What we think others do, and what we think they approve of, are factors that have an important influence on our own behaviour. In other words, “social norms” matter.
But, as a new survey shows, our perceptions about these norms are very often wrong. In fact, we tend to think the worst of other people when it comes to a range of bad behaviours, compared with what we’ll admit to ourselves, and with what actually happens.
This is particularly evident in our perceptions about healthy and unhealthy behaviours. We’re all too ready to believe that our fellow citizens are, on average, more likely to pull a sickie or guzzle sugar than we’d admit to ourselves.
In Britain, 20% of us say we have pretended to be sick to get a day off work in the last year – but we think that 50% of other people have done so. We also think that 69% of the population eat more sugar than the recommended daily amount, but only 44% of us say that we do.
And we’re often way too pessimistic about the behaviour of fellow citizens – in reality, they’re better behaved than we give them credit for.
While we think seven in ten people eat more than the recommended amount of sugar, detailed nutrition surveys show it’s actually only 47%. This is much closer to what we admit to ourselves. What’s more, we think that only 42% of people do the recommended amount of exercise each week, when detailed surveys of physical activity show that, actually, 57% do.
British people are not alone in this – these findings are from an international survey, which also took place in the US, Germany and three other major countries. The patterns are remarkably consistent. On average, citizens in all countries think worse of their countrymen and women than they do of themselves, and where we have comparisons with actual data, they’re overly pessimistic about how people really behave.
A bad influence
This raises an important challenge for governments and others trying to influence behaviour. The public across countries have clearly got the message that we’re eating too much sugar and not exercising enough. But we think these behaviours are much more common than they really are. This is a problem – if we think everyone is behaving a certain way, we’re much more likely to act that way ourselves.
The power of social norms has been harnessed as a positive force in a number of ways by government and others in recent years. The experiments by the uBehavioural Insights Team on tax payments are unequivocal: simply telling people that nearly everyone else in their area pays their taxes on time increases payment levels by 15%.
But this is a relatively straightforward policy challenge. With many other issues, it is much more difficult to strike the right balance between getting people worried enough to change their behaviour, and portraying the problem as so widespread that it’s normal.
Take the example of physical activity and exercise. In many ways, it’s right for the government and campaigners to say we’re facing an “inactivity epidemic” in the UK. If inactivity was an actual disease, it would certainly be considered an epidemic. When 43% of the population are not getting enough exercise – and when this is shown to cost more years of life than alcohol consumption or excessive cholesterol and Britain is one of the least active countries in the world – those in charge are right to be worried.
But the key question is, does promoting that message help or hinder behaviour change? American psychologist Robert Cialdini has long warned about the dangers of normalising a negative behaviour. He raised the concern that when we’re trying to draw attention to an undesirable behaviour, the message lurking in the subtext is that many people are doing it.
Instead, more thought needs to be given to what the norm is, in the messages we use to address bad behaviour. That’s one of the reasons that the “This girl can” campaign has garnered such positive power and attention. It’s too early to assess its impact on actual activity, and there are various objections to its execution. But at its heart is the aim of normalising a behaviour that currently people (wrongly) think is a minority pursuit.
Of course, it is not as straightforward as sticking a norm in a campaign and hoping everyone will fall into line. We need to be sensitive to what type of norm works when, and why. In particular, we need to distinguish between norms that are based on our understanding of what others actually do, and those based on what we think others approve of. For instance, sometimes campaigns which draw on norms to try to get people to change their behaviour don’t work at all, or worse, they can backfire.
But despite these limitations and need for subtlety, there is still much more we could do to harness the power of norms.
Bobby Duffy does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.