Overview of the social norms approach

As individuals we are not accurate in our estimation of what other people think and do. Often we underestimate how healthy and socially responsible people around us are. For example, we might think that fewer people in our neighbourhood recycle than is actually the case. Challenging these misperceptions can change what we do.

This approach has been used in a variety of settings with a variety of behaviours, including to:

Decrease risky drinking

Create smoke free environments

Prevent drug use

Reduce bullying in schools

Celebrate educational achievement

Increase uptake of support services


The social norms approach highlights the positive action of most people in a community. It focuses on the healthy and socially responsible behaviour of the majority. The approach is different from many other education and information campaigns; these tend to include driven by depictions of negative consequences of behaviour. In using the social norms approach is actively involved in the creation of positive messages.

“I am convinced that it is a relatively simple and cost-effective means of achieving behavioural change. Most importantly, it is positive rather than negative. It does not condemn, preach or use scare tactics, and it works!”

Dr Bill Wilson, MSP, 2008

“…we need to use the strengths of the social norms approach, together with the strengths of other experiences, to overcome huge behavioural challenges”

Robert Madelin, EU Director General for Health and Consumer Protection, 2009