Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment

Editor's Note: While the report is a difficult read with all of its scientific jargon - the take home message is this: if your messaging is suggesting that a large portion of the population is doing something, then others are more likely to do it as well, whether it is the right thing or the wrong thing. If we apply this theory to bear smart education, then our messaging should make it clear that it is socially unacceptable to be bear-"un"aware; that the majority of people are bear smart and that you want to be part of the majority. For example, "5 % of people are responsible for 95% of conflicts with bears. Be part of the bear "smart" community. Learn more at www.bearsmart.com." Making effective use of this theory will be of immense benefit to your educational campaigns.

Abstract: It is widely recognized that communications that activate social norms can be effective in producing societally beneficial conduct. Not so well recognized are the circumstances under which normative information can backfire to produce the opposite of what a communicator intends. There is an understandable, but misguided, tendency to try to mobilize action against a problem by depicting it as regrettably frequent. Information campaigns emphasize that alcohol and drug use is intolerably high, that adolescent suicide rates are alarming, and-most relevant to this article-that rampant polluters are spoiling the  environment. Although these claims may be both true and well intentioned, the campaigns' creators have missed something critically important: Within the statement "Many people are doing this undesirable thing" lurks the powerful and undercutting normative message "Many people are doing this." Only by aligning descriptive norms (what people typically do) with injunctive norms (what people typically approve or disapprove) can one optimize the power of  normative appeals. Communicators who fail to recognize the distinction between these two types of norms imperil their persuasive efforts.

Conclusion: Public service communicators should avoid the tendency to send the normatively muddled message that a targeted activity is socially disapproved but widespread. Normbased persuasive communications are likely to have their best effects when communicators align  descriptive and injunctive normative messages to work in tandem rather than in competition with one another. Such a line of attack unites the power of two independent sources of normative motivationand can provide a highly successful approach to social influence.

At the same time, certain issues remain to be clarified if communicators are to optimize the impact of norm-based messages. The first concerns the nature of the psychological mechanisms that underlie descriptive and injunctive norms. The results of our last study suggest an intriguing difference between them. Information about social approval or disapproval affected recycling intentions by influencing assessments of the ads' persuasiveness. Information about relative prevalence, in contrast, influenced intentions directly, without affecting the perceived persuasiveness of the ads. Why should that be the case? One possibility is that because descriptive norms are based in the raw behavior of other individuals, it is relatively easy to accommodate to such norms without much cognitive analysis. Indeed, organisms with little cognitive capacity do so: Birds flock, fish school, and social insects swarm. Injunctive norms, however, are based in an understanding of the moral rules of the society (i.e., what other people are likely to approve), and should therefore require more cognitive analysis to operate successfully. Hence, one might expect that the impact of injunctive (but not descriptive) normative  information would be mediated through cognitive assessments of the quality or persuasiveness of the normative information. Additional work is necessary to test this possibility.

A second important research issue concerns the problem of diminished salience of the normative message at the time when a targeted behavior is likely to be performed. Often, the message is no longer present when the desired behavior must take place. For example, PSAs are typically radio, television, and print communications that are encountered at times far removed from the opportunities to perform the socially desirable actions that the PSAs promote. A crucial question to be answered by future investigation is how communicators can structure their messages to maximize the likelihood that the motivational components of those messages will be salient at the time for action. Research that identifies persuasive or mnemonic devices for achieving this goal will be of immense benefit to public service communication efforts.

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