The social norms theory from the perspective of non-violent communication

Term Paper, 2017
20 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Basic assumptions of social norms theory ... 2
How change happens according to social norms theory ... 3
Behavioural energy efficiency and the study of Schultz et al. ... 3
Basic assumptions of Non-Violent Communication ... 7
How change happens through Non-Violent Communication ... 8
NEED ... 12
descriptive norm only
descriptive + injunctive information
Female genital mutilation
Non-Violent Communication
Social norms theory

1 Introduction
The social norms approach has been used as a foundation for various studies mainly
around the prevention of youth risk behaviour (e.g. Haines/Spear, 1996,
Clapp/McDonnell, 2000) and encouragement of pro-social behaviour (e.g.
Lindenberg/Steg, 2013, Gaechter/Gerhards/Nosenzo, 2015, Cialdini et al., 1991).
The approach is seen as a useful tool to explain human behaviour and actively
initiate behavioural changes.
This paper sheds light on the social norms approach from a different perspective,
namely from the perspective of Non-Violent Communication (NVC) (Rosenberg,
2005). First, the social norms theory (SNT) is presented, referring to the larger
framework of the theory and then to the study "The Constructive, Deconstructive and
Reconstructive Power of Social Norms" of Wesley Schultz and his colleagues
(Schultz/Nolan/Ciladini/Glodstein/Griskevicius, 2007). In chapter 3, the basic
assumptions and principles of NVC after Marshall Rosenberg are contoured. In
chapter 4, the assumptions of SNT also drawing on the study of Schultz and his
colleagues are examined from the perspective of NCV. The conclusion summarizes
the findings and points towards implications for ethical culture.
2 Social norms theory
Social norms are believed to play an important role in understanding the
development of "negative, damaging practices" as well as opening up ways to alter
these practices (Bicchieri/Mercier, 2014: 1). Practices are seen as linked to social
norms and effectively stopping practices involves altering these norms or creating
new norms to establish preferable practices (Bicchieri/Mercier, 2014: 1).
The term "empirical expectation" is used to describe obedience to demanded
behaviour out of the expectation that others do the same (Bicchieri/Mercier, 2014: 2-
3). According to this, the reason a norm is followed is that everybody follows it and
change is rejected out "fear of being in a minority" (Bicchieri/Mercier, 2014: 15).
Normative expectations are used to describe the perception that others expect that
oneself ought to behave in a certain way (Bicchieri/Mercier, 2014: 2). These two
types of expectations combined support behavioural rules that are defined as "social
norms" (Bicchieri/Mercier, 2014: 3). Social norms are believed to exist within a
culture or society and to be connected to other social norms, beliefs, values and

attitudes (Bicchieri/Mercier, 2014: 12, 15). Normative misperceptions are defined as
inaccurate perceptions of an individual of "the normative behaviours and attitudes of
a group of peers" (National Social Norms Center). Preferring to follow a social norm
is seen as conditional, i.e. it depends on what I expect others to do and what I believe
others think I ought do (Bicchieri/Mercier, 2014: 3). This distinguishes them from
moral or religious norms (Bicchieri/Mercier, 2014: 3) and illustrates the underlying
concept of a reciprocal relationship between norms and expectations. The clear
definition of social norms is highlighted as being operationally useful for
experimental testing of behavioural changes (Bicchieri/Mercier, 2014: 3, Bicchieri/
Chavez, 2010).
2.1 Basic assumptions of social norms theory
Referring to the definitions of empirical and normative expectations and their
underlying assumptions, the social norms approach assumes that humans act out of
self-interest and have to face social sanctions like exclusion to not "misbehave"
(Bicchieri/Mercier, 2014: 3). This reminds of the concept of humans as "homines
oeconomici" and other normative assumptions that underlie the current economic
thinking (Ulrich, 2008: 110-115).
Apart from empirical and normative expectations, SNT knows seven additional
assumptions (Berkowitz, 2005):
Often individuals' actions are based on misperceptions of what others do.
Misperceptions that are perceived as accurate have consequences in reality.
True feelings, perceptions and beliefs are hidden from others while individuals
accept misperceptions.
Misperceptions have the ability to trigger a vicious circle: perceived non-
existence of non-normative actions leads to discouragement of actions that are
perceived to be not normative while strengthening undesirable behaviour that is
perceived to be normative.
The right information will correct the misperception and encourage outspoken
expression of the real, desirable norm inhibiting inconsistent undesirable
All misperceiving individuals, regardless of whether or not they engage in
undesirable behaviour, contribute to an environment that encourages this

· Whether or not a norm is perpetuated depends on whether or not the majority
perceives it as the norm of the majority.
2.2 How change happens according to social norms theory
External interventions, such as legislation prohibiting certain practices or respected
individuals advocating norm change, are one tool for change. They are, however,
seen as insufficient on their own to change deeply rooted social norms
(Bicchieri/Mercier, 2014: 5-7). This is due to a "collective action problem":
Successful transgression is only possible if individuals do not fear negative
consequences (Bicchieri/Mercier, 2014: 5). The feared consequences are first and
foremost social sanctions and not legal consequences. Outlawing undesired practices
or increasing the level of severity of legal sanctions for them fails to fully gasp the
scope of action necessary for change since it does not consider the meaning of a
practice within a culture, may lack legitimacy, enforcement and procedural fairness
(Zou, 2016, Kahan, 2000, Platteau, 2000). A mere change of the law can thus not
lead to sustainable change of behaviour.
Deliberation, organised diffusion and group discussions are not seen as a direct norm
changer either but as a more powerful step towards change (Bicchieri/Mercier, 2014:
15-16, 20). Labelling is seen as an accomplishment of deliberation processes and
hence as a step towards social norm change, since it is considered as an effective way
to communicate a message (Bicchieri/Mercier, 2014: 19-20).
Social norms and the practices linked to them are seen as "desirable" or
"undesirable" and the objective of interventions is to change individuals' behaviour
or in other words to achieve a change of collective beliefs (Schultz et al., 2007: 429-
431). Bicchieri and Mercier further state that "people have to be convinced that they
should change their mind" (Bicchieri/Mercier, 2014: 11) and see implicit or explicit
arguments as the main tool for that. The importance of direct communication is
acknowledged and at the same time the difficulties explicit arguments face since they
may be perceived as threatening or manipulative (Kamalski/Letz/Sanders/Zwaan,
2.3 Behavioural energy efficiency and the study of Schultz et al.
After presenting the broad theoretical framework on which Schutz et al. built their
research question and from which they deducted the interpretation of their results, a
presentation of the study and its assumptions follows.

Deducted from the principles of the SNT, social norms marketing campaigns,
intended to reduce undesirable behaviour, have become increasingly common
(Schultz et al., 2007: 429). Their approach is based on the findings that the majority
of individuals overestimate the existence of undesirable behaviour (Brosari /Carey,
2003, Prentice/Miller, 1993) and that individuals use their perceptions of these "peer
norms" for comparison (Clapp/McDonell, 2000, Baer/Stacy/Larminer, 1991,
Perkins/Berkowitz, 1986). The campaigns hence aim to reduce the undesirable
behaviour through correcting misperceptions (Schultz et al., 2007: 429). The
correction of the descriptive norm is attempted through stating what is commonly
done (Schultz et al., 2007: 429). The marketing campaigns' success has, however,
been mixed as can be seen when looking at studies on their effects on binge drinking
in US colleges. Some studies confirm their effectiveness to reduce it (Neighbors et
al., 2004, Haines/Spear, 1996, Agostinelli/Brown/Miller, 1995) yet others even show
an increase in the undesirable behaviour (Perkins/Haines/Rice, 2005, Wechsler et al.,
2003, Werch et al., 2000). Schultz et al. explain this increase referring to SNT and
the nature of descriptive norms: Individuals do not want to deviate from the norm
(Schultz et al., 2007: 430). Schultz et al. hence see the danger in the provision of
descriptive normative information through social-norms marketing that can serve as
a point of comparison and may lead to an increase in the undesirable behaviour
(Schultz et al., 2007: 430). This increase is what Schultz et al. call the boomerang
effect. Since their objective is to eliminate the boomerang effect using the tools the
SNT provides (Schultz et al., 2007: 430) they refer to injunctive norms as a possible
solution. Robert Cialdini's theory of normative conduct introduces, apart form the
descriptive norm, the injunctive norm that refers "to perceptions of what is
commonly approved or disapproved within the culture" (Reno/Cialdini/Kallgren,
1993, Cialdini et al., 1991). The prediction of this theory is "that if only one of the
types or norms is prominent in an individual's consciousness, this norm will exert the
stronger influence on the individual's behaviour" (Schultz et al., 2007: 430). Based
on these thoughts Schultz et al. set up a study around electricity consumption in 290
households to eliminate the undesirable boomerang effect and reconstruct the
desirable behaviour through an injunctive message (Schultz et al., 2007: 430-431).
The three predictions for their study were (Schultz et al., 2007: 430):
Above-average consuming households decrease their daily energy consumption
when they receive descriptive normative information.

· Below-average consuming household increase their daily energy consumption if
they only receive the normative information, proving the boomerang effect and
the destructive power of social norms.
· Below-average households that receive the normative and the injunctive message
stick to their daily energy consumption pattern. This would prove the
reconstructive power of the injunctive message.
The study design is a mixed-factorial study design with two between-subject factors.
The first between-subject factor is a randomized one, namely the random assignment
of the households to the different feedback groups: one group receives the
descriptive norm only and the other receives the descriptive norm plus an injunctive
message (Schultz et al., 2007: 430-431). The second between-subject factor was the
daily household energy consumption level that was used as a base to form the two
groups above average and below average consumption (Schultz et al., 2007: 431).
The only within-subject factor used was the energy consumption within the specific
households over time (Schultz et al., 2007: 431).
Through two initial electricity meter readings the 1
energy baseline is established
and used for (Schultz et al., 2007: 431):
· Descriptive normative feedback since it serves as an average and allows the
researchers to determine who consumes more or less than it.
· Decision on the injunctive message that is used later on.
· Match the households into the groups "above-average consumption" and "below-
average consumption" (second between-subject factor).
The experimental group that receives the descriptive plus the injunctive information
(D+I) and the control group that receives only the descriptive norm (D) received the
first intervention message in week four of the study (Schultz et al., 2007: 431). The
participants of group D received the first doorhanger stating energy consumption,
average in the neighbourhood during the same period, and energy conservation
suggestions. The group D+I received the same hanger but the researcher drew a
smiling face J if the household was below or a sad face L if it was above the
average (Schultz et al., 2007: 431). This emoticon is the injunctive message that
communicates social dis-/approval (Schultz et al., 2007: 431). A 2
energy baseline
was established as well (Schultz et al., 2007: 431).
Excerpt out of 20 pages


The social norms theory from the perspective of non-violent communication
University of Cologne
Adv. Seminar in Corporate Development and Business Ethics
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ISBN (Book)
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Social Norms Theory, Nonviolent communication, Behavioural Insights, Nudging, Compassionate Communication, Communication
Quote paper
Eva Lena Richter (Author), 2017, The social norms theory from the perspective of non-violent communication, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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