The bandwagon effect: Using social norms to encourage behaviour change

30 May 2017  |  William Hanmer-Lloyd 
The bandwagon effect: Using social norms to encourage behaviour change

In the build-up to the election, multiple charities and interest groups are trying to encourage young people to vote. However, most of their efforts will actually make the problem of limited youth voting worse. William Hanmer-Lloyd explains why.

Young people have never liked being lectured. So unfortunately telling them about a problem rationally will not lead to an improvement in youth voter turnout.

Whilst a rational approach ensures increased knowledge about the issue, in this case knowledge unfortunately does not equal action. This is due to the phenomenon of social norms, where studies have shown that often knowing about the scale of a problem can escalate the problem further.

For example a 2007 study on social norms by Robert Cialdini looked at the example of household electricity consumption and the effect of ‘normalisation’.

The study told participants that electricity usage was too high - and in response found that consumers moved closer to the perceived norm, but what this actually meant is that people increased their energy consumption, as they believed that is what others were doing.

People tend to believe in their own agency and underestimate the extent to which they are motivated by social norms, unconscious group rules that suggest what others consider acceptable, which leads to them basing much of their individual behaviour on how other people act.

Social norms research suggests that changing any human behaviour requires us not to change someone’s opinion, but make them feel that everyone else around them has changed theirs.

That is why in 2008 Obama used a social norm tactic when looking to increase voter turnout - he issued a simple press release stating that ‘a record turnout was expected’ at the polls that year. By saying that most other people were going to vote, he knew he would make more people vote.

Reducing negative behaviour

We must be careful of how we present norms - do it wrong and we can inadvertently encourage people to mimic negative or undesired behaviour.

For example Government campaigns and news coverage that says we have a massive drinking problem in this country, actually increase the rate of drinking - as everyone just picks up on the fact that a lot of other people are drinking a lot, and therefore it is okay if they do.

Several years ago, Dallas university SMU’s Centre for Alcohol & Drug Abuse Prevention began to take note of 'social norms' approaches to reducing binge drinking on colleges and campuses. In 1999, they conducted their first social norms survey.

The results confirmed that SMU students did indeed have significant misperceptions about alcohol norms. By informing students of the results of the surveys through advertising, they were able to raise awareness that fewer students drank heavily than most students thought.

This had an effect and helped reduce drinking levels more effectively than any previous strategy, which focussed on the problems of binge drinking.

Encouraging positive behaviour

A further study by Robert Cialdini looked into how to get people to reduce their energy consumption. In San Diego he left a range of messages on resident’s doors, including one that suggested residents should reduce their energy consumption to help future generations, one that said it would help them save money, and one that said others in the neighbourhood had already started reducing their energy usage.

The only message that that worked was the message that said other people in the area had started to reduce their energy consumption.

People weren’t persuaded by rational messages about personal financial gain or helping their children’s generation, but they wanted to do what other people in their neighbourhood were doing.

What this means for creating pro social behaviour

At its most basic, this insight suggests that advertising that looks to increase positive social behaviour and reduce negative behaviour, should rely more on social norm claims and less on rationally trying to change what the public think.

Rather than focus on the negative impact of an action, advertisers should focus campaigns around how many others are already taking positive action.

For example, more young people wear condoms then you think, less young people take drugs then you think, most people do at least some recycling, and lots of people in your area are voting.

We don’t need to change people’s perceptions to change their behaviour; we just need to make them believe that everyone around them has changed theirs.


William Hanmer-Lloyd is behavioural planning director at Total Media

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