Social Norms & The Social Ecological Model

A social norm can be defined as the customary rules that govern behavior in groups and societies (Biccheiri & Muldoon, 2014). Further, social norms can be described as a set of unspoken rules about what is considered “common” or “normal” behavior among a group. While norms differ from group to group and across societies, there is a set of social norms in play for every group or culture (CITE), and the way individuals perceive these norms has a tremendous impact on the ways in which we behave (CITE).


The Social Norms Theory was first suggested by Alan Berkowitz and H. Wesley Perkins (1986) after analyzing results of a comprehensive survey of alcohol use in a community of college students. The data revealed that students who perceived frequent or excessive drinking to be the norm on campus engaged in heavier drinking than those who perceived less drinking among their peers. Berkowitz and Perkins suggested that addressing the misperceived norms that influence alcohol consumption might be more effective in changing attitudes than traditional educational, legal or pharmacological interventions.

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Because our perceptions of the attitudes and behaviors of others influence our own attitudes and behaviors, correcting the misperception of a norm that influences unhealthy behaviors will trigger attitude change that decreases engagement in those behaviors.

In order to appreciate the impact of social norms on our behavior, we must examine the mechanisms at work. Typically, these misperceptions are either overestimations of community members who engage in unhealthy or risky behaviors, or underestimations of the amount of folks who engage in healthy or protective behaviors.

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There are two main psychological phenomena occurring when an individual misperceives a social norm: the false consensus effect and pluralistic ignorance. Pluralistic ignorance is when an individual incorrectly perceives the attitudes and/or behaviors of others to be different from their own, when in fact they are not (Miller & McFarland, 1991). Pluralistic ignorance can influence individuals to behave in ways that do not align with their own attitudes or values, out of an effort to “fit in” with the perceived majority (Berkowitz, 2003). False consensus, on the other hand, happens when an individual believes that the majority of his or her peers or community members hold the same attitudes or engage in the same beliefs as they do, when in fact they do not (Pollard et al., 2000). Whatever the case may be, individuals who “carry” these misperceptions create a permissible climate that allows problem behaviors to continue.

For individuals engaging in negative behaviors (under the influence of false consensus effect), correction of the misperceived norm that influences that behavior will lead them to decrease their engagement in that behavior. With the new understanding that the majority of group or community members do not support their behavior, these individuals will no longer be able to justify their actions with the “everybody is doing it” mindset. Those affected by pluralistic ignorance will be less likely to engage in the problem behaviors, and more likely to advocate against them, having been affirmed that their healthy behaviors and attitudes are in fact shared amongst the majority of members of their group.

Because social norms operate on group, community or societal levels, addressing and correcting the misperceived norms that influence problem behaviors serves as an effective supplement to current prevention efforts by filling the void left in the outer layers of the social ecological model of prevention.

Social Norms Interventions

Research has shown that the correction of misperceived social norms can be a powerful tool in changing attitudes and behaviors, but there are some questions to be answered in order to determine if an issue will be susceptive to a social norms intervention. Berkowitz (2003) has compiled a list of questions that may help to provide answers to this larger question. If the answers to these questions suggest that a social norms intervention may be effective to address the issue at hand, one must decide how to then go about identifying and correcting the misperceived social norms.

  • What misperceptions exist with respect to the behavior in question?
  • What is the meaning and function of misperceptions for individuals and groups?
  • Do the majority of individuals in a group or community hold these misperceptions?
  • Does the target group function as a group with respect to the behavior in question?
  • What is the hypothesized effect of these misperceptions?
  • What changes are predicted if the misperceptions are corrected?
  • What healthy behaviors already exist in the population that should be strengthened or increased?

Among the most frequently studied normative misperceptions are those related to alcohol consumption on college campuses (INSERT CITATIONS). However, researchers have documented false consensus and pluralistic ignorance in many studies and in relation to a variety of health risk behaviors. Cigarette smoking (Haines, Barker & Rice, 2003; Hancock & Henry, 2003; Linkenbach and Perkins, 2003a; Perkins & Craig, 2003b), marijuana and illegal drug use (CITE), gambling (CITE), bullying behavior (CITE), homophobia and eating behaviors are some examples of behaviors influenced by the misperception of social norms.

Once it has been determined that the negative health behaviors and related misperceptions are appropriate for social norms interventions, preventionists can employ any one of a number of strategies to intervene and correct the misperceived norms. Each of these strategies has been used in previous studies, yielding a varying degree of success in reducing risk behaviors among the target population.

Feedback regarding actual versus perceived norms is a facet of any intervention based on social norms theory. However, personalized normative feedback is the only normative correction strategy that provides normative feedback on an individual level to show participants how their attitudes or behaviors measure up to the actual norms among their group. This motivational strategy can be particularly powerful because of its ability to consistently provide salient feedback to participants (Kallgren, Reno & Cialdini, 2000). While many studies have evaluated programs that utilized personalized normative feedback, few have demonstrated its efficacy without confounding other components of the intervention. A computer-delivered personalized normative feedback intervention (Neighbors, Larimer & Lewis, 2004) has shown promise in correcting normative misperceptions regarding drinking, and, to some degree, an ability to reduce drinking among heavy drinkers. This strategy may be most applicable as an indicated prevention effort for individuals already engaging in high-risk behaviors, as personalized normative information is important in correcting false consensus. Further, personalized normative feedback interventions operate on the individual level of the social ecological model, which limits their ability to impact the larger population’s misperceptions of community and societal norms that influence slow violence.

Another approach that has been successfully utilized to correct misperceived norms involves small, interactive group discussions of salient normative information. This approach is often referred to as a small-group social norms intervention, and has a few advantages. First, because misperceptions of close friends’ behaviors are highly correlated with one’s own behaviors (Berkowitz, 2004), the opportunity to dispel and discuss misperceptions within one’s own cohesive peer group can lead to more accurate perceptions of small group norms, and more appropriate behavior may follow. As actual normative information is presented to the group, participants are encouraged to discuss the information as a group, which provides a great opportunity for participants to help one another work through the initial resistance that actual normative messages are often received with (Reilly & Wood, 2008). Despite the strengths of small group norms interventions, their aim at relationship level perceptions lacks the reach to impact the perceptions of norms on the community or societal levels.

The most commonly utilized social norms based intervention approach is social norms marketing; a universal approach to normative correction with a wide reach and the ability to impact normative perceptions of a large group or population. While these efforts may appear to be similar to social marketing, social norms marketing involves the collection and display of data regarding actual local norms, to correct misperceptions that influence health risk behaviors. Interventionists utilize this data to develop normative messages that convey the accurate, actual norms among the group.

These messages, which according to Dr. Alan Berkowitz, should always be positive, inclusive and empowering (2013) can then be conveyed in a number of ways to members of the target population. While many interventions have displayed messages on printed materials like posters, newsletters and table tents (CITE), others have utilized live performances (White, Williams & Cho, 2000), radio advertisements (CITE), television ads (CITE) and social media outlets (CITE) to convey the message to a wide audience. Further, previous research has shown a dose-response relationship, in that individuals who report having been exposed to the marketing materials also report more significant changes in attitude and behavior as a result (CITE).

It is because of their wide-reach and potential to impact attitudes and behaviors on the societal and community levels that the social norms marketing interventions are best suited to reduce rates of risk behaviors impacted by widely misperceived social norms. More specifically, the misperception of social norms that influence sexual violence perpetration may be most effectively corrected through the implementation of a social norms marketing campaign.

Social Norms and Sexual Violence

Social norms exist in regards to most any attitude or behavior present in a group or population, and are formed when a minority of individuals are seen engaging in highly visible problematic behavior, and when this behavior is more memorable than individuals behaving responsibly (Perkins, 1997). Just as the misperception of norms regarding drinking behaviors often lead individuals to increase their consumption of alcohol, the misperception of norms regarding sexual activity, violence and gender roles can contribute to the perpetration of sexual violence in a number of ways. The World Health Organization has outlined a series of these cultural and social norms that support various types of violence. Some of these norms include: that a man is socially superior to a woman, sexual or intimate partner violence is a private matter, sex is a man’s right in a marriage or relationship, sexual activity is the marker of masculinity, divorce or sexual victimization are shameful and that sex and sexuality are taboo subjects (WHO, 2009a). In any case where these norms become internalized, they may put girls and women at an increased risk of experiencing violence, since the community believes it is somehow justifiable, or that a private matter should not be intervened in or discussed publically. These conditions also make it hard for victims to seek assistance, and may enforce a false consensus effect, enabling perpetrators to continue with their violent behaviors.

The aforementioned social norms that influence the perpetration of sexual violence are often assumed to exist among the majority of others, an assumption that often leads to inappropriate action ranging from cracking sexist jokes or using terms that put down women to committing acts of interpersonal violence or sexual assault. Another common product of the internalization of these misperceived norms is inaction. The beliefs that the sometimes-obvious spousal abuse of a neighbor is their own private matter, or that interjecting in a sexist conversation is uncalled for can perpetuate sexual violence, and strengthen the underlying misperception of social norms regarding gender roles, masculinity and sexual violence. These factors comprise the invisible base upon which sexual violence is justified – the slow violence that enables instances of assault and harassment, and quietly puts women at a risk and disadvantage in society.

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Social Norms & The Social Ecological Model. (2021, Aug 18). Retrieved from

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