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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Get Psyched for Halloween!

Image from Nutritious Eats

           Image from Nutritious Eats

If you’re like me, some of your favorite childhood memories are of Halloween. You get to dress up like someone or something else, go to strangers’ houses and ask them for treats, cause a little mischief and binge on candy. But the best thing about Halloween? There’s a lot of social psychology at work.

Anonymity: Anonymity may make people more susceptible to group influence.1 This could even help to account for an increase in criminal activity on Halloween. Visual anonymity, specifically, seems to increase identification with the group, be that delinquent peers or society in general.2 Some classic studies have found a direct correlation between stealing and Halloween costumes.3,4 Researchers found that trick-or-treaters who were both anonymous and with a group of other children were more likely to steal candy and money when given the chance.3 Another study found that Halloween masks could elicit a state of deindividuation*, and found evidence that children in masks were more likely to take more candy than unmasked children, when the experimenter was not in the room.4

Norms: Usually, if you knocked on someone’s door at night dressed as a blood-sucking Zombie demanding candy, people would freak out and call the police. But on Halloween, this would be expected, and norms would be altered for the night. You might even be called a party pooper if you don’t make an effort to dress in costume. These kinds of social norms have long been of interest to social psychologists. Descriptive norms are social rules transmitted by others; so when you show up to the Halloween party as the only one in costume, all of a sudden, you feel out of place, even though you would fit in at a more festive party.5 Injunctive norms speak to what should be done, or what is socially endorsed, i.e. you should go to the party in costume because you are supposed to wear a costume on Halloween.5 Social norms are often positive, but they can also lead to higher levels of conformity, riskier decisions and worse decisions through consensus.6,7,8,9 Norms are also at work when people throw costume parties, visit the pumpkin patch or go to haunted houses. Not only does the seasonal social acceptance of the activity encourage us to partake in some strange stuff, our desire to act in accordance with norms is a billion dollar industry ($11.3 to be exact).

Prosocial behavior: The act of handing out free candy to kids is both a Halloween norm, and an example of prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior is any behavior that works for the good of the group, rather than the good of the self. Things like sharing, taking turns and common courtesy are all types of prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior has a lot of individual and societal benefits like lower perceptions of competition, higher need for achievement, higher social cognitive abilities in children and may even be linked to higher levels of altruism.10,11,12

It’s clear that our Halloween traditions involve social psychology, from the norms in place that dictate our Halloween activities, the anonymity that allows for increased mischief, and the prosocial nature of some of our Halloween traditions. So this Friday, put your SocialPsyQ to work! What are some social psychology phenomena you see on Halloween?

* Deindividuation is the loss of self-awareness in groups.

  1. Postmes, T., Spears, R., Sakhel, K., & de Groot, D. (2001). Social influence in computer-mediated communication: The effects of anonymity on group behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(10), 1243-1254.
  2. Lea, M., Spears, R., & de Groot, D. (2001). Knowing me, knowing you: Anonymity effects on social identity processes within groups. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(5), 526-537.
  3. Diener, E., Fraser, S. C., Beaman, A. L., & Kelem, R. T. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of Personality and Social Pschology, 33(2), 178-183.
  4. Miller, F. G., & Rowold, K. L. (1979). Halloween masks and deindividuation. Psychological reports, 44(2), 422
  5. Cialdini, R. B., & Trost, M. R. (1998). Social influence: Social norms, conformity and compliance. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & L. Gardner (Eds). The handbook of social psychology, Vols. 1 and 2 (4th ed.), (pp. 151-192). New York, NY, US: McGraw-Hill.
  6. Sherif, M. (1937). An experimental approach to the study of attitudes. Sociometry, 1(1/2), 90-98.
  7. Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 70(9), 1-70.
  8. Stoner, J. A. F. (1968). Risky and cautious shifts in group decisions: The influence of widely held values. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 4(4), 442-459.
  9. Postmes, T., Spears, R., & Cihangir, S. (2001). Quality of decision making and group norms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(6), 918-930.
  10. Puffer, S. M. (1987). Prosocial behavior, noncompliant behavior, and work performance among commission salespeople. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72(4), 615-621.
  11. Denham, S. A. (1986). Social cognition, prosocial behavior, and emotion in preschoolers: Contextual validation. Child Development, 57(1), 194-201.
  12. Eisenberg, N., & Miller, P. A. (1987). The relation of empathy to prosocial and related behaviors. Psychological Bulletin, 101(1), 91-119.