10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 5

It’s the season of love, laughter and seeing everyone you’ve ever met, so let’s talk about social norms. Norms refer to what is “normal,” or what is commonly done or preferred by others. Norms are always at work during our shopping experiences, from the way the sales associate treats you in a friendly way, to the way that you behave while browsing merchandise. And, they’re also at work when we interact with one another in the marketplace, from allowing someone with one item to pass you in line, to helping a child get something off of a high shelf. Basically, there are two kinds of norms: injunctive and descriptive. Injunctive norms refer to what ought to be done, or what is most highly approved by other people.1 These are things like giving to charity or volunteering time. Descriptive norms, however, are essentially descriptions of what others are doing in a given situation.1 These are things like, “75% of people give to the Red Cross following a natural disaster.” Norms are incredibly powerful, and they regulate our behavior in many ways. The consumer domain is no different.

Do you ever wonder why you tip in restaurants even though you don’t want to? It’s because of social norms. Tipping in restaurants nets $26 billion a year in the United States, but it’s not from the goodness of people’s hearts.2 It’s because they don’t want to look cheap in front of their friends, or because everyone else does it.2 This helps to explain why tipping is common in the US, but not in other countries. In the US, it is a social norm, and in other countries it isn’t.*

What other people are doing affects our behavior in the marketplace in other ways, as well. For instance, people are more likely to impulse buy when the practice is seen as normative within their community.3 So, essentially, bad behavior flies if other people are doing it. But marketers can harness the power of these same social norms to reach desired outcomes. In a famous study about hotel water conservation, a group of researchers found that adding a descriptive norm about how often other hotel guests reuse their towels to a statement about water conservation increased participation in the towel reuse program by almost 10%.4

So, to answer the age-old question, would you jump off a bridge if everyone else was doing it? Science suggests you very well might. So, protect yourself this holiday season and march to the beat of your own drummer!

* This is NOT advice to stop tipping. Always tip your waitstaff! As we just discussed, it’s expected in the US and counted as part of a server’s salary.

  1. Cialdini, R. B., Reno, R. R., & Kallgren, C. A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(6), 1015.
  2. Azar, O. H. (2004). What sustains social norms and how they evolve?: The case of tipping. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 54(1), 49-64.
  3. Rook, D. W., & Fisher, R. J. (1995). Normative influences on impulsive buying behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 305-313.
  4. Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3), 472-482.
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