By Leslie Brefeld, 2014 Winter Intern
As animal advocates, we have the challenging task of encouraging people to make lifestyle changes that most of society has yet to adopt. So, it’s critical for us to understand how societal pressures play into people’s decision-making processes. Otherwise, our message might fall on deaf ears, or worse, it may reinforce the negative behavior we are trying to get people to stop (namely, eating animals). In this AR Trends article, we’ll explore how the psychology of social norms affects advocacy and provide some concrete tips for making sure we don’t accidentally send the wrong message!
Everyone is subject to the pressures of society, or social norms. These social norms influence a person’s actions in two fundamental ways: by what s/he sees others actually doing, known as descriptive norms, and by what a person believes s/he ought to do, known as injunctive norms (Cialdini, 2003)
An example of the way these two psychological factors can conflict is illustrated by a 1971 TV commercial dubbed “the Iron Eyes Cody spot,” which was the trademark of a campaign to reduce littering. Although the ad was effective in eliciting sentiment, the PSA might have had the opposite of its intended effect.
To paint the picture (or even better, check it out on YouTube), in the ad a Native American man is seen paddling through the water only to eddy out onto a shore filled with trash. To top it off, he sees a motorist on the highway throw trash out his window. The viewer watches as the camera gets a close-up of the Native American’s face with a single tear running down his cheek.
The problem here is that the ad actually has two messages. One is obvious: Don’t litter; it makes people who care about the environment cry. The second is more subtle but equally persuasive: People litter, and they litter a lot (Cialdini. 2003).
The studies suggest that these two factors–what people see others doing, and what they believe they should do–need to be in alignment for effective advocacy. If a person detects that most people are doing something, they reasonably believe that it is acceptable and maybe even the right thing to do, even if they are being told to do the opposite.
A recent study by a group of researchers in Irvine, CA (Misra, Stokols, & Marino, 2011) illustrates the power of social norms. The researchers were interested in finding out if they could increase survey participation rates using descriptive social norms (i.e., “everyone is doing it”). In one group, potential survey takers were told that most people in the past who were asked to take the survey did so. In the control group, that part was left out. The findings showed that using the “everyone is doing it” (descriptive social norm) appeal significantly increased the number of responses to the surveys (Misra et al., 2011).
Another study looked at the concept of descriptive and injunctive norms in the context of selling eco-friendly apparel. However, the researchers took it a step further and also examined how social cues, which they dubbed “extrinsic” forms of marketing, and personal values, or what they called “intrinsic” marketing, affected consumers.
They found that those who didn’t have a commitment to the environment were more likely to be influenced by an argument that used social cues. In other words, if these consumers saw that purchasing a product would go toward a large campaign that helped the environment, they were more likely to buy. People who already believed in the importance of eco-friendly goods were more persuaded by claims that related to the product itself.
In short, as animal advocates, we need to be aware of the messages we are sending, both directly and indirectly. According to the studies, it’s best to steer clear of anything that reinforces the notion that most people eat meat and animal products. For example, it might be tempting to say something like, “Every year, billions of animals are slaughtered for food,” in order to convey the vast amount of unnecessary suffering that takes place. But, in doing so, we may inadvertently be promoting eating animals as a social norm.
So, what should we do? In advocating to people who are less inclined to veganism, the best route may be to show them all the people and groups who eat an animal-free diet in order to send the message that it is a normal thing to do. For people who are more inclined to veganism, like vegetarians and others in the likely demographics, citing specific benefits of the change could be more effective.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you have ideas on how the psychology of social norms can be applied to our activism? We’d love to hear from you! Post your opinions and comments below.
Cialdini, Robert. (2003). Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(4), 105-109.
Kim, H., Lee, E.J., & Hur, W.M. (2012). The Normative Social Influence on Eco-Friendly Consumer Behavior: The Moderating Effect of Environmental Marketing Claims. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, 30(1), 4-18.
Misra, Shalina, Stokols, Daniel & Marino, Anne Heberger. (2011). Using Norm-Based Appeals to Increase Response Rates in Evaluation Research: A Field Experiment. American Journal of Evaluation, 33(1), 88-98.