FAQs

HOW DO I KNOW IF THE SOCIAL NORMS APPROACH CAN BE USED FOR MY CAMPAIGN?

Pilot work is often needed to decide if the social norms approach is appropriate for a particular campaign. It is important to understand what is happening in the community you are interested in working with.

Pilot work helps clarify the knowledge, attitudes and behaviour of your community. Remember you may need to collect information about more than one aspect of the area you plan to focus on. Consider a community where the prevalence of smoking may be unusually high; we cannot use messages based on rates of smoking. In this community however the majority of households choose to be smoke free, but think that most people allow smoking in their homes. In this case it would be appropriate to develop a campaign around smoke free homes to challenge these misperceptions. By focussing on smoke free homes we create the opportunity to support future smoke free choices.

For the social norms approach to be used you need to know that the majority of your community have a positive attitude or behaviour (e.g. believe homes should be smoke free; chose not to smoke). You also need to know that misperceptions about these attitudes or behaviours exist. A successful campaign needs the support and involvement of the community.

WHAT GROUPS CAN THE SOCIAL NORMS APPROACH BE USED WITH?

The social norms approach was first used with American college students. Since then the approach has been applied to a variety of groups and communities to address a range of behaviours. The social norms approach can be used whenever the majority of people think or behave in a positive way yet underestimate the number of people who do the same.

WHAT TOPICS CAN BE ADDRESSED USING THE SOCIAL NORMS APPROACH?

There is evidence that the approach has the potential to be used with a diverse range of behaviours, including health and other socially relevant behaviours. These include: the use of alcohol and other drugs, sexual health, cancer screening, gambling, help-seeking, energy conservation, recycling, bullying, tax evasion and, illegal downloading.

The resources and publications pages include further information.

HOW DO YOU KNOW PEOPLE ARE ANSWERING HONESTLY WHEN YOU ASK THEM ABOUT THEIR BEHAVIOUR OR ATTITUDE?

When assessment relies on self-report it is likely there will be a degree of inaccuracy. Such inaccuracies could be due to respondents incorrectly recalling their behaviour, or providing answers that they think are more socially acceptable. Generally if the respondent is confident that the information they are providing is anonymous and confidential then this will minimise intentional inaccuracies in reporting. It is important that questions asked are clear and easy to understand. If it is possible to gain an objective measure of behaviour then you may want to consider doing so. It is not always feasible to obtain an objective measure; this will depend on the behaviour of interest and the group you are working with. The aim is to understand misperceptions; not to obtain precise measurements of all aspects of the behaviour.

More information on measurement of behaviours, attitudes and perceptions is given in the guidebook.

WHAT IF THERE ARE NO MISPERCEPTIONS OF THE BEHAVIOUR?

Normative misperceptions have now been documented in a wide range of behaviours. Despite this, it should not be assumed that misperceptions will be evident with all behaviours or in every group. Where possible pilot work should investigate more than one aspect of the behaviour; this might include attitudes towards the behaviour. This may allow you to identify several misperceptions which could inform campaign messages. If despite asking a range of question about the behaviour you do not identify misperceptions you need to consider whether there are other reasons for still using the social norms approach, or if other approaches are more appropriate.

WHAT IF THE NORM IS UNHEALTHY?

In some instances the norm of a group may be an unhealthy or socially irresponsible one. Even if the norm of one aspect of behaviour is unhealthy it is possible that alternative social norms messages can be used; these may be based on other aspects of the behaviour (e.g. using frequency of drinking norms messages instead of amount of alcohol consumed messages). Another alternative may be to use messages based on injunctive norms rather than descriptive norms. Misperceptions about behaviour are likely to exist regardless of whether the actual norm is healthy or not. The norm may be unhealthy but it is likely that the perception in the group will be that the norm is unhealthier still. If this is the case then there is potential for the social norms approach to be used as the first step in making behaviour healthier by correcting this misperception. In keeping with the social norms approach it is of course important to stress that it should not be assumed that the norm in a group is an unhealthy one; you should always conduct pilot work to check that understanding of the group is correct.

WHAT IF THE NORMS MESSAGES ENCOURAGE UNHEALTHY OR SOCIALLY IRRESPONSIBLE BEHAVIOUR?

People may be concerned about the potential for a norms message to have an unintended effect on those who already behave healthily. For example, students who abstain from alcohol may feel pressurised to do so if they see norms messages about the typical frequency of alcohol use on campus. There is currently no evidence that norms messages do have this kind of effect. It is important to carefully word the norms message. A properly constructed norms message would not state for instance that the majority of students on a campus drink alcohol once a fortnight, instead it would state that majority of students drink alcohol once a fortnight or less. By adding the ‘or less’ the message therefore become inclusive of those students who drink alcohol rarely or not at all.

HOW DO YOU WORK WITH YOUNGER ADOLESCENT OR CHILD POPULATIONS?

The social norms approach has been used with school age children. There are challenges to applying the approach to groups of young people. This is particularly the case when the behaviours and attitudes being addressed involve topics such as substance misuse or sexual health. Parents and other stakeholders may object to messages focussing on these areas being disseminated to young adults; especially if the legality of behaviour is dependent on age. It is important to involve stakeholders from the beginning to allow concerns to be identified and addressed. If it is the case that certain norms messages are not considered appropriate for the group then it may be possible to use an alternative norms message. For example, if it is not considered suitable to use norms messages about rates of safer sex behaviour with an adolescent population then it may be possible to use norms messages about attitudes towards safer sex.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ‘DESCRIPTIVE’ AND ‘INJUNCTIVE’ NORMS?

You may see the terms ‘descriptive’ or ‘injunctive’ norms. Descriptive norms refer to what individuals do. For example how frequently they drink or whether or not they smoke. Injunctive norms on the other hand refer to individual beliefs about what is socially acceptable to their peer group. For example, whether or not they think their peers approve of heavy drinking in public places. The majority of social norms projects have focussed on descriptive norms but some work has also incorporated injunctive norms. Using both types of social norms can be useful to create a more holistic social norms campaign.

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