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The social norms approach, or social norms marketing,[1] is an environmental strategy gaining ground in health campaigns.[2] While conducting research in the mid-1980s, two researchers, H.W. Perkins and A.D. Berkowitz,[3] reported that students at a small U.S. college held exaggerated beliefs about the normal frequency and consumption habits of other students with regard to alcohol. These inflated perceptions have been found in many educational institutions, with varying populations and locations.[4] Despite the fact that college drinking is at elevated levels, the perceived amount almost always exceeds actual behavior.[2] The social norms approach has shown signs of countering misperceptions, however research on changes in behavior resulting from changed perceptions varies between mixed to conclusively nonexistent.[5]

Thus, the social norms approach predicts that an intervention which aims to correct misperceptions by exposing actual norms will benefit society as well as individuals, because it will lead people to reduce problem behaviors or increase participation in healthy behaviors.[6] There have been multiple studies which have indeed shown that social norms campaigns can have such positive effects on target populations. One study in particular, which utilized 18 different colleges over a three-year period, found that social norms campaigns were associated with lower perceptions of student drinking and lower consumption levels.[8] Oddly, when the results of this same study were reported at a conference of alcohol educators, DeJong reported that alcohol consumption increased' among both control participants and among the experimental group (those who got the social norms marketing treatment). This discrepancy in reported findings between a conference paper and published journal

A phenomenon known as false consensus is closely related to the idea of pluralistic ignorance, and refers to the incorrect belief that others are similar, when in reality they are not. For example, heavy drinkers will think that most others consume as much as they do, and will use this belief to justify their behavior. Berkowitz,[6] an independent consultant who works full-time to promote these ideas, describes false consensus and pluralistic ignorance as "mutually reinforcing and self-perpetuating...the majority is silent because it thinks it is a minority, and the minority is vocal because it believes that it represents the majority" (p. 194).

These phenomena both have the potential to be addressed by a social norms intervention. Berkowitz[7] describes this possibility in relation to reducing alcohol use:

…social norms interventions have been found to be effective in changing the behavior of the moderate or occasional-drinking majority (pluralistic ignorance) as well as confronting and changing the behavior of the heavy drinking minority (false consensus) (p. 9)

Thus, the social norms approach predicts that an intervention which aims to correct misperceptions by exposing actual norms will benefit society as well as individuals, because it will lead people to reduce problem behaviors or increase participation in healthy behaviors.[6] There have been multiple studies which have indeed shown that social norms campaigns can have such positive effects on target populations. One study in particular, which utilized 18 different colleges over a three-year period, found that social norms campaigns were associated with lower perceptions of student drinking and lower consumption levels.[8] Oddly, when the results of this same study were reported at a conference of alcohol educators, DeJong reported that alcohol consumption increased' among both control participants and among the experimental group (those who got the social norms marketing treatment). This discrepancy in reported findings between a conference paper and published journal paper is difficult to reconcile.

Another inte

Another intervention designed to reduce drinking amongst student athletes had similar results, reducing misperceptions of alcohol consumption. Also, within the time period of the intervention, there were declines in personal consumption, high risk drinking, and alcohol-related consequences.[9] When critiquing this study, one should ask how many dependent variables were assessed, as this group of researchers often assesses as many as 20 or more outcome variables and finds change in 2 or 3 and calls the program successful.

A recent trial of a live, interactive, normative feedback program in which students used keypads to input information had positive effects in terms of reducing misperceptions and drinking behavior.[10] There are many other examples of successful social norms campaigns, which cover various topics, population sizes, and media through which normative messages are conveyed.

Two types of norms are relevant to a social norms approach: descriptive norms and injunctive norms. Injunctive norms involve perceptions of which behaviors are typically approved or disapproved. They assist an individual in determining what is acceptable and unacceptable social behavior. This would be the morals of your interpersonal networks and surrounding community. Descriptive norms involve perceptions of which behaviors are typically performed. They normally refer to the perception of others' behavior. These norms are based on observations of those around you.[11]

"Both kinds of norms motivate human action; people tend to do what is socially approved as well as what is popular. (105) When put together, these norms have a counterproductive effect. For example a campaign that focuses individuals on the frequent occurrences of an offense against the environment has the potential to increase the occurrence of that offense".[11] These two norms are constructed from three sources: observable behavior, direct/indirect communication and self-knowledge. Miller and Prentice 1996

Borsari and Carey's[12]meta-analysis of studies showed that people misperceive injunctive norms more than they do descriptive norms, and that injunctive norms are more likely to predict drinking behavior and negative consequences of drinking. However, the use of both in social norms campaigns has shown that it is unclear which type of norm is more likely to change behavior.[7]

Assumptions

There are seven assumptions of the social norms approach:[6]