However, social scientists have long known that this is an ineffective strategy when it comes to influencing another person's behavior. This ineffective strategy becomes particularly important when we try to influence the behavior of large groups of people. For example, a famous 1970’s public service announcement made this mistake. The Keep America Beautiful Iron Eyes Cody commercial was considered an overwhelming success when it was released (see it here, and an updated version released in 1998 here). Through use of an American Indian guide*, the commercial demonstrated how poorly humans had taken care of the planet, and the importance of improving our stewardship toward the Earth. However, years later Robert Cialdini and his colleagues came along and highlighted the mistakes made by this famous commercial.
The explicit message in the commercial is clear: We need to take better care of the environment! This is what social scientists call an injunctive social norm – what society thinks we should be doing. However, a sinister implicit message is lurking beneath the surface: Nobody takes care of the environment! This is what is called a descriptive social norm – what people are actually doing. The problem is that what we do, the descriptive norms of society, can potentially overwhelm what we should be doing, the injunctive norms. These competing norms end up leading to no change in a message recipient's behavior; in fact, it can even lead to an increase in the negative behavior being rallied against (in this case, people witnessing the commercial might have been unlikely to change their behavior, or might have even been more likely to litter).
“Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a day, mostly a small piece at a time.”
These messages were largely just emphasizing how everyone was engaging in the wrong behaviors. Cialdini knew this message was not going to be effective. What to do, then, when the descriptive norm is against you? They made two types of signs: one message similar to the original, highlighting this unsupportive descriptive norm, the second message only highlighting the injunctive norm, imploring people to not steal the wood, but not highlighting how often it was occurring. After innocuously marking pieces of wood by these signs, they found that the first, descriptive norm message led to 8% of the wood being stolen. Alternatively, the injunctive norm led to less than 2% of the wood being stolen; a fourfold difference!
What is the takeaway message from all of this? Well, first of all, actions often speak louder than words. Whether it is you engaging in a less than ideal behavior in front of a child, or pointing out the prevalence of negative societal behaviors, this information often trumps pleas to ignore the acknowledged behavior. Second, if you can’t find a way to highlight a supportive descriptive norm, it is probably best to ignore the descriptive norm and instead highlight the injunctive norm of what you hope people will do. By saying, “don’t do as I do,” you are drawing attention to the negative behavior, a poor start to “do as I say.”
Social norms are intimately related to why people take care of the natural environment, one another, and their own health. We’ll definitely be returning to these ideas in the future.
What do you think about these ideas?
* Iron Eyes Cody was Italian American, not American Indian