply knowledge of social norms toward sustainability behaviour. It’s worth a read to understand the complexity of these types of tasks. The takeaway message from these studies on climate change is that social norms are complicated and require a significant amount of insight. That doesn’t mean that you should ignore them. Rather, it means that you should aim to understand your different target markets at a non-superficial level. Further, it means that when expanding cross-nationally, you may need to consider changing some of your strategies to fit local social norms. And it can be helpful to have an expert in human behaviour on hand for this part, as they will be able to help you find the relevant research and insights.

Which Social Norms Matter in Marketing

Melnyk et al. (2019) performed a meta-analysis to determine which types of norms were most likely to affect consumer decision making and found that injunctive norms have the strongest influence on intentions, whereas descriptive norms are more likely to influence both intentions and behaviours. Further, they found that younger people tend to be more susceptible to social norms, but that there were no gender differences. Thus, Melnyk et al. (2019) suggest that marketing campaigns employ descriptive norms such as labelling a product a “best seller” and leverage social media platforms to communicate these norms. Extending this research, Melnyk et al. (2022) examined which contexts were most likely to elicit influence on consumers from social norms. Table 4 in Melnyk et al. (2022) summarizes these findings, and is a useful reference when considering the role of social norms in specific context-dependent strategies. Further, Melnyk et a. (2022) found that social norms for socially approved behaviors are relatively consistent cross-culturally, and that they are often best communicated through individuals that a target consumer feels close to (e.g. social media influencers), rather than non-close authority figures. These two meta-analyses are also great starting points for further research into the effect of social norms on consumer decision making and marketing strategy, as they summarize and cite numerous key studies. Additionally, research suggests that when using descriptive norms, focusing on a target’s local environment elicits greater behavioural change than focusing on general norms (Agerström et al., 2016; Goldstein et al., 2008). To better understand this, see “Hotel Towel Use” in our Research Examples section on this page.

Applying Social Norms to Marketing and User Experience Design

You should always try to predict/understand all aspects of social norms in respect to your target markets, and make sure that your business is not asking anyone to violate any of those norms. If you are operating within your own culture, you will intrinsically recognize most norms and norm violations. However, when operating in cultures different from your own, it is important to have someone with lived experience within that culture advise you on strategy, or at the very least review your strategy and advertisements prior to implementation. Alternatively, you may build violations of social norms into your brand identity (e.g. supporting LGBTQI2SAA+ in a conservative country). When attempting this strategy, it is important to clarify why you are choosing to violate those social norms, unless you are specifically attempting to be “edgy” in which case you can let your brand speak for itself.

The vast majority of behaviour-based marketing and user experience strategies involve some aspect of social norms, as they are generally how people learn to behave in society. Further, the modern digital world is centered on social communication, where our attitudes and behaviours are often influenced by the digital content we consume and influencers we follow. For example, social norms are directly related to many strategies and strategy-related concepts such as social proof, the reciprocity effect, the mere exposure effect, the foot in the door technique, the door in the face technique, conformity, emoji use, entitativity, the halo effect, etc. And social norms indirectly influence other strategies within specific contexts such as altruism-oriented default effects (Everett et al., 2014) or the status quo bias in the information technology industry (Wu, 2016).

Thus, whenever you implement a behaviour-based marketing or user experience strategy, it would be wise to search for the psychological concepts/theories related to the strategy along side “social norms” on google scholar, to see if there is any research on how social norms may affect or influence said strategy. It is also important to consider that many behaviour-based strategies originated in the west, and were tested on WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) participants who reflect a very specific set of social norms. Thus, if you find that strategies are not working in non-western cultures, you may want to consider how social norms may be acting as a roadblock. For example, Deng et al. (2020) discuss differences in patterns of reciprocity behaviour between three cultures (American, Singaporean, and Hong Konger). Thus, if you were attempting to leverage reciprocity, an effective strategy in the United States may not translate to success in Hong Kong.

Practical Examples of Social Norms

Eliciting Donations for Charities with Social Norms

When eliciting donations for charities, focus on descriptive norms that reference the local environment or community of which an individual identifies with. For example, a study by Agerström et al. (2016) found that when eliciting donations for a charity on campus in Sweden, stating that 73% of students from the campus donated 20 Swedish crowns (focusing on the specific local area) was more effective than stating 73% of university students in Sweeden donated 20 Swedish crowns (focusing on students in general). If you are attempting to influence behavioural change within a specific environment (e.g. at a campus, in an office building, at a hospital), this strategy is fairly easy as you can directly reference the local environment. However, many donations are now elicited online through websites and social media platforms. In these situations, it can help to make online communities salient to those who you are asking for donations. For example, many influencers have nicknames for their fans and community. Thus, if you partner with an influencer to elicit donations, they can then mention descriptive norms in a follow-up video in reference to their community members, which in turn may attract more donations. Similarly, you can target online communities in respect to shared experiences, like individuals who all play a specific MMORPG, or fans of the K-pop band BTS. The goal here is to frame the campaign for donations in respect to individual communities, rather than a general donation drive. This can also leverage in-group identity by creating a social desire for an individual’s specific community to perform well (e.g. donate more than out-groups). And in turn it can potentially increase the utility of all those involved, as the charity benefits from donations, individuals benefit from altruistic behavior, and the group/community gains benefits in the form of increased cohesion.

The Dangers of Social Comparisons and How to Overcome Them

In 2014, Hydro One (a company providing energy to the province of Ontario in Canada) began mailing out report cards that compared a customer’s energy usage to their neighbourhood in general, and to the most efficient neighbours they had, providing a rating. This apparently cost them $2.30 per report (with four sent out to each individual per year), and only seemed to annoy customers (Carter, 2015; Furey, 2016). In fact, it annoyed them so much that the discontinuation of the program at the end of 2017 was nearly completely responsible for a 49% decrease in complaints about customer care issues in 2018 according to the Hydro One Ombudsman (2018, pp.10) Annual Report. Further, while Hydro One claimed that this saved 14 million kilowatts of energy, they may not have used proper experimental design making it difficult to conclude that the savings resulted from the reports (Furey, 2016). Regardless, this is a perfect example of what not to do when attempting to influence behavioural change through social norms. To begin, this idea of energy report cards seems to have originated with a company in the United States called OPOWER, which according to Allcott (2011), reduced energy consumption by 2%. And many energy companies have adopted and found success with these reports. Yet they likely upset many households because they are unsolicited, violate personal privacy, and are framed critically. Rather than telling people they are inefficient, or less efficient than neighbours, social norms can be leveraged in a way that does not potentially harm people’s self-concept or self-esteem. For example, rather than giving people a rating, the report can simply inform people of the differences between their household and others, while at the same time acknowledging that these differences may arise from different house sizes, family sizes, materials used in the construction of the house, etc. They can then provide advice on how to become more efficient, without coming off as judgmental. Further, one of Hydro One’s major mistakes may have been the assumption that their mostly rural customers cared about environmental sustainability. In a marketing context, it would be helpful to alter the framing of social comparisons for different demographics. For example, imagine you are selling heat pumps (for heating and air conditioning) that reduce energy consumption. When targeting middle or upper class urban demographics, social comparisons can be used in respect to environmental impact, as that demographic tends to care about the environment. However, when targeting those who are on a budget, social comparisons can be made in respect to spending on energy bills. And when targeting North American rural areas that lean right politically, social comparisons can be made in respect to protection of natural beauty and the health of local wildlife (e.g. local fishing lakes), rather than energy consumption in general. When people have social comparisons forced onto them over moral issues they may not agree with, it will lead to a negative brand experience. Thus, it’s important to always make sure that social comparisons are relatively neutral if communicated to a general audience with a diverse set of beliefs. And when possible, reframing social comparisons to align with the beliefs of different demographics is ideal. If Hydro One had mailed out their report cards in urban areas rather than rural areas, they may have found them to be less contentious and more effective.

The Influencer Advantage

Media has often been responsible for formulating and advancing the changing social norms that impact adolescents. Currently, these social norms are primarily communicated through social media and influencers. Imagine you are trying to sell a subscription beauty service, where every two weeks you mail a subscriber a set of beauty products to maintain their skin. You recognize that men are an untapped market here, and decide you want to target them. The most efficient way is to communicate that taking care of one’s skin is socially normative for males. But most men have never even considered using skincare products. So how do you convince them to sign up? The easiest way is to find multiple influencers that likely attract the same audience, and promote your product through all of them. Suddenly, young men see a number of influencers they watch regularly using and promoting this service. You then ask every influencer to justify using the product to their audience, so the influencers come up with reasons why they (men) suddenly care about skincare. And now, young men who watch these influencers view the use of these products as a social norm, with justifications from those who they personally respect and trust. Without directly stating anything, you have communicated descriptive and subjective norms in a niche but large community. Now that you’ve convinced a number of young men to sign up to your subscription service, you can leverage that to convince other communities that skincare for men is a social norm. This isn’t a hypothetical. Various brands have successfully pulled this strategy off through popular Youtubers, Instagrammers, and TikTokers that elicit millions of daily views. In addition to the direct benefits from working with an influencer, companies can use this strategy to establish socially normative behaviours that allow their new innovative products (like subscription beauty services for men, or energy drinks directed at children) to succeed. We highly suggest watching the South Park special episode “Not Suitable For Children” for a great satirical analysis of this trend.

Research Example of Social Norms

Hotel Towel Use

One of the most popular studies examining social norms is Goldstein et al.’s (2008) hotel towel study. In this study, Goldstein et al. (2008) provided hotel guests with one of two messages. The first message asked visitors to “HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT” by reusing towels. The second message used descriptive norms, asking visitors to “JOIN YOUR FELLOW GUESTS IN HELPING TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT” and indicated that nearly 75% of guests reuse their towels. They found that the message using a descriptive norm led to a 9% increase in towel reuse. Goldstein et al. (2008) then performed a second experiment to determine if altering the reference group attached to the descriptive norm would change behaviour. Past research had suggested that the closer an individual identified with the reference group, the more likely they would adhere to the social norm. However, they found instead that messages mentioning previous guests in the room, followed by previous guests in general, increased the likelihood of a guest adhering to the norm more so than messages that leveraged in-group identity statuses like citizenship or gender. Goldstein et al. (2008) describe this as “adhering to provincial norms” whereby individuals conform to the norms of their current environment. These findings have been replicated numerous times (Gössling et al., 2019; Reese et al., 2014), but Gössling et al. (2019) found that additional factors such as age, nationality, or length of stay also played a role. This in turn suggests that it is important to consider additional variables alongside social norms when attempting to influence behavioural change. It is also important to mention that not all studies were able to replicate these findings. For example, Bohner & Schlüter (2014) ran two replication experiments in German hotels and found no difference between normal messages and descriptive norm messages. However, Scheibehenne et al. (2016) suggest that when examining multiple experiments that failed to replicate together, Bayesian analysis (as a meta-analytic process) suggests descriptive social norms do have an effect on behavior, even when the individual studies do not. In respect to marketing, the results from these studies suggest that descriptive social norms can be used to influence behaviour. Further, it may be wise to consider context when leveraging social norms by focusing on (or making salient) the target audience’s expected situational circumstances. For example, if marketing a sustainable clothing brand as a social norm to young adults, rather than focusing on demographic factors like “age” or “college students” it may be more beneficial to focus on situational contexts like “on campus” or “in class.” For example, an advertisement might point out that 60% of students on university campuses in Toronto wear sustainable clothing. Keep in mind that the more specific you can get, the better. For example, if you can target students at a specific university, your message may be more successful if mentioning the name of a specific target campus rather than referring to the university’s students in general, if there are multiple campuses.

Works Cited

Alló, M., & Loureiro, M. L. (2014). The role of social norms on preferences towards climate change policies: A meta-analysis. Energy Policy, 73, 563-574.

Anderson, J. E., & Dunning, D. (2014). Behavioral norms: Variants and their identification. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 8(12), 721-738.

Agerström, I., Carlsson, R., Nicklasson, L., & Guntell, L. (2016). Using descriptive social norms to increase charitable giving: The power of local norms. Journal of Economic Psychology, 52, 147-153.

Allcott, H. (2011). Social norms and energy conservation. Journal of Public Economics, 95(9-10), 1082-1095.

Azjen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50(2), 179-211.

Baker, J. (2021, April 13). A brave new marketer: Rising to the challenge of sustainability communications. Forbes.

Bohner, G., & Schlüter, L. E. (2014). A room with a viewpoint revisited: Descriptive norms and hotel guests’ towel reuse behavior. PLoS One, 9(8), e104086.

Deng, Y., Wang, C. S., Aime, F., Wang, L., Sivanathan, N., & Kim, Y. C. (2020). Culture and patterns of reciprocity: The role of exchange type, regulatory focus, and emotions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 47(1), 20-41.

Carter, J. (2015, March 18). Comparing hydro consumption upsets neighbours. Inside Ottawa Valley.

Constantino, S. M., Sparkman, G., Kraft-Todd, G. T., Bicchieri, C., Centola, D., Shell-Duncan, B., Vogt, S., & Weber, E. U. (2022). Scaling up change: A critical review and practical guide to harnessing social norms for climate action. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 23(2), 50-97.

Everett, J. A. C., Caviola, L., Kahane, G., Savulescu, J., & Faber, N. S. (2014). Doing good by doing nothing? The role of social norms in explaining default effects in altruistic contexts. European Journal of Social Psychology, 45(2), 230-241.

Furey, A. (2016, October 22). Hydro “report cards” leave consumers peeved. The Toronto Sun.

Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. The Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3), 472-482.

Gössling, S., Araña, J. E., & Aguiar-Quintana, J. T. (2019). Towel resuse in hotels: Importance of normative appeal designs. Tourism Management, 70, 273-283.

Hydro One Ombudsman. (2018). Annual Report 2018.

Melnyk, V., Carrillat, F. A., & Melnyk, V. (2022). The influence of social norms on consumer behavior: A meta-analysis. Journal of Marketing, 86(3), 98-120.

Melnyk, V., van Herpen, E., Jak, S., & van Trijp, H. C. M. (2019). The mechanisms of social norms’ influence on consumer decision making: A meta-analysis. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 227(1), 4-17.

Niemiec, R. M., Champine, V., Vaske, J. J., & Mertens, A. (2020). Does the impact of norms vary by type of norm and type of conservation behavior? A meta-analysis. Society & Natural Resources, 33(8), 1024-1040.

Park, H. S., Klein, K. A., Smith, S., & Martell, D. (2009). Separating subjective norms, university descriptive and injunctive norms, and U.S. descriptive and injunctive norms for drinking behavior intentions. Health Communication, 24(8), 746-751.

Reese, G., Lowe, K., & Steffgen, G. (2014). A towel less: Social norms enhance pro-environmental behavior in hotels. The Journal of Social Psychology, 154(2), 97-100.

Scheibehenne, B., Jamil, T., & Wagenmakers, E. (2016). Bayesian evidence synthesis can reconcile seemingly inconsistent results: The case of hotel towel reuse. Psychological Science, 27(7), 1043-1046.

Wu, C. (2016). Status quo bias in information system adoption: A meta-analytic review. Online Information Review, 40(7), 998-1017.

Important Links

Discover More Knowledge Contact Us