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Social Norms



What are Social Norms?

Social norms refer to values, beliefs, attitudes, and/or behaviors shared by a group of people. They are often based on what people believe to be normal, typical, or appropriate. Social norms can function as unspoken rules or guidelines for how people behave, and for how people are expected to behave. People generally follow social norms because they want to fit in with the people around them.

Social norms can result in positive or negative outcomes. Sometimes social norms help people behave in ways that keep themselves - and others - safe and healthy.

Other times, social norms can have the opposite effect, and can lead people to behave in harmful ways.

Social Norms and Violence

Social norms can affect nearly any aspect of our lives. They contribute to our clothing choices, how we speak, our music preferences, and our beliefs about certain social issues. They can also affect our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors related to violence.

teacher and students in a classroom

The way we react to violence may be based on what we see other people do, or how we think other people would act. In other words, our reactions are based on what we believe is normal or appropriate.


People often misperceive (or misunderstand) social norms and overestimate the number of people who behave in unhealthy ways or who accept unhealthy behavior. Researchers have studied college students' misperceptions of social norms related to alcohol use. They've found that most college students do not enjoy heavy drinking. However, they tend to think that heavy drinking is the norm among their peers and overdrink to fit in.

Misperceptions can be harmful when a person alters their own beliefs and behaviors based on a false assumption about other people's beliefs and behaviors.

Narratives vs. Social Norms

People sometimes confuse social norms with narratives. Narratives are stories that groups tell to understand how the world works, why problems occur, and who's responsible for solving them. This differs from social norms, which are often unspoken and shape what people believe to be "normal."

narratives vs social norms

Using the Social Norms Approach to Prevent Violence

The social norms approach, when used in the field of public health, motivates individuals and groups to adopt social norms that result in positive health and wellbeing.

This can be done by:

  • correcting misperceptions about social norms that lead to harmful attitudes, beliefs, and/or behaviors,
  • changing or modifying negative or harmful social norms, and
  • promoting positive social norms.
Learn more about Social-marketing and health communicationsLearn more about Social-marketing and health communications

The social norms approach draws heavily on social marketing and health communications techniques. Some people refer to social norms work as social norms marketing. People and organizations create social norms campaigns to deliver messages designed to correct misperceptions, change social norms, or promote social norms.

When using a social norms approach, instead of telling people what to do, make sure to provide accurate information about attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that will allow them to adopt new, healthier social norms.

To develop a social norms campaign, follow the steps below.

Develop a Social Norms Campaign

Clarify what problem you want to address, who the problem affects, and the root causes of the problem. A clear problem description will help you decide how best to address the problem and whether or not a social norms approach is appropriate. It will also help you identify and characterize the audience you wish to affect. Guidance on how to describe your problem.

Collect information about your audience to better understand their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors related to the problem you are addressing (this is sometimes called market research, formative research, or audience research). Identify social norms that exist among the audience and identify any misperceptions between actual norms and perceived norms (i.e. the differences between people's actual behavior and how they think other people behave).

The information you collect during this step will provide baseline data and will help you identify strategies to reach your audience. Learn more about market research. More information about understanding your audience.

Your strategy should clarify what you are aiming to achieve (e.g. change or promote a specific social norm and related attitudes, beliefs, and/or behaviors) and how this change will benefit your audience. Define your goals and objectives, and describe how you will achieve your goals (e.g. distribute messages via social media). Your strategy should include your dissemination plan (a dissemination plan is how you will distribute messages and materials to your audience). More guidance on developing a strategy.

Once you have a clear strategy, it is time to develop messages and materials. Before disseminating your campaign, be sure to test the messages and materials you develop with audience members to ensure that they are acceptable, appealing, understandable, and useful. Additional resources about testing messages and materials.

Once your messages and materials are complete, distribute them through channels that will reach your audience (e.g. display posters around a school, share messages on Facebook, distribute a link to a website). Learn more about channel selection.

Constant assessment of your campaign activities will allow you to see what is working so you can make adjustments as necessary. Once your campaign has ended, evaluate whether or not it had the desired effect on the audience. Discover more about deciding which components of the social marketing campaign to monitor and how to evaluate your public health programs and strategies.