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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10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 3

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Image from Phys.org

Yesterday, we discussed how contagion may play out in the marketplace, and how other people may affect our brand evaluations. But social influence is ever-present in our lives as consumers, affecting our impressions and our behavior in many ways. Consider how you hear about new bands, or hot clothing trends. Often, we become exposed to these things through our environment. Specifically, through the influence of what marketers call early adopters.

Early adopters are people who are “ahead of the curve” on new trends, and they’re the people you know who always have the new technology, who always have the new clothes and generally know about trends before others. Once those early adopters begin influencing their community, the trend increases exponentially in popularity, through word of mouth and the visibility of the trend. The diffusion of the trend is even faster in close, heterogeneous groups like schools or small towns.1 But, make no mistake, early adopters are just as influenced by us as we are by them. Researchers have found that early adopters enjoy consumption visibility, or, the fact that other people recognize them as early adopters because of their purchasing choices.2 They have a cooler phone than you, and they want you to know it.

Social influence can also alter our brand choices, even when the influence is coming from a total stranger. A study by Maryland and Duke researchers uncovered evidence that incidental consumer brand encounters significantly influence product choices.3 Participants were shown 20 photographs of people engaged in mundane activities, like waiting for the bus.3 Within those photographs, participants either saw 0, 4 or 12 pictures that included a bottle of Dasani water near the person.3 They then asked participants to choose 1 of 4 brands of bottled water, with Dasani among the brands.3 Controlling for participants who explicitly noticed the Dasani water in the pictures, participants who viewed 12 pictures with Dasani brand images were more than 25% more likely to choose Dasani bottled water than those who saw none or only 4.3 While this may seem obvious, this is the reason advertisers flood you with repeated brand messages in hopes of altering your purchasing intentions. Fight the repetitive power!

So, you heard it here first folks, go out and be the anonymous consumer influences you were born to be!

  1. Delre, S. A., Jager, W., & Janssen, M. A. (2007). Diffusion dynamics in small-world networks with heterogeneous consumers. Computational and Mathematical Organization Theory, 13(2), 185-202.
  2. Fisher, R. J., & Price, L. L. (1992). An investigation into the social context of early adoption behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 477-486.
  3. Ferraro, R., Bettman, J. R., & Chartrand, T. L. (2009). The power of strangers: The effect of incidental consumer brand encounters on brand choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(5), 729-741.