Social normative pressure refers to copying others who are seen as representing "the norm." In other words, people subconsciously believe that if others around them demonstrate a certain behaviour, it must be the right thing to do. This is often referred to as the “wisdom of the crowd.”
Individual Behaviour Change
Numerous studies demonstrate social normative pressures can lead people to adopt positive behaviours. This can be especially useful from an environmental marketing standpoint.
In a study of energy usage, information about neighbours reducing energy consumption caused other people to use less energy. Interestingly, the effect of the “crowd” appears to be subconscious; people did not attribute their energy-conserving behaviour to influence from social pressures, despite the experiment having shown that this influence was the largest contributor to the change in energy usage.
In another study looking at hotel water consumption, hotel staff members placed cards in each room asking guests to reuse their towels at least once during their stay. Towel reuse was largely unchanged when the card said “Please be environmentally friendly and reuse towels,” but rose by 34% when people read, “Many of our guests reuse towels to reduce water consumption. Please consider doing the same.”
Civic Behaviour Change
When the goal is to have people sign a petition, telling them many signatures have already been collected has a positive social pressuring and reinforcing effect. People are even more likely to engage in altruistic civic behaviour, like registering for organ donation, when they are told it is common among their peers.
The wisdom of the crowd doesn't just apply to individual behaviour change: industry-wide norms exert pressure on companies, too. For example, when competitors make philanthropic donations, other firms usually make sizable pledges to charity in response.
Social norm information provided must be both credible and truthful. And, keep in mind, if your message is credible and truthful, it doesn't necessarily mean you're perceived as such.
The "wisdom of the crowd" is less convincing when the crowd is small. In the petitioning example described above, low numbers (fewer than 100) of signatures had a slight negative effect on behaviour.
Leveraging Role Models
Filling "the crowd" with positive role models can make people replicate positive behaviour. Be truthful with your messaging, and make sure you have a big enough crowd to create results.
For more information, refer to the Executive Report on Driving Social Change.