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  • Intervening to Change Social Norms: When Does It Work?
  • Deborah A. Prentice (bio)

social norms are an increasingly popular target for interventions designed to change behavior. The logic of these interventions is simple: Change people’s beliefs about what other people think is appropriate and desirable behavior, and their own behavior will fall in line. Participants in a norm-based intervention may learn that the majority of people buckle up when they get in the car, bring recyclable bags to the grocery store, or reuse their towels when they stay in a hotel. They may learn that their neighbors use less energy than they do, their fellow physicians prescribe fewer antibiotics than they do, or their peers approve of heavy drinking less than they assume. They may learn that the people who matter in their school disapprove of bullying or the people who matter in their community approve of condom use. The goal of the intervention, in all cases, is to provide participants with information that changes the social norm—that is, changes their perceptions of what others do and approve of doing—away from personally and collectively costly behaviors and toward more moderate, healthy, and prosocial behaviors (Miller and Prentice 2016). Once an intervention is successful in changing the social norm, the ubiquitous human tendency to conform to the norm will move behavior in a socially desirable direction.

Given the strong interest in this intervention approach across a wide variety of behavioral domains, there is value in identifying the conditions under which it works. In particular, when does [End Page 115] information succeed in changing people’s perceptions of social norms? When do they accept and internalize that information so that it serves as a guide for their own behavior?

The answer to this question lies in an understanding of the psychology of social norms, and more specifically, of how people construct representations of norms out of the information they encounter in their everyday lives. Social norms are a product of the ongoing psychological processes through which people perceive and understand the social world around them. Interventions to change norms are successful when they affect the output of those processes in a consistent way.


A social norm is an attribute of a group or community that is perceived as appropriate for its members (Miller and Prentice 1996). In the context of behavior-change interventions, the attribute of interest is usually a behavior (e.g., recycling) or a direct consequence of behavior (e.g., household energy use). Some social norms are defined in terms of the commonness of behavior (e.g., 70 percent of the members of this community drink heavily at parties) and some in terms of the nature of the behavior (e.g., the average amount of alcohol consumed at parties is 3.4 drinks). Which of these representations is more meaningful and therefore more likely to characterize the norm varies depending on the context, the group, and the behavior in question.

Defining Features of Social Norms

Three features of social norms are important for understanding their usefulness in behavior-change interventions.

(1) Norms are constructed as needed to make particular judgments and evaluations, rather than precomputed, stored, and retrieved from memory (Miller and Prentice 1996; Kahneman and Miller 1986). For example, confronted with the decision of whether or not to have a drink (or two or three) at a party, a student consults both her own inclinations and her sense of what is appropriate in [End Page 116] that situation. The sense of what is appropriate—the norm relevant to her behavior—is constructed in the moment and is particular to that time and place. Although the process of constructing the norm may draw on stored representations of how people in this community and people at parties behave in general, as well as memories of what has seemed appropriate in similar situations, the norm is constructed at the moment of decision.

(2) Norms draw heavily on information that is salient in the local context. The presence of alcohol, the sight of many people drinking, and directions from the host on where to find the bar signal that drinking is appropriate and even...


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pp. 115-139
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