In the article “A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels”, published by Harvard Business Review, Goldstein, Cialdini and Griskevicius conducted two field studies to explore the effectiveness of different strategies to convince hotel guests in the US to behave more environmentally conscious. The studies were executed by equipping hotel bathrooms with messages asking people to reuse their towels in order to save the environment by using firstly, several descriptive norms and secondly, a traditional environmental message. The traditional message solely tries to invoke hotel guests to act environmentally conscious by stating the general need to do so, while the descriptive norms use social norms and thus, other’s behavior in the same situation to convince. Their results show statistically significant proof that people’s pro-environmental/pro-social behavior seems to be greatly influenced by their belief/knowledge of the respective social norms. This effect seems to be even stronger if the social norms belong to a local group, people can identify themselves with.
Despite the strong result, a weakness of the conducted study is the lack of an appropriate baseline. Even though the authors compare the effects of differently designed messages, they never investigated, whether people already tended to reuse their towels in case there was no message at all. It is difficult to evaluate people’s behavioral changes if their behavior without interference is unknown. In theory, the study could have been conducted in a country where people are extremely environmentally conscious, with a default behavior close to a 100% rate of towel re-usage and the signs could have had a negative effect on people’s behavior. In this case, the drawn conclusions would be completely misleading.
Bohner and Schlüter who replicated and extended the study in Germany, amongst others take up this weakness in their article 'Correction: A Room with a Viewpoint Revisited'. In fact, their study shows that any interference results in higher towel re-usage rates, clearing up the doubts expressed above. Interestingly, their replication didn't support the finding, that descriptive norms are a more effective tool than the traditional approach. Furthermore, they found out that contrary to the original study, the message relating to guest’s behavior that previously stayed in the same room seemed to be less appealing than the message relating to general hotel guests (Bohner and Schlüter, 2014).
Another study building upon this article was conducted in 2014 by Reese, Loew and Steffgen to further investigate and demonstrate the power of descriptive appeals on people's pro-environmental behavior. The study, replicating Goldstein at al.'s method, was conducted in two hotels in Central European alpine resorts. The findings were in line with Goldstein et al.’s previous discoveries, supporting the impact of descriptive appeals over environmental standard messages (Reese et al, 2014).
A reason for the contradicting results in terms of the effectiveness of descriptive appeals over traditional messages might be due to the individual study set ups. As the three studies have been conducted in different countries, it gives reason to believe that the effectiveness of descriptive norms is strongly dependent on the general awareness of a certain issue within a culture. Coherently, Bohner and Schlüter suggest, that a “direct” replication of the study is therefore not an ideal strategy, as the social norms (in this case always 75%) would have to be individually adjusted for each country. Given the assumption, that Germans might be more environmentally conscious in general, they suspect, that their results would have been closer to Goldstein et al.’s findings if they had applied a higher social norm of about 90% (Bohner and Schlüter, 2014). This would support the theory, that a high degree of personal involvement might have a dampening effect on the effectiveness of descriptive norms (Göckeritz et al, 2010).
Schultz et al. even goes a step further, arguing, that in some cases the social-norms approach does not lead to a weakening but even a converse “boomerang effect”, causing an increase in unwanted behavior. They state, that a boomerang effect is likely to occur when the descriptive norm is above or below an individual’s actions. In this case, the usage may lead to an adjustment in behavior – possibly for the worse. Putting this into simple words, an alcohol prevention campaign using social norms to decrease student’s alcohol consumption might have a positive effect on students usually consuming above the social norm but could simultaneously induce students below that level to increase their consumption to reduce their individual deviation from the social norm. To eliminate or buffer this problem, Schultz et al. propose the use of “injunctive norms”, as they “refer to perceptions of what is commonly approved or disapproved” instead of “what is commonly done in a given situation” (Schultz et al, 2007).
Therefore, if not yet happened, future research should take cultural differences into consideration and entertain the idea to expand their scope to injunctive appeals, to further explore the respective effect on people’s behavior in the given context.
To give some indication on how these findings can be applied to influence consumer behavior, it makes sense to link them to certain behavioral concepts. Thinking about consumer behavior as a journey that starts with building up or changing consumer’s general attitude towards a targeted action and, on the way, strengthening their certainty and eventually triggering consumers to perform the desired action.
Explaining the key mediation factors involved in achieving attitude changes “the social judgment theory” provides a framework for understanding the mechanisms behind people’s judgements and thus, understanding how to use social norms to form or change their attitudes (Dumas, 1995). It implicates, that conducting research on target consumer’s latitudes of acceptance, rejection and noncommitment is essential to find the right social norms that precisely express the content needed to convince consumers to adjust their attitude in a desired way (Asemah et al., 2017). The ideal social norm will not only shape consumer’s attitude, but also increase their certainty about it. Zakary Tormala and Derek Rucker define certainty as “the confidence we have in our beliefs, including the sense that something just ‘feels right’” and state that confidence is strongly influenced by the four factors consensus, repetition, ease, and defense. In this context, consensus is described as the effect, that “people become more certain of their opinions when they think that others share them” (Tormala and Rucker, 2015).
The “theory of reasoned action” relates the motivation to perform a certain behavior to the underlying intentions. The stronger the intentions, the higher the likeliness for an action to be taken. It suggests that the intensity of intention serves as the “main predictor of whether or not they actually perform that behavior”. Social norms and other normative components explicitly play an additional role in whether an action will be taken or not. (source)
Conclusively, the variety of conducted research shows the power of social norms to positively influence pro-social/pro-environmental behavior. As a matter of fact, so called social-norms marketing campaigns have been widely used in the past do address and “reduce undesirable conduct” by correcting negatively overestimated prevalence with descriptive norms (Schultz et al, 2007). Additionally, applying certain concepts and theories underlying consumer behavior in general shows, that social norms are not limited to serving as powerful tools to increase people’s pro-social/pro-environmental behavior but can also come in handy in terms of influencing people’s general decision making and consumer behavior. This supports the basic idea behind the “social comparison theory”, that states that consumers are expected to constantly compare themselves and their behaviors to the social norms set by their peers and adjust their behavior accordingly (Psychology Notes HQ, 2017).