What people choose to do, the behaviors they enact or refrain from enacting, is guided by a number of factors, including their own dispositions, the situational context in which they find themselves, the social roles they take on, and their interpersonal relationships. The study of how people’s behaviors are guided, in part, by social norms has been the focus of considerable research in recent years.
Although the influence of norms on human behavior occurs across many domains, a great deal of research has focused on understanding normative influences in health-related behaviors, likely because of the inclusion of the subjective norm concept in the theory of reasoned action (TRA; Ajzen & Fishbein 1980); the TRA has been widely used to predict health behaviors.
Norms have been conceptualized in several ways, but terms identified in the literature that deal implicitly or explicitly with the influence of referent others’ attitudes or behaviors on people’s own behaviors include: subjective norms (Ajzen & Fishbein 1980), social norms (Perkins & Berkowitz 1986), normative influences (Cialdini et al. 1990), or simply norms (Bendor & Swistak 2001). Cialdini et al. (1990) make a conceptual distinction between two different types of norms: descriptive and injunctive. Descriptive norms are conceptualized as perceptions about the prevalence of a behavior; they refer to what people perceive others actually do. Injunctive norms are social pressures that people experience from members of a referent group to enact or refrain from enacting a particular behavior (Cialdini et al. 1990). Both “descriptive norms” and “injunctive norms” are used in the literature to signify people’s perceptions, which may or may not conform to reality.
Theory of Planned Behavior as Theoretical Perspectives on Social Norms
In both the TRA and theory of planned behavior (TPB; Ajzen 1985), subjective norms are conceptualized as comprising two factors: individuals’ perceptions about others’ beliefs about a behavior, and their motivations to comply with those beliefs (Ajzen and Fishbein 1980). Operationally, these two factors are thought to act in a multiplicative way such that a small increase in either can result in a large increase in the overall value of norms. Ajzen and Fishbein (1980, 57) intentionally conceptualized subjective norms in a “much more restricted” fashion than the broad definitions of norms found in much of the social psychological literature; they proffer the view that persons make decisions about whether or not to engage in a behavior based, in part, on what referent others (e.g., family, friends, and relational partners) think they should do, and on how much they are motivated to comply with those referent others.
Another distinction made in the literature is that between collective and perceived norms. Collective norms, operating at the level of the social system, represent codes of conduct that impinge on individuals within the system (Lapinski & Rimal 2005). From a sociological perspective, collective norms are closely related to Durkheim’s (1947) notion of social control, which refers to the mechanisms that societies use to maintain the social order. These mechanisms can be either formal (e.g., laws and regulations) or informal (e.g., traditions and customs), but they serve to prevent chaos or anomie in society; Durkheim refers to this process of control as regulation. In contrast, perceived norms are individuals’ understanding of the prevailing collective norm, and they operate at the individual, psychological level.
These distinctions are important because, among other things, they can differentially affect behaviors. It is often the case that descriptive and injunctive norms are congruent – for example, when a majority of people engage in a behavior, it is likely that individuals feel social pressures to conform to that behavior. Similarly, collective and perceived norms are often congruent, as when individuals correctly perceive the prevalence of a behavior in their environment. Interesting outcomes can occur, however, when there is a divergence between the two corresponding norms – as when individuals incorrectly believe that they will incur social sanctions if they do not conform, or when they harbor exaggerated perceptions about the prevalence of a behavior in their social midst.
There is a great deal of evidence, for example, that American college students believe that their peers drink much more alcohol than they actually do; these perceptions, in turn, are associated with students’ own alcohol consumption (Perkins & Berkowitz 1986). Similarly, the literature on pluralistic ignorance (O’Gorman 1988) shows that, on important social issues, the public often believes that the prevailing public opinion is more conservative than it actually is. This in turn makes them more resistant to change. The point here is that different types of norms exert influence in different ways and it is important to specify which norm is being invoked in any given situation.
The TRA provides a description not only of how norms are operationalized (the product of others’ beliefs and motivation to comply with those beliefs), but also of the role of norms in affecting behavioral intentions. Together with attitudes, TRA posits that subjective norms exert a direct influence on behavioral intentions. The TRA has been used as a basis for understanding the role of subjective norms in health-related behaviors and as part of a larger theoretical framework for predicting behaviors. Several scholars have provided meta-analytical reviews of the TRA research (e.g., Albarracin et al. 2001).
Other Theoretical Perspectives on Social Norms
Several other theoretical perspectives deal explicitly with normative influence on behaviors, including the model of spontaneous processing (Fazio 1990), focus theory of normative conduct (Cialdini et al. 1990), and the theory of normative social behavior (Rimal & Real 2005). Central to the thinking about norms is the concept of referent – that is, to whom do people look for normative information? The theoretical perspectives on norms generally consider referent others as ranging from the relationally close (family, partner; Ajzen & Fishbein 1980) to the distant (any person in a social situation; Cialdini et al. 1990). Other theoretical perspectives suggest that the influence of referents is dependent on whether or not referent others have access to information about one’s behaviors.
Model of Spontaneous Processing
The model of spontaneous processing (Fazio 1990) focuses on the informational nature of norms and addresses how they serve to help persons define situations (termed “informational dependence”). Fazio states that the influence of normative information is dependent, in part, on whether people believe their behaviors will be known by others. People may look to their referents to determine the prevailing norms surrounding a particular behavior, but they can also choose to defy the norms if they believe that their behaviors will not become known to referent others. For example, individuals may perceive that referent others do not approve of smoking, but they themselves may choose to do so in a private setting because enactment of this behavior will not be known to others. In public settings, informational dependence may be coupled with a perceived threat of social sanctions for defying the norm.
Focus Theory of Normative Conduct
The focus theory of normative conduct (Cialdini et al. 1990) suggests that the salience of norms is an essential part of understanding the relationship between social norms and behaviors. The theory was developed on the basis of a series of experiments on littering behavior that indicated that norms will not influence behaviors unless a particular norm is focal. In other words, norms are more likely to exert their influence if they are made salient at the time of action.
In this research, focus on normative information was enhanced by manipulating characteristics of the situation or by priming (see Cialdini et al. 1990; Kallgren et al. 2000). These studies suggest that focusing on injunctive norms predicts behavior across situations but that the findings for descriptive norms are less robust. Further, it is believed that activation of injunctive norms may motivate socially desirable behavior in situations where the descriptive norm is socially undesirable. That is, if attention is focused on socially desirable injunctive norms, attention will shift away from undesirable descriptive norms and motivate action toward the desirable injunctive norm.
Theory of Normative Social Behavior
The theory of normative social behavior (TNSB; Rimal & Real 2005) also makes the distinction between descriptive and injunctive norms, and it focuses on the underlying cognitive mechanisms – the moderators – that explain how descriptive norms affect behaviors. According to the TNSB, these moderators include injunctive norms, outcome expectations, group identity, and behavioral involvement. Specifically, the TNSB posits that the influence of descriptive norms on behavior is heightened if individuals also perceive strong injunctive norms to enact the behavior, if the behavior is thought to be beneficial, if there is a strong social connection with others enacting the behavior, and if individuals’ own personal connection with the behavior is strong.
Areas of Further Inquiry
There is ample empirical evidence in the literature to support the theoretical expectation that human behavior is guided, in part, by perceptions about how others evaluate, and whether they engage in, the same behavior themselves. Uncovering the conditions under which this influence occurs will continue to produce meaningful research findings. These conditions (or moderating factors) are likely a function not only of individuals’ perceptions (their belief, for example, that they will get socially rewarded or punished for engaging in the behavior), but also of environmental conditions under which the behavior is enacted (for example, whether the behavior takes place in private or under public scrutiny) as well as the specific attributes that define the behavior in question (for example, the extent to which anonymity is a defining feature of the behavior, as is the case in HIV testing, or whether the behavior is habitual and familiar or episodic and novel). Hence, we envision a comprehensive model of normative influence that takes into account all three factors – individual perceptions, environmental conditions, and behavioral attributes.
A second area of future study pertains to gaining a better understanding of the reciprocal relationships that exist between communication processes and normative influences. To date, much of the research on the intersection between communication and norms has investigated how communication influences norms (the idea being that normative influences are social in nature, and hence interpersonal and mediated communication serve to perpetuate information about norms) or how they jointly affect behaviors. Less research has focused, however, on understanding how normative processes affect communication. Early work on the spiral of silence (Noelle-Neumann 1974) focused on individuals’ propensity to refrain from expressing unpopular opinions, but there has been less systematic research recently on understanding the underlying processes that govern how communication is affected by norms.
It is possible, for example, that the nature of the communication that occurs among individuals who are correctly aware of the widespread support for their point of view in a group will be different from the communication that occurs when there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding a particular point of view in a group. Research designed to understand how normative processes affect communication can ask questions not only about the nature of the communication that ensues, but also about the type of norms in question (for example, whether it is descriptive, injunctive, subjective, objective, or perceived), the characteristics of the social environment (free and open versus controlled, for example) in which the communication occurs, and the characteristics of the individuals engaged in the communication.
Research on normative influences has helped us understand a great deal about human communication processes, beliefs, and behaviors. Many areas of communication scholarship – particularly those that deal with some aspect of persuasion – are also concerned with changing human behaviors. Health communication scholars, for example, typically use principles of communication to implement interventions designed to persuade people to engage in healthy behaviors. Findings from the vast research on normative influences are likely to continue to make significant contributions toward this and other efforts that seek to persuade people to change their attitudes, perceptions, or behaviors.
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