In recent years, governments and businesses have made effective use of social norms to persuade people to behave in a certain way, but messaging can become even more powerful with a deeper contextual understanding.

Writing for WARC, Crawford Hollingworth and Liz Barker of The Behavioural Architects, note the possible motivators behind the desire to conform, which may range from simply being “more cognitively efficient in our decision-making” if we lack knowledge to a desire to feel safe and fit in; the level to which people conform can also vary.

In Social norms and conformity, thee first of a two-part article on the subject, they observe how both descriptive social norms (highlighting what other people are actually doing to nudge a change in individual behaviour) and injunctive social norms (highlighting what other people believe or approve of to the same end) have been deployed to good effect.

Recent research, however, is bringing an appreciation of additional factors that can play into decisions marketers make on what types of messaging are most effective.

“Descriptive social norm messages tend to have a larger effect on behaviour than injunctive social norms,” they state. “However, messages and information communicating injunctive norms have a larger effect on people’s attitudes than descriptive social norms.”

And the effect of any norms messaging will often depend on the age of the recipient (teenagers and young adults are far more sensitive to being excluded by their peers than older adults are) and on whether it aims to change public or private behaviour.

“We are also becoming more aware of the role of the reference group on the effectiveness of the messaging,” the authors say. “The closer and more concrete the reference group is, the more influential it can be.”

But beware the danger of misunderstanding social hierarchy or peer effects, they caution – if you get that wrong you may produce the opposite of the intended effect.

“The effectiveness of any social norms messaging can be influenced by the social context, reference group, the type of behaviour involved or our demographic or psychographic group,” they say – all of which is “making behaviour change interventions more powerful”.

Sourced from WARC