Using Social Norms to Influence Population Behaviour

Using Social Norms to Influence Population Behaviour

25 March 2020 0 By JuanParki

What is it? At a time when the population is being urged to socially distance, it is important to recognise how social norms impact human behaviour, and how to leverage this in fighting Covid-19.

Behavioural scientists define ‘social norms’ as the unwritten rules or expectations within a society or group (1), for example shaking hands with a new colleague or being quiet in a library. Social norms are incredibly powerful because we are strongly motivated to gain social approval and avoid disapproval. They develop because we use the behaviour of others to work out how to act ourselves, and as a standard by which to judge our actions (2). They operate unconsciously and we are rarely aware we are being influenced by them. They are powerful enough to override our intentions, particularly in times of stress, or if we are under pressure.

Norms can influence behaviour both positively (washing hands) or negatively (unnecessary stockpiling), and just like a virus, they can develop and spread rapidly. Creating and publicly identifying norms to support desirable behaviours, or reduce undesirable behaviours is central to tackling Covid-19.

How to use it:

  1. Emphasise the positive: we must communicate that large numbers of the population are successfully socially distancing. It is important to promote a narrative the general public can get behind to enhance this – for example #stayhomesavelives. Using the language of burgeoning movements helps to create a consistent picture and reinforce the norm.
  2. Collect data where possible, leverage data where available: Concrete and visual information such as statistics and graphs make it harder for people to justify irresponsible behaviour. They also exert an unconscious influence which controls peoples’ behaviour. Whilst it may be difficult to collect new data on current social norms, we must creatively use what is available. For example, during the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak in Mexico, TV viewing figures were used as a proxy for those staying home; evidence demonstrated the less time spent viewing, the higher the infection rate. Data on Netflix viewing, or online working apps such as Zoom could equally be used.
  3. Reduce the negative: The more we suggest undesirable behaviours are common, the more common they will be. It is important to limit the spread of information regarding undesirable behaviour where possible, and where impossible, pair this information with a marker of social disapproval. For example, reporting the widespread condemnation of those retreating to holiday homes, or travelling to Snowdonia. Likewise, high profile media videos of empty supermarket shelves (unconsciously) encourages more people to panic buy and stockpile. Therefore, show examples of desirable behaviour and stocked shelves to highlight examples of conscientious and morally good behaviour.
  4. Match the message to the population: Different populations use different communication channels in different ways. It is important to recognise which will be most effective with the people we can or want to access. For example, the ‘Stay Home’ Instagram story is likely to be effective in influencing the behaviour of younger generations. We must also consider how lockdown will influence this; in Cardiff, residents have been placing small coloured squares of card in their windows; green to signal safety, red to signal they need help. Perhaps a similar method could be used for individuals to signal their support of social distancing, to those taking daily exercise.


1. Dolan, P. et al. Influencing behaviour: The mindspace way. J. Econ. Psychol. 33, 264–277 (2012).

2. Clapp, J. D. & McDonell, A. L. The relationship of perceptions of alcohol promotion and peer drinking norms to alcohol problems reported by college students. J. Coll. Stud. Dev. 41, 19–25 (2000).