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Can social norm theory help to change behaviour around Covid-19? Expert comment

empty beach Helen Spencer-Oatey, Perry Hinton and Katharina Lefringhausen of the University
of Warwick Centre for Applied Linguistics and Dan Spencer from the University of Oxford take a look at "norm focus theory" and ask if it could help in the task of persuading people to change their behaviours around social distancing and panic buying during the coronavirus crisis.

Changing People’s Behaviour in times of Covid-19: Getting the Messaging Right through Understanding the Impact of Norms

At this time of Covid-19 crisis, the government, health professionals and other sections of society are rightly doing everything they can to persuade the public at large to act responsibly and behave as they were first advised and now instructed. Yet it’s proving an uphill struggle, and many have been calling for clearer messaging.

We suggest that Robert Cialdini’s (e.g. Cialdini, 2007, 2012) norm focus theory can offer some very helpful insights. Cialdini argues that there are two types of norm: descriptive norms and injunctive norms. A descriptive norm refers to behaviour that is common or widespread, while an injunctive norm refers to behaviour that is approved or disapproved of within a social group.

These two different types of norms motivate people in different ways:

  • Descriptive norms provide a decision-making short-cut: we assume that if other people are behaving in a particular way, it’s likely to make sense for us to do so as well. In other words, there’s a strong tendency simply to behave as others are behaving in a given context, since we (subconsciously) assume it will be beneficial.
  • Injunctive norms, on the other hand, constitute the moral rules of a group, and motivate by promising to provide or withhold social acceptance or approval. For example, you shouldn’t swear in front of children as it is deemed inappropriate and you shouldn’t play loud music on public transport because it is frowned upon by society. Proscriptive injunctive norms, as in these examples, identify what people should not do, while prescriptive injunctive norms identify what people should do.

Sudden changes in situations, like the current emergency with Covid-19, can bring unexpected changes to injunctive norms, such that previously positive behaviour like socialising can almost overnight become negative behaviour.

Cialdini points out that people are motivated or influenced by both types of norms primarily when the norms are brought into focus and their attention is directed to them.

Here are some examples from his studies to illustrate how this operates in real-life situations.

One set of studies was carried out in a National Park in the USA. On entering the park, there was a park warning sign that said: “OUR HERITAGE IS BEING VANDALIZED BY THE THEFT OF 14 TONS OF PETRIFIED WOOD EVERY YEAR.” Working with park officials, Cialdini and his colleagues (reported in Cialdini, 2003) placed secretly marked pieces of petrified wood along visitor pathways in three different locations. Over five consecutive weekends, at the entrance to each of the pathways, they displayed signs that had either a descriptive norm statement (“Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the Park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest”) or an injunctive norm statement (“Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the Park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest”).

They found that there was significantly more theft after the descriptive norm message than the injunctive norm message - by reporting on the frequency of undesirable behaviour, they were inadvertently encouraging it.

How then does this relate to the current Covid 19 crisis?

Let’s start by considering the panic buying of toilet paper in the UK. Cialdini (2012, p. 302) states that there is “an understandable but misguided tendency of public officials to try to mobilize action against socially disapproved conduct by depicting it as regrettably frequent, thereby inadvertently installing a counterproductive descriptive norm in the minds of their audiences.”

It seems this is exactly what happened with regard to the publicity around toilet paper. From early on, the panic buying was very widely reported in the media. Despite many reassuring messages that there was no need to panic buy, the shortage is still continuing. As a result, even for the most socially minded individuals, it can now be difficult not to worry about having enough and succumbing to the temptation to try to stock up as much as possible. Our attention has been focused on an undesirable descriptive norm, and we find ourselves following it.

How then do injunctive norms affect people’s behaviour?

In another set of studies, Cialdini and his colleagues (reported in Cialdini, 2003) explored the impact of injunctive messaging on littering behaviour. They put anti-littering flyers on people’s car windscreens and watched what they did with the flyers. The messages on the flyers varied from injunctions that explicitly referred to the required behaviour (e.g. “April is Keep Arizona Beautiful Month. Please Do Not Litter”) to injunctions that referred to behaviour that was somewhat related to littering (e.g. “April is Preserve Arizona’s Natural Resources Month. Please Recycle”).

They found that the more explicitly the required behaviour was stated, the more people followed it. Note that they also gave a reason why people should act in the way stated.

These studies indicate that people will follow both descriptive norms (what people actually do) and injunctive norms (what they are told to do or told not to do), if their attention is drawn to the behaviour in question. However, it can often be the case that mixed messages are conveyed: undesirable behaviour is drawn attention to (e.g. lots of people are panic buying of toilet paper) while different required behaviour is exhorted (e.g. do not be selfish and buy more than you need. Think of others).

In relation to this, Cialdini (2012, p. 303) makes the following important point: “Public service communicators should avoid the tendency to send the normatively muddled message that a targeted activity is socially disapproved but widespread” (p.305).

Sadly, this is exactly what has been happening, and not just with regard to toilet paper. For instance, at the end of the weekend of 21/22 March 2020, there has been widespread coverage in the UK of people ignoring recommended social distancing by flocking to beaches and tourist spots and mingling there (i.e. reporting of a descriptive norm – what people are actually doing), while simultaneously criticising such behaviour and urging people to act responsibly (promoting an injunctive norm).

In other words, while our public authorities are trying to persuade people to practise social distancing, from a normative point of view, this is conveying mixed messages: “it’s OK for me to do that because lots of other people are doing it” versus “it’s not good for me to do this”.

In summary, Cialdini’s norm focus theory suggests the following:

  • Tell people clearly what they should do and why (prescriptive injunctive norm) and/or what they should NOT do and why (proscriptive injunctive norm)
  • Give prominence to frequent and approved/desirable behaviour (desirable descriptive norms)
  • Match required behaviour with images of people performing that behaviour (i.e. Avoid mixed messaging through contradictory input)
  • Avoid giving prominence to frequent but unacceptable behaviour (undesirable descriptive norms)

Like ‘Dig for Victory’ in World War II, focus on the positive!

  • Read more on how social norm theory can be applied in practice in a follow-up piece here.


Cialdini, R. B. (2003). Crafting normative messages to protect the environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(4), 105–109.

Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Descriptive social norms as underappreciated sources of social control. Psychometrika, 72(2), 263–268.

Cialdini, R. B. (2012). The focus theory of normative conduct. In P. A. M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology. Vol.2 (pp. 295–312). London: Sage. 

24 March 2020


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