Parents of teenagers have often wheeled out the line, “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” But high school kids are not the only ones who care about what their peers are doing. All of us are heavily influenced by our perception of what others are doing – the social norms. However, our perceptions are not always reality.
For instance, take binge drinking in college: a survey with French university students found that more than half of them overestimated the prevalence of binge drinking by their peers. Worryingly, the more common they (incorrectly) assumed binge drinking was, the more they themselves binge drank. Such findings suggest that we misperceive social norms when some choices are highly visible (the bar full of college kids drinking), and others are not (the much larger number of college kids not drinking).
When a negative behavior is most prevalent, we need to take care in how we communicate social norms. For example, to combat a prevalent negative behavior – such as stealing pieces of petrified wood from Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park – researchers found injunctive norms (what is perceived to be approved by others) to be more effective than descriptive norms (what others are actually doing). In their study, the most effective message was, “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the Park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest.” This message was paired with a picture of a person stealing a piece of petrified wood, with a red circle-and-bar symbol over his hand. The least effective message used a descriptive norm, most likely because it wound up conveying that the negative behavior was prevalent.
When most people are performing a desired behavior – but perhaps are not a silent majority – it is effective to make the descriptive norm more salient. Simply informing people of descriptive norm in these situation is often more effective than telling them what they should do (an injunctive norm). In a review of twenty-one studies ranging from pertinent topics such as condom use, healthy eating, smoking and infidelity, researchers found that knowing what others do is a stronger influence on how people eventually behave than knowing what society says they should do.