When look at the theory of social norms, the premise of the theory its self lies in the perception of ones reality, not reality its self (Hansen-Horn et al.’s, 2008, pg. 196). In the 1980’s leading scholars developed the theory as a model for understanding human behavior. There are many campaigns that we can look back on today that are based on the concepts of this theory. The idea is that when one person observes another persons behavior they then infer the other persons intentions, even it may not be true (Hansen-Horn et al.’s, 2008, pg. 196).
In 1986 when Perkins and Berkowitz first developed the social norms theory, it was developed with the idea of being able to curb drinking among youth and college students. It went on to be used as a tool for a wide range of topics to include: prevention of tobacco use, sexual assault prevention, seatbelt safety use, as well as, other health topics.
The premise of the theory is that being able to understand an environment and personal influences will help create an idea of how to change behavior. It was learned that peer influences play a large role in youth when it comes to decision making, and that perceived norms rather than actual norms drive the behavior (LaMorte, 2016). LaMorte (2016), explains that behaviors are most often times influenced by misperceptions of how are peers are actually behaving. If a group of peers overestimates that actions or behaviors of others, it will drive an increase in the behavior. But, the same is true in decreasing behaviors.
When Perkins and Berkowitz first developed the idea that social norms could be used in a campaign setting to decrease the perceptions of youth and change their mind sets, they developed 6 steps that should be included in the process.
Collect data in order to inform the message
Select the normative message that will be distributed
Test the message with a target group to make sure it is received as intended
Select the mode the message will be delivered
The amount of message that should be delivered to the group
Evaluation of the effectiveness of the messages that were sent
It is expected that if the groups misconceptions are changed, their behavior will change as well (LaMorte, 2016).
While considering the use of the social norms theory, there are also limitations that should be considered.
Practitioners must be aware that initial messages may be met with initial questions by participants because of the strong misperceptions they already hold. It is favored to ensure that all message are presented in a relatable way to correct their misperceptions.
You must ensure that the right dose or amount of message received my the participants is enough to make an impact, but not so much that it becomes commonplace and is overlooked.
You must be precise in your collection of data at the begging of the project to ensure that the information that you are using to create messages is accurate to support the message of the campaign.
You must ensure that the sources you are using are credible to your target participants so that the messages are appealing to the correct population.
It is important to remember that limitations exist in every process, this holds true for the social norms theory as well. But when applied correctly the social norms theory is effective in intervening in behavioral norms and successfully in changing the perceptions and actions of the participants.
Bernays Use of Social Norms
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind” (Tye, 2002). Bernays own words can explain his thoughts of how a society minds can be molded and formed by public relations practitioners.
A lot of time has been spent researching Bernays work and the use of propaganda, as well as, the manipulation the American mind. But long before Perkins and Berkowitz first developed the social norms theory, Bernays use of the practice was hard at work.
One of what may be considered his greatest achievements, was when he created an entire woman’s movement based around the sales of cigarettes. While often times Bernays ideas were outlandish and extreme, they worked well in this example. He was able to sell products, not based on the products themselves, but the ideas and images that they created amongst society. He was able to convince an entire society that he was liberating women throughout the use of tobacco by practicing the social norms theory.
Bernays use of social norms was in evident in 1929 at the Easter Parade down Fifth Avenue (Tye, 2002, Pg. 33). Bernays close relationship with his uncle Sigmund Freud and the work that he shared regarding the human mind and how it can be influenced, helped him understand that people are driven by their environment and peer influences. He knew that if he could show woman, other woman who were relatable performing and act, the idea that it was now acceptable to engage in.
Bernays had sent letters to numerous models, persuading them to “Light there Torch” on Easter morning as part of the woman movement to smoke in public. Bernays knew that if he could convince woman to smoke in public like men, then the sales of cigarets for his client would soar even higher. He only had to show woman smoking in public and glamorize it, so that woman around America would perceive the action as now acceptable.
While Bernays used the same methods that Perkins and Berkowitz utilized to discourage the use of drugs, tobacco and alcohol use, we can see it can effecting be used both ways.
Today we can look at examples that utilize social norms theory to reverse the progression of smoking. Companies that utilize blogging and social media sites to now promote the anti-smoking campaigns. The sites can continually feed information they want to the subscriber on a regular basis with testimonials from a wide range of participants that would be relatable. They can provide disturbing images the persuade the consumer to discontinue use, while at the same time engaging the consumers through dialogue and actions.
Much like Bernays enlist the help of models to glorify a behavior, or doctors to tell people how smoking relaxes and soothe the throat, so does the anti-campaign. They enlist actors and spokesmen to dramatize the use of smoking and what effects it will have on you. Placing ads with teen handing over their teeth and ripping off their skin to do exactly as Bernays had done almost 100 years ago, change an entire culture.
College Drinking and Social Norms
Today a number of institutions utilize the social norms theory developed by Perkins and Berkowitz to dispel the myths associated with college drinking habits, in an attempt to curb use. The first step in creating a campaign based on the social norms theory is to gather data, to base the messages on. In 2016 the National College Health Assessment conducted a survey to show the perceptions of college students versus the realities.
Some of the initial perceptions were that U.S. College students consumed 4.99 drinks anytime they consumed drinks (NSNC, 2016). The reality was that students surveyed were only consuming an average of 3.11 drinks while socializing. This difference was enough to show that the misconceptions were driving drinking among the younger students. These numbers show a big enough difference between reality and misconception that a social norms campaign could justify changes.
Hansen-Horn et al.’s (2008) discusses Bowling Green State University’s (BGSU) 1997 campaign to curb drinking by targeting social norms. They created a “I Don’t Drink as Much as You Think” campaign to dispel alcohol related attitudes and behaviors. The campaign featured older classmates in marketing pieces where they all made the same statement, “I Don’t Drink as Much as You Think”.
After the first year of the campaign the university saw a decrease of 2.2 in overall high-risk drinking. They proved through a successful evaluation process that social norms were driving the drinking and that changing those social noms helped curb the drinking (Hansen-Horn, 2008). Although the marking pieces were just a portion of the overall approach to curb drinking, they are credited with changing the misconceptions that students have. Universities have taken additional steps to support the campaign that include;
Providing a number of weekend activities that are alcohol-free programs for students.
Making it harder for students to obtain alcohol.
Increase the academic demands of students.
Teach management skills to students so they will structure their time more effetely, reducing stress.
While social norms theory have proven to be effective in a number of campaigns to help change misconceptions, in what other ways does social norms theory affect our society today?
Social Norms Theory & Violence Against Police
As we look at recent statistics in American and violence against police, one could say that social norms play a huge role in that increase. In one year the United States had an increase of 20% for on duty police officer deaths. Is the misconception that killing police officers is okay among our society, and why are people now more willing to engage the police in combat and how can that idea be changed.
As humans we know that killing is wrong, and killing those who are there to serve and protect should hold heavy consequences. Does the social view regarding the confidence Americans have in police have something to do with the rise in violence? According to a Gallop poll conducted in 2016, Americans who have a great deal of confidence in police was only 29% among African Americans and 50% amount Caucasians (Gallop, 2016). That shows a huge discrepancy in the statistics of the cop killers of, 54% being white, 26% being black and 18% Hispanic. So there appears to be no correlation between race and the killings, but more a generalized loss in confidence. So how can social norms be utilized to change the increased pattern?
Law enforcement organizations have already made great strides in trying to change the social norms through public organizations that change how people see police officers. The general misconception over the last decade that it is us against them, needs to be changed in the minds of Americans. One organization that can be credited with utilizing a social norms campaign is Humanizing the Badge (HTB), (HTB, 2017). The organizations mission is to help forge stronger relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.
Their campaign Project Human, brings law enforcement and members of their community together to accomplish service projects and establish ongoing relationships on the ground in those cities (HTB, 2017), changing the misconceptions of us vs. them to a perception of togetherness.
Conclusion & Further Discussion
Even when looking at three very opposite campaign goals, social norms are an effective way to approach a campaign. BGSU was able to identify the social norms to create a successful campaign to drive students idea of drinking away from the product. Bernays was able to use the same strategy to drive people mostly woman in to consuming a product, by changing their ideas of social norms surrounding it, and Humanizing the Badge to change misperceptions of togetherness.
It is easy to see how the social norms theory can help an organization change the way people think through the impression they place in society.